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Knowledge Works: Managing Intellectual Capital at Toshiba

Author(s):Fruin, W. Mark
Reviewer(s):Robertson, Andrew

Published by EH.NET (July 1999)

W. Mark Fruin, Knowledge Works: Managing Intellectual Capital at

Toshiba.

Japan Business and Economics Series. New York: Oxford University Press,

1997. 256 pp. $39.95 (cloth). ISBN: 0195081951

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Andrew Robertson, Harvard University.

Awash

in a sea of high quality, meticulously engineered electronic and mechanical

products bearing the label “Made in Japan”, Americans — both inside and

outside academia — continue to wonder, despite Japan’s recent economic

troubles, “How does Japanese industry do it?” In Knowledge Works:

Managing Intellectual Capital at Toshiba, Mark Fruin addresses this

perennial question through a factory organization at Toshiba’s Yanagicho

factory. At irregular intervals from 1986 through 1992, Fruin entered Toshiba’s

workforce to observe the complicated social patterns that generate change at

Toshiba. Because Toshiba devolves most of its resources related to product and

process development to the factory level, working in the various sections

responsible for bringing

new products on line permitted Fruin to study at firsthand the technical,

social, and cultural relations that structure Toshiba’s larger technology

strategy. In

Knowledge Works, Fruin argues persuasively that Toshiba’s success during

the 1980s in responding to rapid shifts in market preference, to the quickly

strengthening yen, and to the establishment — sometimes voluntary,

sometimes not — of international trade quotas, stemmed directly from the

development of a new form of factory organization, a form beyond simple mass

production, a form Fruin terms the “Knowledge Works”.

Briefly, this

book is a useful and thought provoking study of how a single

factory is organized to support rapid innovation in both process and production

technology. Fruin presents a useful model — that is, the knowledge works —

for analysis of this industrial form and supports his claims with detailed

descriptions of the technical systems, social organization, institutional

values, and individual attitudes that underpin this

form. The book is not, however, without its flaws, most prominent being

Fruin’s desire to generalize this form as a source and explanation of Japan’s

national rather than Toshiba’s corporate comparative advantage.

In the term “knowledge works”, Fruin playfully emphasizes the central point of

the book: “Knowledge works” are places where “knowledge works”. Put a little

more elegantly and emphatically,

“Knowledge works are a force for a new age, a postproduction age, of

intellectual capitalism. Instead of

making things, a production problem pure and simple, making the right things,

in the right amounts, at the right times and prices, is the postproduction

problem. And because nothing stands still, making righter thing, in

righter amounts, at righter prices and times, must be the goal.

Post production , or intellectual capitalism, presumes information processing

abilities of a high order,

on-site differentiation and integration of functions, a

customer-is-always-right point of view, and quite emphatically, an

environmentally conscious mode of operations” (p. 24).

Knowledge works permit a higher degree of responsiveness to changes in markets

by permitting higher levels of differentiation in a factory’s product lines and

simultaneously higher levels of

integration technically,

socially, and culturally across the different groups managing, designing,

and producing these products. While management remains well attuned to the

short-term exigencies of the market, still more important to the continued

vitality of both the factories as knowledge works and Toshiba as a corporation

is management’s strategic commitment to factories as sites for not only the

production of better products but also the production of better skilled, more

knowledgeable, better motivated workers on better organized, better managed

lines. Knowledge works prosper not by the traditional mass production

strategies of de-skilling and the division of labor; instead, at Yanagicho, the

factory provides the site where technicians, engineers, and managers from not

only Yanagicho but also other Toshiba plants, group companies, suppliers, and

even outsiders cooperate to attain the “physical, spatial, and functional

integration of labor and information (p. 17).”

Understanding the characteristics

of the manufacturing processes undertaken in knowledge works as being

profoundly determined by the particulars of a given site’s history provides

Fruin a useful explanation to understand how Toshiba innovates so quickly. It

does so because on the factory

floor, the whole organizational panoply of managers, engineers, technicians,

suppliers, assembly personnel, inspection personnel and such are synchronized

by a common set of values, practices, and goals. Technical knowledge, social

contracts, and cultural

intuitions combine seamlessly to create the basis for rapid process and

product innovation. Continuous and ongoing renegotiations of these compacts is

the norm which permits flexible response by management and engineering in the

deployment of Yanagicho’s intellectual, financial, and labor resources.

While it is the social and cultural dynamism and cohesiveness of “knowledge

works” that power technical development at Toshiba, it is the technologies

themselves that create value for the company. Which technologies — and

consequently which complementary skills and what forms of organizational

knowledge — to develop is central in determining which markets any given

knowledge works can and will be able to service. Fruin notes the presence in

each of Toshiba’s

knowledge works of what he terms “Champion Lines”,

families of products that provide not only considerable revenue flows but also

considerable and ongoing innovation in both product and process development.

“They lay a threshold of organizational knowledge on which related products

can thrive, one that ultimately justifies the high risk and cost of creating

multifunctional capabilities in particular product departments [of, that is, a

knowledge works.] (p. 47)” Yanagicho’s

“Champion Line” — plain paper

copiers — has defined the trajectory of technical, product, and market

development for the whole factory complex since the mid-1980s. While the

knowledge works form enables Toshiba to participate in the crowded and highly

competitive domestic copier mark et,

at the same time, in developing the technical know-how necessary to compete in

this market, Toshiba augments, complements, and improves the basic technical

and organizational knowledge present at Yanagicho and thus drives change in the

other product families produced there. Indeed, of the thirteen product lines

produced in the Yanagicho plant, fully two-third are

“historically and technically linked” to its plain paper copier line (p.

48).

Having introduced the concept and architecture of the Knowledge Works in the

first two chapters, Fruin spends the majority of the book studying how Toshiba

management maintains, extends, and reproduces the structures that define a

knowledge works. The third chapter describes how management promotes the

education, socialization and acculturation of its workforce to the needs and

values of a knowledge works through a continual process termed organizational

campaigning. The fourth describes how Toshiba — or more accurately the

Yanagicho factory — manages its relations with suppliers, encouraging

excellence and cooperativeness through the strategic exchange of knowledge,

expertise, and personnel. In the fifth chapter,

Fruin uses a case study of the development of the SuperSmart card — a credit

card sized computer —

to demonstrate the potency of knowledge works to develop rapidly (in only 22

months) a product embodying multiple technological innovations. In the sixth

chapter, Fruin examines how Toshiba responded to the problems encountered in

exporting both the know ledge works concept and plain paper copier manufacture

to a plant in Irvine,

California. Not surprisingly, the seventh and concluding chapter reprises the

basic argument of the book, pointing to Toshiba’s potential for flexible and

speedy innovation that

results from the presence of a corporate factory system organized around

knowledge works.

As noted above, this is a useful and interesting book. Having worked in the

Yanagicho factory as an employee, Fruin writes with an authority born of

experience. At

the same time, the book is more than simply a diary of production line

experience. His experience is structured by new readings of old arguments in a

variety of literatures in management and economics.

Moreover, his method is not limited by overly fastidious attention to

disciplinary boundaries. In trying to understand what motivates workers to

participate, Fruin bravely enters the problematic realm of individual values,

culture, and inevitably history. Knowledge Works persuasively

demonstrates the importance of these less quantifiable and more local aspects

of human experience in Toshiba’s development of a factory-based capability to

respond to and generate rapid change.

Using this multidisciplinary approach combined with a fine detail derived from

careful field research, Fruin has formulated an argument that emphasizes the

importance of a particular cluster of factors — some cultural, some social,

some institutional, some political, some market, and some technical — in

enabling the creation of know ledge works at Toshiba.

By so tightly and persuasively linking the factors of the knowledge works’

creation to the particulars of Toshiba’s products, market, organization,

and culture, Fruin renders any generalization of the knowledge works concept

problematic. After making a good case for knowledge works being the source of

Toshiba’s comparative advantage, Fruin — too boldly in my view

– continues, making much the same claim regarding the sources of Japan’s

national comparative advantage. For example,

in his conclusion Fruin writes,

The widespread existence of Knowledge Works in Japan but the relative scarcity

(or nonexistence) elsewhere suggests the powerful impact of national

competition on manufacturing organization at home, the competitive edge enjoyed

by Japan’s industrial firms in established product markets,

and their ability to respond quickly, even preemptively, to new domestic and

overseas markets (p. 210).

Since no company has experienced exactly what Toshiba has experienced and since

only

a few even come close in terms of market, product lines, and such, it is

difficult to believe that the knowledge work per se is widespread even in

Japan.

This is not idle philosophizing. Over the course of the book, we do in fact

learn that many of the

most prominent Japanese companies are not configured in a knowledge works-like

style of production. For example, serving as they do radically different

markets, Toshiba and Toyoda do not, indeed could not, operate using the same

production models (p. 206)

; for Hitachi,

Mitsubishi, and NEC, R&D deployment is mostly focused — contrary to knowledge

works best practice — at laboratories that are neither physically nor

institutionally linked to specific factory sites (p. 57-59);

and the competitive cooperation found in Yanagicho’s dynamic and responsive

supplier network derives from the shared intangible assets fostered under the

knowledge works approach rather than the formal, more static, and more widely

spread fiscal and organizational relations defining

traditional keiretsu and kiygo shodan business groupings (p. 99). These are not

inconsequential differences. In the knowledge works model, the structure of the

supplier network, the factory level allocation of R&D, and the organization of

production are key structuring elements. By and large, its seems that

knowledge works — in the mode in which they are implemented at Yanagicho and

described by Fruin — could be as rare in Japan as they are abroad. By making

an argument that ties knowledge works so tightly to the specific technical,

institutional, and corporate history of Toshiba and its Yanagicho plant, Fruin

renders the imitation of knowledge works by Toshiba’s domestic competitors only

slightly less problematic than their transplantation from Toshiba

‘s plants in Japan to new factories in the United States.

Another way to estimate the influence of knowledge works on Japanese industrial

development would be to ask when they first came into being. In terms of

knowledge works influencing larger issues of national comparative advantage,

earlier would be better to allow time for dispersal. Indeed,

Fruin argues,

“Knowledge Works are not a recent, postwar invention. They appeared during the

interwar period as focal factories: multifunction and occasionally

multiproduct factories that bore administrative responsibility for serving

regional markets at a time when national markets were not well integrated.”

(p. 31).

Here and elsewhere in the book, Fruin times the advent of knowledge works as

during the inter war period. I do not wish to suggest that Fruin is wrong in

drawing links to this period; however, these must be termed only the barest

beginnings of certain aspects of the knowledge works structure. They should not

be mistaken for the structure itself. Given that certain knowledge works

structures at Yanagicho such as total productivity organizational campaigning

(p. 69), the establishment of factory oriented R&D structures (p. 191), and the

creation of an active and responsive Supplier Association (p. 9 7) all stem

from institutional changes undertaken in the period between the late 1970s and

mid-1980s, the development of the knowledge works form should be seen as a

product of the slow down in Toshiba’s corporate growth engendered by “Oil

Shocks” and the

ending of Japan’s period of high economic growth.

Thus, to my way of thinking, the organization defined as knowledge works is

both more recent and less widely spread in Japan than is suggested by Fruin’s

otherwise well constructed and excellently researched book.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor

Author(s):Landes, David S.
Reviewer(s):De Long, J. Bradford

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW

Published by EH.NET (April 1998)

David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 544 pp. $30.00 (cloth) ISBN: 0393040178.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Bradford De Long, Department of Economics, University of California-Berkeley.

David Landes has studied the history of economic development for more than half a century. His look at economic imperialism and informal empire in nineteenth-century Egypt (Bankers and Pashas) tells the story of how small were the benefits (either for Egyptian economic development or for the long-run power and happiness of the ruling dynasty) bought at extremely high cost by borrowing from European bankers. His unsurpassed survey of technological change and its consequences in Europe since 1750 (The Unbound Prometheus) remains the most important must-read book for serious students of the industrial revolution. His study of clock-making as an instance of technological development (Revolution in Time) provides a detailed look at a small piece of the current of technological development. His works are critical points-of-reference for those who seek to understand the Industrial Revolution that has made our modern world.

Now David Landes turns to the grandest question of all: the causes of the (so far) divergent destinies and relative prosperity levels of different national economies. The title echoes Adam Smith, but Landes is interested in both the wealth and poverty of nations: Adam Smith lays out what went wrong as the background for his picture of how things can go right, while Landes is as interested in the roots of relative–and absolute–economic failure as of success.

He pulls no punches–of Columbus’s followers treatment of the inhabitants of the Caribbean, Landes writes that “nothing like this would be seen again until the Nazi Jew hunts and killer drives of World War II.” Landes makes no compromises with any current fashion. Readers will remember how columnist after columnist decried high-school history standards (which, truth be told, were not very good) that required students to learn about a fourteenth-century African prince, Mansa Musa, but not about Robert E. Lee; readers of Landes will find three pages on Mansa Musa, and none on Master Robert.

We are all multiculturalists now; or, rather, serious historians have long been multiculturalists.

Nevertheless, Landes’s economic history is a profoundly Eurocentric history. It is Europe-centered without apologies–rather with scorn for those who blind themselves to the fact that the history of the past 500 years is Europe-centered.

Now Landes does not think that all history should be Eurocentric. For example, he argues that a history of the world from 500 to 1500 should be primarily Islamocentric: the rise and spread of Islam was an “explosion of passion and commitment… the most important feature of Eurasian history in what we may call the middle centuries.”

But a history oriented toward understanding the wealth and poverty of nations today must be Eurocentric. Goings-on in Europe and goings-on as people in other parts of the world tried to figure out how to deal with suddenly-expansionist Europeans make up the heart of the story of how some–largely western Europe and northwest Europe’s settler ex-colonies–have grown very, very rich.

Moreover, relative poverty in the world today is the result of failure on the part of political, religious, and mercantile elites elsewhere to pass the test (rigged very heavily against them) of maintaining or regaining independence from and assimilating the technologies demonstrated by the people from Europe–merchants, priests, and thugs with guns in the old days, and multinationals, international agencies, and people armed with cruise missiles in these new days–who have regularly appeared offshore in boats, often with non-friendly intent. To try to tell the story of attempted assimilation and attempted rejection without placing Europe at the pivot is to tell it as it really did *not* happen.

Thus Landes wages intellectual thermonuclear war on all who deny his central premise: that the history of the wealth and poverty of nations over the past millennium is the history of the creation in Europe and diffusion of our technologies of industrial production and sociological organization, and of the attempts of people elsewhere in the world to play hands largely dealt to them by the technological and geographical expansions originating in Europe.

He wins his intellectual battles–and not just because as author he can set up straw figures as his opponents. He wins because in the large (and usually in the small) he has stronger arguments than his intellectual adversaries, who believe that Chinese technology was equal to British until 1800, that had the British not appeared the royal workshops of Mughal India would have turned into the nucleus of an industrialized textile industry, that equatorial climates are as well-suited as mid-latitude climates to the kind of agriculture that can support an Industrial Revolution, that Britain’s industrial lead over France was a mere matter of chance and contingency, or any of a host of other things with which Landes does not agree.

Landes’s analysis stresses a host of factors–some geographical but most cultural, having to do with the fine workings of production, power, and prestige in the pre-industrial past–that gave Eurasian civilizations an edge in the speed of technological advance over non-Eurasian ones, that gave European civilizations an edge over Chinese, Arabic, Indian, or Indonesian, that made it very likely that within Europe the breakthrough to industrialization would take place first in Britain.

And by and large it is these same factors that have made it so damn difficult since the Industrial Revolution for people elsewhere to acquire the modern machine technologies and modes of social and economic organization found in the world economy’s industrial core.

Landes’s account of why Eurasian civilizations like Europe, Islam, and China had an edge in technological development over non-Eurasian (and southern Eurasian) civilizations rests heavily on climate: that it is impossible for human beings to live in any numbers in “temperate” climates before the invention of fire, housing, tanning, and sewing (and in the case of northern Europe iron tools to cut down trees), but that once the technological capability to live where it snows has been gained, the “temperate” climates allowed a higher material standard of living.

I am not sure about this part of his argument. It always seemed to me that what a pre-industrial society’s standard of living was depended much more on at what level of material want culture had set its Malthusian thermostat at which the population no longer grew. I have always been impressed by accounts of high population densities in at least some “tropical” civilizations: if they were so poor because the climate made hard work so difficult, why the (relatively) dense populations?

It seems to me that the argument that industrial civilization was inherently unlikely to arise in the tropics hinges on an–implicit–argument that some features of tropical climates kept the Malthusian thermostat set at a low standard of living, and that this low median standard of living retarded development. But it is not clear to me how this is supposed to have worked.

By contrast, I find Landes’s account of why Europe–rather than India, Islam, or China–to be very well laid out, and very convincing. But I find it incomplete. I agree that it looks as if Chinese civilization had a clear half-millennium as the world’s leader in technological innovation from 500 to 1000. Thereafter innovation in China appears to flag. Little seems to be done in developing further the high technologies like textiles, communication, precision metalworking (clockmaking) that provided the technological base on which the Industrial Revolution rested.

It is far from clear to me why this was so. Appeals to an inward turn supported by confident cultural arrogance under the Ming and Ch’ing that led to stagnation leave me puzzled. Between 1400 and 1800 we think that the population of China grew from 80 million to 300 million. That doesn’t suggest an economy of malnourished peasants at the edge of biological subsistence. That doesn’t suggest a civilization in which nothing new can be attempted. It suggests a civilization in which colonization of internal frontiers and improvements in agricultural technology are avidly pursued, and in which living standards are a considerable margin above socio-cultural subsistence to support the strong growth in populations.

Yet somehow China’s technological lead–impressive in printing in the thirteenth century, impressive in shipbuilding in the fifteenth century, impressive in porcelain-making in the seventeenth century–turned into a significant technological deficit in those same centuries that China’s pre-industrial population quadrupled.

Landes’s handling of the story of England’s apprenticeship and England’s mastership–of why the Industrial Revolution took place in the northwest-most corner of Europe–is perhaps the best part of the book. He managed to weave all the varied strands from the Protestant Ethic to Magna Carta to the European love of mechanical mechanism for its own sake together in a way that many attempt, but few accomplish. Had I been Landes I would have placed more stress on politics: the peculiar tax system of Imperial Spain, the deleterious effect of rule by Habsburgs and Habsburg puppets on northern Italy since 1500 (and the deleterious effect of rule by Normans, Hohenstaufens, Valois, Aragonese, and Habsburgs on southern Italy since 1000), the flight of the mercantile population of Antwerp north into the swamp called Amsterdam once they were subjected to the tender mercies of the Duke of Alva, more on expulsions of Moriscos, Jews, and French Protestants (certainly the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was an extraordinary shock to my seventeenth-century DeLong ancestors), the extraordinary tax burden levied on the Dutch mercantile economy by the cumulated debt of having had to spend from 1568 to 1714 fighting to achieve and preserve independence, and so forth.

I also would spend more time on Britain itself. I, at least, find myself wondering whether Britain’s Industrial Revolution was a near-run thing–whether (as Adam Smith feared) the enormous burden of the Hanoverian fiscal-military state might not have nearly crushed the British economy like an egg. Part of the answer is given by John Brewer’s Sinews of Power, a work of genius that lays out the incredible (for the time) efficiency of Britain’s eighteenth-century fiscal-military state. Most of the answer is the Industrial Revolution. And some of the answer is (as Jeffrey Williamson has argued) that the burden of the first British Empire did indeed significantly slow–but not stop–industrialization.

I don’t know what I think of all the issues in the interaction of the first British Empire, the British state, and British industrialization. Thus I find myself somewhat frustrated when Landes quotes Stanley Engerman and Barbara Solow that “It would be hard to claim that [Britain’s Caribbean Empire was] either necessary or sufficient for an Industrial Revolution, and equally hard to deny that [it] affected its magnitude and timing,” and then says “That’s about it.” I want to know Landes’s judgment about how much. Everything affects everything else, and when economic historians have an advantage over others it is because they know how to count things–and thus how to use arithmetic to make judgments of relative importance.

But the complaint that a book that tries to do world history in 600 pages leaves stuff out is the complaint of a true grinch.

So where does Landes’s narrative take us?

If there is a single key to success–relative wealth–in Landes’s narrative, it is openness. First, openness is a willingness to borrow whatever is useful from abroad whatever the price in terms of injured elite pride or harm to influential interests. One thinks of Francis Bacon writing around 1600 of how three inventions–the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press–had totally transformed everything, and that all three of these came to Europe from China. Second, openness is a willingness to trust your own eyes and the results of your own experiments, rather than relying primarily on old books or the pronouncements of powerful and established authorities.

European cultures had enough, but perhaps only barely enough. Suppose Philip II Habsburg “the Prudent King” of Spain and “Bloody” Mary I Tudor of England had together produced an heir to rule Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and England: would Isaac Newton then have been burned at the stake like Giordano Bruno, and would the natural philosophers and mechanical innovators of seventeenth and eighteenth century England have found themselves under the scrutiny of the Inquisition? Neither Giordano Bruno, Jan Hus, nor Galileo Galilei found European culture in any sense “open.”

If there is a second key, it lies in politics: a government strong enough to keep its servants from confiscating whatever they please, limited enough for individuals to be confident that the state is unlikely to suddenly put all they have at hazard, and willing once in a while to sacrifice official splendor and martial glory in order to give merchants and manufacturers an easier time making money.

In short, economic success requires a government that is, as people used to say, an executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie–a government that is responsive to and concerned for the well-being of a business class, a class who have a strong and conscious interest in rapid economic growth. A government not beholden to those who have an interest in economic growth is likely to soon turn into nothing more than a redistribution-oriented protection racket, usually with a very short time horizon.

Landes writes his book as his contribution to the project of building utopia–of building a much richer and more equal world, without the extraordinary divergences between standards of living in Belgium and Bangladesh, Mozambique and Mexico, Jordan and Japan that we have today. Yet at its conclusion Landes becomes uncharacteristically diffident and unusually modest, claiming that: “the one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying. No miracles. No perfection. No millennium. No apocalypse. We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well…”

Such a change of tone sells the book short, for there are many additional lessons that emerge from Landes’s story of the wealth and poverty of nations. Here are five: (1) Try to make sure that your government is a government that enables innovation and production, rather than a government that maintains power by massive redistributions of wealth from its friends to its enemies. (2) Hang your priests from the nearest lamppost if they try to get in the way of assimilating industrial technologies or forms of social and political organization. (3) Recognize that the task of a less-productive economy is to imitate rather than innovate, for there will be ample time for innovation after catching-up to the production standards of the industrial core. (4) Recognize that things change and that we need to change with them, so that the mere fact that a set of practices has been successful or comfortable in the past is not an argument for its maintenance into the future. (5) There is no reason to think that what is in the interest of today’s elite–whether a political, religious, or economic elite–is in the public interest, or even in the interest of the elite’s grandchildren.

It is indeed very hard to think about problems of economic development and convergence without knowing the story that Landes tells of how we got where we are today. His book is short enough to be readable, long enough to be comprehensive, analytical enough to teach lessons, opinionated enough to stimulate thought–and to make everyone angry at least once.

I know of no better place to start thinking about the wealth and poverty of nations.

(This review is a longer draft of a review subsequently published (at 1/3 the length) by the Washington Post..)

J. Bradford De Long Department of Economics University of California- Berkeley

De Long is co-editor, Journal of Economic Perspectives; Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research; visiting scholar, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; and former (1993-1995) deputy assistant secretary (for economic policy), U.S. Treasury.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative