Karoshi: The difference between efficiency and a lack of ability

Recently I’ve written a few articles on the scam which is Lean manufacturing.  It’s not that the work of Womack, Jones and Roos in The Machine that Changed the World is inaccurate in its observations of mass production cultures versus lean manufacturing strategies—but that their academic lenses failed to identify the crucial ingredient that made Asian efforts superior to those in the West.  In essence, it is the Japanese word Karoshi which allowed for the explosion on the scene of the revolutionary work ethic for which those three observers tried to capture in a bottle to save the West from itself and start a new kind of industrial revolution based on Lean manufacturing methods.  The Japanese specifically are willing to outwork the rest of the world and put country before self even over small things, which is why the comparisons in The Machine that Changed the World made traditional mass producers look so terrible in side by side productivity comparisons—yet nowhere in their book did they successfully make that point.  The closest they came was in declaring that the transplant operations in America were more successful when they had Japanese managers as opposed to American.  With all things considered equal, American workers, American labor laws, and American supply chains, Lean manufacturing did show dramatic improvements in American productivity—only they typically only worked best when the manufacturing plant was conducted by Japanese leadership as opposed to those of Westerners.  If you break that down even father it is because of the Japanese tendency toward Karoshi that one was more successful than another—the willingness to put in the time to build such a Lean culture at the management level.

For whatever reason at the end of the 2017 calendar year a lot of people have been pushing me to discover what my next book will be.  Honestly, I have a number of fiction projects brewing on the back burner but at this point in my life it’s all about business.  To many people from the outside they look at my life and think I, like the Japanese, are functioning from Karoshi—which is their word for burnout—or death by work.  After all I do work with people from those far-flung places on the other side of the world and even by their standards I work longer days and compress more into my 24 hour day than they can imagine.  What makes me different from other people is that I have this background in Western arts, (a form of martial art) that has also made me a very efficient person—personally, which for Christmas this year I shared with some of my employees for their benefit.  (click to view)  Working harder isn’t necessarily good—but working smarter is.  My lessons to others about the nature of the bullwhip is about more than just a novelty act—it’s an actual philosophy for which I run my life—and without it I’d be in the same boat as everyone else.  And now for the last couple of years I have been experimenting with Cowboy Fast Draw which has led me to several conclusions regarding Lean manufacturing—and that my next book will likely deal with these Western methods of approaching business that are of the next generation of thinking.  I need to tweak a few things first before committing them to paper—but my next literary project will likely have to do with this crucial issue.

One thing that led me to Cowboy Fast Draw to begin with was my engagement with many American manufacturers who were getting frustrated with my methods as we were setting up a massive supply chain together and many of them put up a lot of resistance—which ran counter to my way of thinking. Most of these people were classic mass production people—which I think still has a lot of merit to it from a traditional standpoint.  Their companies have made them adapt Lean techniques so being the typical students of Western education systems they went and memorized all the charts and graphs—and the Japanese words for things without understanding the core philosophy of what Lean manufacturing did.  When they ran up against me they would frustratingly utter that I’m all too willing to “shoot from the hip” too often which led to a name they called me behind my back as a “gunslinger” which to their minds was an insult.  We call quarterbacks in football gunslingers when we want to insult their impatience in the pocket to throw too many risky passes.  Only the risk isn’t that all that risky to my mind.  Using bullwhips and now shooting techniques that do not involve aiming I am extremely accurate and fast in those hobbies and naturally I carry those elements over into my personal life.  Just because you can make fast decisions on critical elements without a process map to guide you, it doesn’t make you risky, only “ultra efficient.”

With the help of Womack and many others Japan has been placed at the top of manufacturing respectability for the last half of a century and why not, they earned it. But there has been a cost.  Their very industrious culture in Japan is suffering from Karoshi to the point where 1 in every 5 people are suffering tremendously from it—and if you subtract females and elderly people, that leaves most of the adult males from age 20 to age 50 pressed with overburdened stress that actually makes them less productive.  Of course the slack-jawed hippies and micromanaging academics think that the solution for the entire industrial world is to force companies to regulate their workers to a 40 hour work week—which is pretty stupid.  That is no solution—because the work demand is a product of production necessity.  There is a need for the work, otherwise it wouldn’t exist.  And forcing workers to only work 60 hours a week forces payrolls higher which hurts companies because they have to add to their overhead—which academics don’t care about because that’s their solution to everything—being that’s their role within education societies.  The work is needed and you can’t just throw bodies at the problem because all those bodies are not equal—everyone can’t perform work at the same level.  But we can focus on performing work in the most efficient manner possible, and doing that we can greatly reduce the need to overwork ourselves.

I personally work 60 to 70 hours per week and I still have time for many things in my life.  Outsiders might look at my pace and declare that I’m at risk of Karoshi myself—but they don’t understand.  To explain it to them I’d use one of my bullwhip tricks in putting out a candle with it to show how speed, accuracy and judgment can all come together to project focused efficiency into very tight target radius.  Or in the case of Cowboy Fast Draw where a gun has to be drawn from a holster and shot into a target in under a half a second—the work still gets down.  If the goal is to shoot a gun into a target, that task can be done whether it takes a half a second or up to a minute as the shooter takes their time aiming the weapon and firing.  The fast draw artist is obviously much more efficient at performing that basic task.  They might be able to shoot that same target 20 or 30 times while the cumbersome minded shooter wastes huge amounts of time pointing and aiming. The aiming is only a task needed for those who lack the faith in themselves to perform the task.  So in essence, the reason that countries like Japan have so much trouble with Karoshi is that they have brought in so much work—their society cannot process it all on time using the methods of approaching that work which they are utilizing now.  They need methods that still perform the work, but only much faster and still have the accuracy needed.

When I hear some inefficient person—whether it’s the president of a company that is filled with inefficient workers and is struggling to meet quotas, or an old-fashioned engineer who says we are working too fast to not make mistakes I get pretty mad.  What they are really saying is that I should bend my life to their limits because I can do all those things fast and accurate.  Speed does not mean a lack of quality—it’s only a detriment if the person performing the task is an inefficient human being.  And that is the essence of human behavior that Womack never addressed in his Lean manufacturing work—and why I’m not a big fan of the guy.  The reason the Japanese beat the West in manufacturing over the last several decades is not because of Lean methods.  It’s because they simply were willing to outwork the world to climb back on top after they lost World War II.  It was their path to redemption.  Now however that the world has looked to them for the method to perform work, the pressure is crushing their culture with high incidents of Karoshi.  And I’m saying there is a better way, one that still has all the efficiencies—but puts more of an emphasis on speed so that productivity doesn’t stack up behind the incompetent—but that the good manager can figure out who can do more in less time than the sluggish mind of those less capable.  That is how we solve the problem of being overworked even as the world demands more productivity at a much more rapid pace.  We can’t say no to that challenge—we simply have to figure out a better way to do it—which I’m thinking seriously of helping to formulate.

Rich Hoffman

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