Modern technological devices, particularly in the areas of computers, electronics, thermodynamics, and mechanics, have made automatic and semiautomatic machines a reality. The development of such automation is bringing about a second industrial revolution and is causing vast changes in commerce as well as the way work is organized. Such technological changes and the need to improve productivity and quality of products in traditional factory systems also changed industrial management practices. In the 1960s Swedish automobile companies discovered that they could improve productivity with a system of group assembly. In a contrast to older manufacturing techniques where a worker was responsible for assembling only one part of the car, group assembly gave a group of workers the responsibility for assembling an entire car.
The system was also applied in Japan, where managers developed a number of other innovative systems to lower costs and improve the quality of products. One Japanese innovation, known as quality circles, allowed workers to offer management suggestions on how to make production more efficient and to solve problems. Workers were also given the right to stop the assembly line if something went wrong, a sharp departure from U.S. factories. By carefully controlling the manufacturing process, Japanese managers were able to cut waste, improve productivity, and reduce inventory, thus significantly reducing costs and improving quality. By the early 1980s, Japanese companies, which had once been criticized for producing for producing low-quality goods, had established a reputation for efficiently producing high-quality, high-tech products. In the 1980s and early 90s many U.S. companies looked to increase their competitiveness by adapting Japanese methods for improving manufacturing quality.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.