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The “Social Science of Manufacturing Sites (Genba)” and the Manufacturing Management Research Center

Management Studies that Work to Ensure the Stability and Strengthening of Local Communities and Industries

Takahiro Fujimoto
Graduate School of Economics
For a quarter of a century, Professor Fujimoto has worked to advance Manufacturing Management Studies, a discipline with origins in manufacturing sites (genba) such as plants and development facilities. After devoting the first half of his research life to formulating the necessary hypotheses, he has performed proof-of-concept experiments in a variety of settings to test these hypotheses since 2005. Read his words and experience the solid effect of this “Positive Social Science of the Factory Floor” which leads to the stability and strengthening of local communities and industries.

After graduating from the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tokyo, I spent the first half of the 1980s working for a private company in charge of conducting on-site surveys. During the late 1980s, I had the good fortune of becoming a doctoral student at Harvard University, where I pursued research into the principles of technology and operations management. I returned to Japan in 1990 and became an academic staff member of the Faculty of Economics at UTokyo. More than a quarter of a century has passed since then. Although I was in charge of “business administration” at the Faculty, I have in fact been teaching students at both the Faculty and the Graduate School about Technology and Operations Management, or Manufacturing Management, an academic field which originates in plants and development facilities; in other words, straight from the factory floor.

The 25 years I have worked as an academic staff member overlap with the period during which factory wages in Japan have been roughly 20 times higher than those in China. Essentially, Chinese factories, with their low wages, have been enjoying a generous handicap in the global economy, while many of the Japanese factories have struggled to compete, but have eventually somehow pulled through. In the first half of this period, which lasted until around 2005, I attempted to establish the concept of “Manufacturing (Monozukuri) Management” and to formulate my hypotheses. The years following 2005 comprised the period during which I conducted my proof-of-concept experiments.
While Plato thought that ideas came from the heavens and existed independently from the individual being, Aristotle thought that both form and matter exist down on earth. From manufacturing’s point of view, their gestures in this painting—Plato pointing to the heavens and Aristotle to the earth—seem to symbolize where perfect design information may exist. We follow Aristotle in this case.
In the first phase, the formulation phase, I came up with the following concepts and hypotheses needed for Manufacturing Management (Technology and Operations Management) and Evolutionary Economics: “'Manufacturing site (genba)’ means where value added is created and flows”; “Value added dwells in the design information”; “Production is the transference of the design information”; “Manufacturing is the process of establishing a good flow of good designs to customers in the market”; “The manufacturing capability of an organization is its bundle of multiple routines that controls good flow”; “The manufacturing capability of an organization undergoes emergent evolution”; “Design is defined as the information on the relationships between functions and structures of artificial objects”; “The concrete aspects of causal knowledge of design are called the technology, and the abstract aspects of same are called the architecture”; “Architecture evolves along with functionality requirements and constraints”; “As a result of historical evolution, manufacturing sites in Japan tend to have a design-based comparative advantage based on products with a coordination-intensive integral architecture”; “A certain phenomenon found in 21st century international trade, in which the differentiation of products and globalization are taking place in parallel with each other, requires a ‘theory of design-based comparative advantage’.”

During the second phase, the proof-of-concept experiment phase, we received funding from the national budget to establish the Manufacturing Management Research Center (MMRC) within the University of Tokyo. The MMRC has conducted proof-of-concept experiments with regard to the following two hypotheses: 1) Manufacturing knowledge can be shared across industries (Manufacturing Management Consortium), and 2) a program for training “Manufacturing Instructors” to improve the flow of value-carrying design information at manufacturing sites will lead to their heightened industrial competitiveness in local areas (Manufacturing Instructor Training School).
  • Added value dwells in the design information

    A “product” is the design information transferred to a medium (i.e., a material object)

    In Manufacturing Management Studies, focus is placed more on “design information” rather than “medium,” and researchers try to ascertain the value added that resides in design. Design information is considered to be the main source of value added of a product, with the medium as the instrument through which the design information is conveyed.

  • Modular Architecture (one function corresponding to one form) and
    Integral Architecture (all functions corresponding to all forms)

    Compared to the above architecture of simply having one-to-one correspondence between functional and structural elements of an artifact, the below architecture requires complex many-to-many correspondence between them. Japan’s design-based comparative advantages tend to have been observed in products with the latter architecture.

As their research subjects are local communities or societies, experiments in social science usually take time. However, about 30 leading firms are now taking part in the Consortium to share information at monthly meetings, and this number continues to rise. Meanwhile, the Manufacturing Instructor School, as of 2016, has about 140 graduates, many of whom are veterans of professional careers in manufacturing. At the same time, in cooperation with the UTokyo School, local schools have been established in about a dozen municipalities through aid received from governments at the national and local levels. Although it has taken a long time and many mistakes have been made, through these proof-of-concept experiments, I have seen solid, promising results showing that Manufacturing Management Studies is useful in both stabilizing and strengthening local communities and industries.

Incidentally, the Manufacturing Management Research Center is currently able to cover its annual budget of several tens of millions of yen with its own business revenues from the industrial sector, without relying upon government or university funds. I believe this proves that this organization, as well as the positive social science of the factory floor behind it, is at least to some extent contributing to the public good.

Question: Is your research useful?

Answer: My other activities include offering support for the revival of local industry, providing instruction for the improvement of manufacturing sites, and changing the awareness of small- and medium-sized business owners. I also receive many requests for advice from international organizations and corporations overseas.

(We have asked twelve professors who contributed articles to this issue to answer the above question in 60 words or fewer. Professor Fujimoto's response appears here.)

Note: This article was originally printed in Tansei 33 (Japanese language only).
  • A book authored by Professor Fujimoto
    Bottom-up Approach to Management and Competitive Strategy: Studies on Japanese Industry for the Next Generation
    (Genba Shugi no Kyoso Senryaku: Jidai e no Nihon Sangyo-ron)
    (Shinchosha, December 2013; 720 yen plus tax)

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