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Process improvement initiated in World War II

Homer Sarasohn's story begins in 1945 with a telegram on his desk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where the young product development engineer had a reputation for quickly converting preliminary product designs to manufacturing prototypes.

The telegram from a colonel in the U.S. War Department read, "General MacArthur's Headquarters has requested your services earliest possible date. Upon receipt reply your availability."

Sarasohn said, "You know the boys at Harvard and MIT are always playing jokes, so I threw it in the wastebasket."

Two weeks later he got a call from this very irate colonel in Washington, upset that he hadn't the decency to reply to the telegram. Sarasohn quickly was on his way to Japan for a nine-month assignment in Japan, which lasted five years.

His task was to figure out how to supply the Japanese populace with radios to receive communications from the Occupation Headquarters so that it could nip in the bud insurgent hostility from doubts, rumors and speculation.

The problem was that Japan had been essentially destroyed as a functioning nation and a functioning economy. For all practical purposes, no facilities and little materials were available and had a populace that could not afford to buy food, let alone radios. And on top of everything else, what the Japanese wanted to learn was that secret weapon that allowed us to ramp up production of war goods so fast and win the war.

One of the most pressing issues for Sarasohn to resolve was the lack of management experience. Japan's prewar and wartime leaders in government, industry, and the military had been removed from their positions of influence when the occupation began.

They were barred from any positions of authority. He told them they would have to wait to learn the statistical methods to improve work processes because they first had to learn basic management techniques.

Under these conditions they began to produce very low cost radios. That was the beginning of the electronics dynasty we have seen in Japan and throughout the world.

Later, Sarasohn suggested they bring Shewhart or Deming from the United States to teach them the statistical methods to improve processes.

In 1951, Deming accepted their invitation and travelled to Japan to teach the methods he taught to the American manufacturers during the war, with one difference.

In America, the managers and professionals who attended the training were not top executives. After the war, our manufacturing basically had no competition on the world stage as production facilities of Europe and Asia were destroyed by the war.

We could sell everything we could make so top executives put the priority on quantity over quality. It was a devastating mistake that took us 30 years to realize.

When Deming went to Japan, he insisted the top people from industry and academia attend his class. The sponsoring agency, the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE), invited 25 of their top people and all 25 accepted. Deming insisted that they use the tools he taught them on their own processes and returned every year to check on their results.

Deming refused a fee for this training so JUSE took the money they sought to pay him and started the Deming Prize for individuals, divisions, and companies that did the most to contribute to the field of quality each year, not only in manufacturing processes but in service processes as well. The awards are so revered in Japan that the ceremony is much like our Academy Awards gala.

In 1980, NBC aired a white paper titled, If Japan Can, Why Can't We? It was about what Deming had accomplished in Japan and was now doing in America. It served to wake us up on the need for continuous process improvement.

The next series of columns will be discussing the concepts and methods taught by Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

Louis Schultz, managing director of Process Management LLC, has assisted organizations worldwide with performance improvement. He currently assists area business owners as a SCORE counselor. E-mail him with questions or comments at lou@processman