NEW YORK -- Call me naive, but a quote in a Dow Jones report this week from Sharp President Takashi Okuda left me speechless.
When asked Thursday (Nov. 1) how the company reacted to changing market conditions, Okuda (below) reportedly said: "We lacked a sense of speed. . . The situation could have been different if we took steps more quickly."
How many years did it take for Sharp’s top management to come to that conclusion?
For that matter, how long will it take the CEOs of Japan’s large electronics companies to acknowledge their inaction, get off their backsides and do something?
The utter lack of any sense of urgency among the Japanese is precisely what is killing the country's electronics industry.
That’s why Japan will eventually cede its technological leadership to China and its aggressive entrepreneurs.
We needn't belabor the fact that Japanese executives simply cannot make decisions – dithering while hiding behind the nation’s “consensus building corporate culture.” It’s a well known syndrome.
The larger problem is that many Japanese still believe there's still time to turn things around. They don’t understand that time is running out. I ascribe this to two factors.
First, Japan values "long-term" thinking. Second, it maintains an almost blind faith in engineering executives making engineering decisions. These two handicaps are tightly intertwined.
Historically, many Japanese electronics companies have been run by engineering executives. They know their products and technologies inside and out, and they understand how to make those products. They are hands-on engineers, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.
What trips them up, though, is their engineering ego.
Neither LCD nor plasma display technologies would have been perfected and scaled if not for the stubbornness of countless Japanese engineers at companies like Sharp or Panasonic. These companies were at the leading edge of display technology for decades, and found ways to reduce manufacturing costs that made these display technologies ubiquitous.
These engineering executives succeeded precisely because of their long-term vision. They were able to advance these technologies and nurture product development largely because they could see far beyond the next hill.
By the 1980s, Japan's patience and determination made it the leader in the global electronics industry.
In the boom that followed, Japanese corporations were able to finance new R&D projects. Some panned out, others were duds. "Long-term" planning was always the watch word. This calculated approach occasionally yielded unexpected market successes.
Japanese CE companies flourished, and could afford to drill the occasional dry well. The myth of management based on their “long-term” vision grew.
Those days are over.