Or, as William S. Anderson, chairman of the NCR Corporation, put it recently, "The vast majority of Japanese workers have learned that the team concept works as well on the production line as it does on the athletic field."
Thurow points to two examples of the importance that individual Japanese attach to the success of the whole:
1) Many workers in Japan receive a third of their income from bonuses based on company profits, a form of compensation U.S. labor has been loath to accept.
2) Toyota is now the world's most successful automobile company, but its chief executive officer makes substantially less than the chairman of General Motors, the former champion among car makers. Yet the head of Toyota is not about to go to Subaru to get a higher salary. Sure, the Japanese like to be well compensated, which the Toyota man certainly is at a cool 80 million yen ($400,000) or more a year, but it's very important—perhaps just as important—to be playing on the best team, too.
Although many business executives, including the heads of numerous major enterprises, are team-oriented and extremely loyal to their companies, Thurow sees a "narcissism and individualism gone wild" among some American corporate managers, whom he likens to free-agent athletes jumping from team to team for the biggest bucks. "They [the executives] are working for themselves and don't have any loyalty," says Thurow. "If you know you're going to hop between jobs every four years, are you going to do any long-run planning to help your current company?"
"Teamwork historically is, I think, the American way," says Akio Morita, chairman and co-founder of Sony. "But your managers too often forgot that. They got greedy; they viewed the worker as a tool. That has not been good for the American products or American companies, and it has hurt your competitive stature in the world."
Of course, Japan, a very special culture with its tradition of lifelong loyalty to a single employer, is far different from America, and there are aspects of Japanese society the U.S. wouldn't want to import, even if it could. But elements of Japan's concept of industrial teamwork have been implanted in Sony factories in four U.S. cities. The plants are run by Japanese managers and staffed with American labor. Those factories have shown exceptionally low rates of absenteeism and faulty workmanship. How much better might such plants operate if staffed with Americans who grew up with a steady diet of teamwork in their youth?
A dramatic reduction in union grievances has been experienced at a General Motors assembly plant in Tarry-town, N.Y. in recent years after management, with the enthusiastic concurrence of United Auto Workers officials, involved workers directly in deciding how and under what conditions their work would be done. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Robert H. Guest, a professor at Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business Administration, quotes the production manager of the Tarrytown plant as saying, "From a strictly production point of view—efficiency and costs—this entire experience has been absolutely positive, and we can't begin to measure the savings that have taken place because of hundreds of small problems that were solved on the shop floor before they accumulated into big problems."
The team concept can, of course, mask passivity and a lack of ambition. But, on balance, teamwork is very likely just what American enterprise needs to vie more successfully for markets at home and abroad, according to Robert Zager, a vice-president of the Work in America Institute, an industrial-relations think tank. "Do we sell the U.S. worker short?" says Zager. "Absolutely. The assumption has always been that 100% of good ideas must come from 2% of the work force—the engineers, the managers and the like. That's nonsense. Most of us forget that it's miserable to work in a situation in which nobody thinks that you're of any real use—that you're just a pair of hands. I spent 20 years interviewing workers on the plant floor as a management consultant. I know they do care about their jobs, about the quality of their work and about working as a group, but they're frustrated because their opinions are not sought and because if they contribute an innovative idea, it could bring an end to their jobs. In Japan workers have job security; no one loses his job because of technological advances.
"When given the opportunity to work with management, the U.S. worker will produce as well as any worker in the world, and he'll work with a sense of team orientation. But the lead must come from management. It must start treating workers as productive members of the company. If a worker thinks management views him as irresponsible, then he will tend to act irresponsibly."