The Attentiveness Gap

American visitors to Japan noticed the focus of manufacturing employees there.
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Is there an “attentiveness gap” separating American manufacturing employees from those in other countries?

I recently spent a week touring manufacturing facilities in Japan with a group of American manufacturing leaders, on a trip organized by the National Tooling & Machining Association. Many of the people traveling with me were shop owners or managers, and at the trip’s end, I asked them to share their thoughts with me about what we saw. (You can read our report here.)

One cultural difference that various tour members independently remarked about was the seeming attentiveness of the Japanese workers. One manufacturing business owner described it as a “heads-down attention to task.” A machine shop manager made the comment that everyone he saw was “just simply and purposefully performing their tasks.” Even among employees doing repetitive assembly, I do not believe I ever saw a pair of earbuds, and in no facility did we see a radio or hear one playing.

This would not be me. Practically anytime I do manual work, I listen to something via earbuds. The audio (usually a podcast) lightens the work and makes the time go faster. When I saw some of the Japanese factory employees doing tasks that were particularly repetitive or slow, I had a hard time imagining how they could do the work with such attention without any accompaniment like this. Perhaps this is because I am missing something that my own culture never imparted.

The Japanese have a word, monozukuri, that—though it is newly coined—must nevertheless express an idea inherent to Japanese culture, because its meaning is difficult for our culture’s language to translate. Literally meaning “making things,” the word conveys something like craftsmanship, but with more emphasis on the value of the thing and the value of making it, and less emphasis on the craftsman. Strikingly, the word just happens to contain a root, “mono,” which sounds in our language like the Greek-derived root word for “one.” The culture that understands monozukuri is somehow innately equipped for singularity of attention in manufacturing work.

What accounts for this equipping? The very existence of the term suggests an answer. The fact that it is hard to translate (perhaps I’ve even explained it inadequately) reveals that the idea it expresses is nearer to one culture than another. In short, there exists this word—higher in its sense of calling and value than our own word “manufacturing”—that the people of the distant culture have chosen to share and use, because it expresses something they appreciate and know.

I put in my earbuds during routine tasks because my mind is uncomfortable with the repetitive work. While my hands are busy, I want to enjoy the mental pleasure of listening to something interesting.

Meanwhile, the Japanese manufacturing employees are apparently able to find mental solace in their practice of bringing something of meaning and worth into reality. What my fellow travelers and I were perceiving as a gap in attentiveness might in fact be a gap in purpose.