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The Hidden Secret of Manufacturing behind Ancient Castle Walls

October 24, 2009 Leave a comment

The hidden secret behind ancient castle walls

Staring at walls has been the way buddhist monks meditate about the ultimate truth but hardly seems like a way to inspire making of national industrial policy. Though for the prepared mind, the subtle architectural differences in these ancient castle walls could be telling a hidden secret for the modern industrial world.

Typical Japanese castles are built on irregular stone walls called Ishigaki. At first glance, these ancient irregular structures may seem to be some primitive work of an underdeveloped society. The fact that these seemingly random combination of rocks has sustained more than 400 years of wears and tears by wars, floods and earthquakes, may come only as an afterthought. A closer look would discover that mortar is not used in binding but rather small rocks are used to lock large rocks into their positions. This technique allows for water passage that prevents water pressure from building up inside during the rainy season. The uneven distribution of mounting forces as a result of the irregularity constitutes the strength against attack from both human and natural disasters. One can also deduced that building these walls required close communication of the workforce and a distributive chain of command. Decisions were made at the frontline to deal with irregularity at each step without losing sight of the overall goal.

In contrast, castle walls outside of Japan are typically built with standardized rectangular blocks. The regularity reduced the need for communication among the frontline workers. In fact the workforce were frequently composed of members from different tribes who spoke different languages. Such standardization allowed any missing piece to be easily replaced and so as working members of the team. Minimum decision-making is delegated to the front line in the building process.

Many of the characteristics of the workforce behind those walls have served to establish competitive advantages in the modern industrial economy.

 

 

 

Product Architecture Reflects Social Structure

According to the framework developed by Professor Fujimoto of Tokyo University, there are modular and integral types of industrial products. The architecture of Ishigaki is one of integral whereas that of western castle wall is one of modular. In the former case, any components have complicated interface relationship with the rest of the system whereas the later has relatively simple and standardized interface. Types of interfaces can be categorized to open and close, depending on whether the interface standard is open to the industry or proprietary to a single company.

Examples of industrial product according to architectural categories:

  Close Open
Modular
  • Camera and lens
  • Lego
  • Castle wall
  • PC
  • bicycle
  • Packaged software
Integral
  • Ishigaki
  • Disk drive
  • Automobile
 

This framework of architectural classifications reveals a type of national competitive advantages rooted from cultural and historical characteristics of the underlying society. Japan has been typically strong at integral types of product which requires an integrated quality control as well as close communication of the workforce and supplier network. Such strengths could be attributed to the cultural environment developed in an island country with a rather homogeneous population. Examples of successful industries are electronics, Hi-tech and automobile. US has been quite successful in formulating industrial standard and globalizing operation at a large-scale as seen in the success of computer and software industries. A strength that could be traced to the social environment of diversed immigrants.

A Business Strategy that Reflects Product Architecture

I used to work in the disk drive industry and this framework has given me insight to the kind of industrial dynamics that I had experienced during the mid-90s. I was in charge of the quality of magnetic media (disk) manufactured by Japanese suppliers to Seagate, the world’s largest HDD manufacturer. During the year 93-96, magnetic head and aluminium disk technology has approached maturity. Seagate had successfully standardized the head-disk interface and outsourced disk production to several suppliers in order to take advantage of cost and supply flexibility advantage to meet market demand. Seagate was beating up competitors such as Western Digital, IBM and most Japanese manufacturers in the game of commoditizing disk drive and its components. The company was the first one in the industry in expanding production to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China and Ireland. The key in such expansion is to simplify and standardize interface between components in order to reduce communication cost that come with expanding supplier network and globalization.

During the late 90s, new technologies such as Giant MR head and ceramic disk had become important in further reducing size of HDD and increasing memory density. The head-disk interface had become more complex and many previous unknown issues related to applying new technology to mass production environment such as thermal asperity were causing serious drop in production yield. In this sense, product architecture had shifted from modular to Integral. In order to stay in the game, Seagate took prompt actions in taking over Corner (the world’s 3 rd largest HDD manufacturer at the time) in order to secure supply of disk and vertically integrated the head and disk divisions. The newly integrated organization was much more efficient in dealing with the complex quality issues that came with new technologies than the former structure of multiple suppliers.

I cannot confirm whether Seagate executives derived their business strategy by staring at the castle walls. However, I have come to realize that business strategy as well as supply chain and organizational management need to reflect product architecture.

Why policy makers and corporate Executives should pay attention to these walls?

During this economic downturn, corporations are being blamed by politicians for outsourcing jobs to China and low-cost countries. Policy makers are inclined to promote protectionism. Such policies are more outcomes of emotional reactions than careful plans for  sustainable competitiveness. A lesson to learn from how Japanese government had deal with its recession in the 90s would be giving more considerations to product architecture when formulating industrial policy and strategy. US government could help to foster and maintain stronghold on open modular industrial product and fund information technology and development of structure that improve integral products. Social policy should be adopted to tackle unemployment instead of industrial policy.

As a suggestion, politicians and policy makers should spend some time meditating in front of the Japanese castle walls because the lessons learnt from looking deeper into the root of the nation’s core competitiveness could help navigating through crisis and prevent them from being carried away by mere emotional responses of lobbists.

meditation

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