Crossing Boundaries to International Production
Becoming the first Japanese manufacturer to initiate production operations in an EEC country, Belgium Honda now found itself in the limelight, both in Japan and throughout the world.
On May 27, 1963, the factory went into operation. The first Super Cub rolled off the production line.
Even so, many difficulties lay ahead for the Japanese associates stationed at Belgium Honda, as well as the 180 or so local people who worked with them at the factory. At that time, Honda Motor had just begun to employ knockdown parts for its export products. Accordingly, there was as yet no thorough system for knockdown operations, so no one could call themselves an expert. Therefore, at Belgium Honda, they had to build a knockdown production system from scratch, developing as they went their particular form of expertise. Daily production activities would serve as their guide.
"At first," Iwamura recalled, "some parts we received were found to be defective. And often we weren't able to operate the line because the parts hadn't come in on time. Once, when the parts didn't arrive because of a strike at Customs, we even went to talk with them directly. We had to plead with them to end the strike."
Many of Belgium Honda's local associates had no experience in mass-assembly operations, further complicating matters. Therefore, the number of motorcycles produced per day was initially a very small number. Under instructions of the Japanese staff, the associates would repeat the process of assembly and disassembly over and over, thus enhancing their skills. And eventually production activity got under way on a respectable level.
"The problem of maintaining quality was the first thing we had to deal with, once we had started factory operations," Okayasu said. "But we also worked hard to create a friendly, trusting environment in which the Belgians and Japanese could work together."
The greatest hurdle for Belgium Honda's Japanese staff, in fact, was the difference in customs and languages. Given that Belgium was, and still is, a country with two national languages - French and Flemish, the latter being the Dutch-derived dialect of northern Belgium - the regional culture was an equal mix of those traditions. Thus, it was not at all like the situation in Japan. Moreover, the capital city of Brussels was the dividing point between the two languages. Flemish was spoken mainly in the area north of Brussels, including Aalst, while French was spoken in the south. This considerably affected communication among the associates. In addition, most Japanese staff spoke only a little English, and only one of them was fluent in both English and French. Business instructions from the Japanese staff, both at the production site and sales office, were conveyed to the associates through English-speaking Belgian managers. Therefore, it was not long before the Japanese staff began to experience the frustration of not being able to communicate their opinions freely. They were constantly aware that extra time and effort would be needed in order for them to communicate through interpreters.
The Japanese staff also had difficulty understanding the local way of thinking which was based on a contract-oriented social structure and age-old hierarchal class system. Accordingly, opinions and perceptions would often be at odds during the process of cooperative work. Such issues were always resolved, though, thanks to the mutual efforts and discussions of all involved.
"Even if there were differences in languages and ways of thinking, we couldn't make great products without conveying our thoughts to one another," Iwamura said, looking back at the period. "I'd always told the [Japanese] staff in the field to discuss what they wanted to do with the local people, no matter how long it might take."