MONOZUKURI: The Thing and its Maker

Main visual : MONOZUKURI: The Thing and its Maker

We’re all too busy to think about work. Really think about it. Why we do it, and what it means to us. We spend two-thirds of our waking lives working. It excites us and depresses us. It’s a source of pride and of stress. It pays the bills. For too many people, that last point is the point. And it adds to the stresses of modern living. What fascinates me is the Japanese approach to work. The country is renowned for its hard-working culture. Some say, the Japanese work too hard. But, there’s a philosophy behind the way the Japanese think about work that has become central to the digital realm.

It’s called ‘monozukuri’ – literally, ’thing-making’ – the act of making; what Western cultures call ‘craftsmanship.’ It implies a worker turning blocks of wood into something tangible, a table or a bookcase or a home. But the concept is used much more widely than that. It covers the vision of the finished product that’s in the mind of its maker. The effort and skill that goes into making it. And the pride in a job well done once it is finished. The Japanese believe that monozukuri applies to all kinds of work, not just making ‘things’ – but also producing a good set of accounts, or an intelligent report, or happy customers and employees. The outcome, and the skill which produced it, is the point.

In Fujitsu’s Spotlight on Smart Manufacturing, the company’s head of Services & Tools talks about how Industry 4.0 and the digital revolution that’s transforming manufacturing around the world is ushering in a new era of craftsmanship. It seems like a paradox: in the past technology has replaced people rather than augmenting them. But digital is different. The coming of AI, machine learning, IoT and, most importantly, a new generation of robots is bringing the human fact back into production. The aim is to create a more nuanced balance of human, digital and robotic skills to deliver speed, quality and customization.

Can a robot follow the precepts of monozukuri?

It can because humans build and program them. In a fascinating 2009 interview with Professor Tomomasa Sato from Tokyo University’s mechano-informatics faculty, he said, “We are a nation that loves mechanics and adores the concept of Monozukuri, but there is more than just that in our love of robots. We tend to see things as possessing their own lives. Perhaps it is a Buddhist set of views. We see and name things in Nature as if they were people, and do the same with robots. Of course, that influences the way they look.”

The human can be a better craftsman within a smart factory environment if the tools which are available – software, wearables, AI and robots – are programmed to enhance human skills and ambitions and not merely to replace physical labor. That will result in higher productivity, better quality, more focus on customer needs and a happy and motivated workforce.

It’s an ancient view of work and one we can use digital technologies to achieve. If you go back in time to a Japanese book called Essays in Idleness from around 1330, you’ll be surprised to find a lot about how to work. Written by a Buddhist monk, Yoshida Kenko, it advises that a good worker must be able to focus: ‘Many projects present themselves in the course of the day or even the hour; we must perform those that offer even slightly greater advantages, renouncing the others and giving ourselves entirely to whatever is most important.’

In the smart factory that focuses on quality and craftsmanship this is now possible.

Download the spotlight here.