The virtue of humility: August 6 and 9, 1945

by David Johnson

August 6 and 9, 1945

Japanese Emperor Hirohito ruled his country as a deity until the most destructive weapons of war, two atomic bombs, “The Unforgettable Fire”*,  were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The very human US President Harry Truman warned the Japanese that if they didn’t surrender, which was a violation of their culture, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Refusing to surrender, Hirohito’s hand was forced and President Truman made good on his promise. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days after the destruction of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 more Japanese. The result was an unforgettable fire that destroyed everything. Hirohito surrendered and the war was over. 
The war was over and the rebuilding began. The rebuilding of those two incinerated cities and Japan’s rise from the ashes is one of the most incredible industrial, economic, and humanitarian miracles of the 20th Century.
Only five years after the bombings in 1945, from 1950 to 1960, the Japanese became the second greatest economy in the world. By the 1960’s, Americans were buying Japanese products and by the 1970's the American automobile industry began a long economic decline, spurred by two oil crises that demanded cars that were more fuel-efficient. Honda and Datsun (later Nissan) became popular cars in America. Americans were also buying Japanese electronics, making Sony an internationally recognized and best selling brand. By the 1980’s, the Japanese Yen was so strong there was talk about making it the currency exchange standard, replacing the Dollar. While American consumers were buying Japanese products, Japan began to buy up American properties. The most notable purchase was Pebble Beach, the iconic golf course on the California coast.

How did Japan so quickly recover from the devastation of their country? Although destroyed as a military power, they had a quality about them that would change the course of their history and ultimately exceed the American industrial standards of production. They had the humility to learn what they needed to do to get better. Ironically, the source of their transformation was an American. W. Edwards Deming.

In August 1950, only five years after the Americans had bombed their country into submission, the Japanese sought the counsel of an American statistician, Edwards Deming. Employed by General Douglas MacArthur to prepare Japan for a post-war census, in attempt to manage by numbers, Deming began meeting with Japanese business leaders, discussing his philosophy about manufacturing. Over the next few years, Deming served as a consultant to Japanese business leaders. Fully adopting his philosophy on system analysis and the creation of quality systems, the Japanese began the arduous task of rebuilding their country by transforming their industries and economy. By the end of 1950, the Japanese, thankful for the contributions of Dr. Deming, named their top scientific and engineering award after an American. “The Deming Prize” is still rewarded for top quality and management.

Back in the States, American industries were not as interested in listening to Dr. Deming. The American industrial systems and war machine had won the war, beating every major world power on opposite sides of the world and in two different types of battles, one primarily on land, the other at sea. However, things in the American economy began to change. It wasn't long before the American advantage was lost to foreign competition. Losing has a way of melting the wax in the ears. Like the Japanese, one American car company began to listen.

From 1979 to 1982, Ford Motor Company lost $3 billion. Having seen the transformation of the Japanese manufacturing system, Ford adapted Deming’s concepts about improving quality in the early 80’s. For seventeen years, from 1981 to 1998, Ford’s corporate motto was “Quality is Job 1”. “Quality” was first about management and the corporation's culture before it was about the corporation's product. It was about the system as an enterprise, the process, which produced the final product. A quality system produced quality products. Ford listened and learned and by 1986, following Dr. Deming's counsel, became the most profitable American automobile manufacturer, surpassing General Motors.

The impact of Deming’s philosophy began to grow in the US. It was rolled out as the Japanese management model taught in business schools in the 80’s; it gave rise to Total Quality Management; and has influenced “Lean Management” of today. It has application in all forms of leadership in all sectors of the economy and in governmental organizations and educational institutions. It is also helpful for families, which also operate as a system. The key element to the successful turnaround, rebuilding or improvement, is the virtue of Humility. In Japan’s case, it was the willingness to learn from an opponent that killed hundreds of thousands of their people and changed their culture. In Ford's case, it was the humility to learn from a former enemy that was beaten.

August 6 and 9, 2015 mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Japan and the end of World War II. As terrible as the war was in human loss, especially with the introduction of the atomic bomb, the results that came from it stand as a tribute to the indomitable spirit and resiliency of Mankind to rebuild after a terrible devastation. However, the most important quality is the virtue of Humility to admit you are wrong and to listen to someone who will help you improve.

Japan learned. Ford learned. The same can be true for any company, organization, and family.


*U2’s fourth album was a tribute to a book by that name that chronicled the water-colored memories of the Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb blast. The picture above is the cover for the book.