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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #28

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

The Military Model in Industry

The military model was widely adopted in industry until recently. The impetus was the insight of the industrial psychologist, Frederick Taylor. He analyzed the details of manufacturing, and suggested that by having workers do the same repetitive component work, they could consistently deliver quality and increase output. Instead of the group collectively producing a car, as craftsmen had been doing for ages, we now have one bending the sheet metal, another welding, and a third fastening the parts. Thus was born the assembly line, and with it the phenomenal leap in productivity.10

It enabled Henry Ford to produce cars affordable even to his workers. Workers could be easily trained and monitored by their managers. Their output too could be readily measured; workers could no longer slack off. Even simpletons could now do complex manufacturing jobs as they were divided into a series of simple, reproducible motions.

The underlying assumption of this management theory is that workers must be treated like military recruits. They have no particular joy in doing the mind-numbing work; they must be regimented and continuously monitored, and their jobs reduced to endless repetition such that the quality is consistent and reliable. Their managers too act like military officers, ensuring that the mission is accomplished. This model served American businesses well until the 1980s. Through it, America was able to turn illiterate immigrants and freed slaves into productive factory workers. Today this model is still operative in factories of multinationals in the Third World. These workers can do sophisticated factory work despite their lack of education.

Come the 1980s, Japan clobbered America by putting out quality products at lower prices. “Made in Japan” no longer meant shoddy products or a ready one-liner for standup comics, rather a symbol of quality and value.

American managers were forced to study Japanese management to see what those Orientals were doing right. What the Americans found surprised them. They had this image of the Japanese being a regimented and militaristic society, the residue of World War II images. Instead, the Japanese factory floor was remarkably democratic and unregimented. There was no obvious distinction between workers and supervisors; they all worked collaboratively. They even ate in the same cafeteria. And the wonder of wonders, there was no adversarial relationship between workers and managers.

While American factories face periodic strikes and other labor disputes, Japanese factories were spared such turmoil. The Japanese actually enjoyed their work! Up until the 1980s the prevailing model of management in America had been the military one: the Theory X model.(11) Managers treated their workers as someone unreliable and uninterested in their work. They had to be regimented and monitored at all times lest they goofed off. They were not to be trusted. The assembly line was meant to keep them on their prescribed pattern. This numbing routine of the assembly line is well chronicled in Alex Hailey’s novel, Wheels.(12)

The Japanese subscribe to Theory Y management. Workers are treated with respect and assumed to have pride in their work. They have as much to contribute to the quality of the final product as the managers and designers. While American managers subscribe to the military model of leadership, the Japanese were into the coaching or even symphony conductor style.

Today it is easy to scorn the American authoritarian style. It is well to remember that the model served the nation well for nearly a century. It was responsible for the mass production and thus affordability of much of today’s consumer goods. It brought into the middle class a generation of hitherto low-skilled and lowly educated citizens. That ought to count for something.

With American workers so much more educated today, that old model is no longer effective or productive.

Next; The Coaching Model


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