I once was explaining to a German fellow with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm all about a Japanese style job shop I'd visited. The shop was the very model of efficiency, of course, and their most impressive achievement was how, through various forms of automation, they'd been able to squeeze the very last drop of unnecessary labor out of the operation. Surely we'd all be better off if more shops could emulate this extraordinary example.
The German listened politely until I was finished, and then calmly but resolutely replied: "That's crazy. Manufacturing is supposed to create good jobs, not eliminate them."
An interesting argument. Both views spring from a similar desire to serve the national well-being--a benefit that ultimately falls to the individual--yet these respective philosophies are diametrically opposed when it comes to execution. The Western Europeans want to manage the economy like a natural resource--a given that is to be parceled out in an equitable way. The Japanese have few resources other than their collective ingenuity. They must focus on how to beat other world competitors at manufacturing in order to maintain a decent standard of living for their people.
We Americans seem to tack a course somewhere in between these two. Raw capitalism got us started, the abuse of which gave rise to the worker entitlements that grew to hamper U.S. competitiveness in the 1980s. But we learned our lesson, and now the pendulum has swung back again. And major corporations continue to shed workers by thousands, trading worker loyalty and experience for a lower cost structure and greater return on stockholder equity. American business, today's thinking goes, can never grow too lean. But in this process, has it grown too mean?... or at least, too indifferent to the needs of the people our system is supposed to serve?
Yes, shops must be efficient. Whether you manufacture in Chicago, or Tokyo, or Stuttgart, you better be in a position to beat back world competition or there will be no good jobs for anyone. But as we cut the fat, let's not forget to build new muscle--and remember that the highest purpose of business is to create the opportunity for the work and wealth that lets us all live our lives in a secure and meaningful way.