Japanese industry may have lessons for LBL

May 27, 1994

By Jeffery Kahn, jbkahn@lbl.gov

Japan's industrial strength is not merely the sum of its many technological successes, says professor Fumio Kodama of the University of Tokyo. Rather, it represents the success of a new method of innovation.

Kodama spoke at LBL on Monday, May 23, as part of the lecture series, "Science and Technology in a Competitive World," jointly sponsored by LBL and UC Berkeley.

Japan probably did not set out to invent a new way of developing, manufacturing, and marketing products, Kodama said. But gradually and unconsciously, a technological paradigm-shift occurred, creating a Japanese method of doing business that is very different from the American way.

He said the dimensions of the Japanese method extend far beyond the factory floor. They include research and development, manufacturing, business diversification, and even the process of innovation.

An author, government advisor, and member of the Engineering Academy of Japan, Kodama is professor of Science, Technology, and Industry at the University's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology.

In remarks germane to LBL and the technology transfer mission of the national labs, he said product development in Japan does not start with science, but with the consumer. He said that in America, science feeds new technology into a pipeline with the expectation that a flow of new products will result.

Kodama said the Japanese prefer to begin product development by identifying what people want. He said this "demand articulation" is different from marketing and cited the case of video cassette recorders (VCRs).

The Ampex Corp. of California invented the videotape recorder in 1956. The machine was quite expensive and sold strictly to professional broadcasters. Toshiba, and later Sony, realized that residential consumers would buy and use VCRs if sold at the right price. Having articulated demand, the Japanese then began work on the technology, which resulted in the development of a very different machine.

Patterns of product innovation between America and Japan likewise are different. Kodama said although major scientific breakthroughs occur much more often in America than in Japan, this does not seem to translate into a commercial advantage for the United States. He said single scientific breakthroughs rarely result in new products. Rather, multiple breakthroughs are often required, as is a maturation and learning process.

Instead of relying on breakthroughs, Japanese companies prefer to combine or fuse several technologies. This approach has been so successful that despite the dearth of Japanese breakthroughs, Japanese companies are major holders of U.S. patents. In fact, Kodama said, in terms of the numbers of new U.S. patents applied for, many of the current top-ranking companies are Japanese.

Kodama said, to be successful, LBL's technology transfer efforts should rely strongly on interactions with industry. He said Japanese companies look beyond their own doors for emerging technologies. In fact, learning about new developments elsewhere is considered the responsibility of every employee.