Gung Ho

Study Guide 6: Changing Your Business Culture

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This Guide explores cultural differences in management style as exemplified in Gung Ho, a 1986 film starting Michael Keaton and George Wendt.

Guide opening:

In an increasingly global economy Japanese cars are manufactured in America, American cars in Japan, and parts for both in each. Regardless of the relations existing between any two nations at any one time, the success of international partnerships may depend on a mutual understanding and respect for diversity of history, culture, language and business practices. In Gung Ho, a Japanese automaker moves into an abandoned factory in a down-on-its-heels Midwestern town. Both the automaker and the town’s newly re-employed autoworkers have an interest in making the plant work, but they are at odds in terms of principles, methods and leadership styles. Misunderstandings threaten the realization of a project both partners desperately need.

“Gung ho” is a Chinese term that literally means “working together.” The term was the slogan of Lt. Colonel Evans F. Carlson’s Marine Raiders during World War II and its meaning was expanded to mean, enthusiastic, cooperative and enterprising, often in an unrestrained, naïve way. You can see the slogan’s original application exemplified in the old Randolph Scott movie about Carlson’s troops; but for business lessons in a modern setting, the 1986 Michael Keaton vehicle about Japanese automakers trying to manage an American work force is hard to beat. The movie deals with the struggle of the Japanese managers and American autoworkers to “work together.” It also brings to the screen one of its most unrestrained, enthusiastic and naïve business leaders as the brash Keaton takes on the role of Hunt Stephenson, would-be savior of a dying town.

Excerpt from the plot summary:

At the management school, a young Japanese bows before a supervisor, pleading. “Thank you very much for everything,” he says loudly and through tears. “I have learned a lot. I was a bad executive. I’ll be a good one. I have three children and wife to support. Please let me pass.”

The supervisor tells the distraught man that he is not yet ready, that he must stay two more weeks. The man, crushed by this verdict, steps aside and the next candidate steps forward. He, too, is in tears. Spittle clings to both sides of his mouth as he screams for forgiveness and reinstatement. Hunt walks by in the hallway, then enters the room to ask for directions, interrupting the screaming. He explains, in English, that he’s looking for the offices of Assan Motors. The grim instructor tells him angrily that he’s in the wrong place. Hunt turns to the screaming young executive and tells him he likes his ribbons. The distraught man looks at him and yells out that they are ribbons of shame. Hunt wipes some spittle away from the man’s mouth, then heads down the street a block to the place he was supposed to be – the corporate headquarters of Assan.

Toting a portable slide projector and screen, Hunt enters the company’s boardroom, where a solemn group of Japanese managers greets him with stony silence. Hunt is brash, cocky and clueless when it comes to protocol. He is someone who has always been able to charm himself into and out of any situation. He attempts to introduce himself in broken Japanese. The men look at him as if they have failed to understand a word. Hunt is flailing. He switches to English and tries to break the ice: “I’m crazy for your country, I love it…you know my dad was over here with the Army in 194-Hey, did you decorate this place yourself? It’s very oriental …Hey, do you guys speak English?” The board chairman announces that they all speak English. Hunt walks to the foot of the table and starts his show. It’s about Hadleyville. He shows slides of the factory and explains that it’s been in Hadleyville for 35 years, but has been closed for nine months after having been retooled three years before. It’s in great shape, he says. Hoping for a laugh, he then shows a slide of an incredibly good-looking woman wearing cutoffs and la ow-cut blouse. His effort at humor isn’t working. He decides to start over. He kills the slides and brings up the lights, then explains, matter-of-factly, what’s happened to his town. Two years ago an undergarment factory shut its doors, leaving the auto factory as the only employer. It employed everyone, directly or indirectly. Everyone worked hard, Hunt says, but the factory closed. “If you come over and run that factory, the people will work harder for you,” he says. “I’m willing to do anything to get that town back on its feet. I love that town.”

Summary of the commentary:

The commentary’s primary focus is on the principles of modern Japanese management, citing examples of their application at real companies, both American and Japanese. It compares and contrasts these principles to traditional American manufacturing practices. The commentary also analyses the leadership styles of Hunt Stephenson, his Japanese counterpart, Kazihiro and Mr. Saito, the CEO of Assan Motors. A third focus of the commentary deals with the necessary balance between work and family life and the important relationship such balance can have on corporate productivity.

The commentary is supplemented by Breakout Boxes dealing with these topics:

  • Seven Basic Concepts of Japanese Management Theory: A Glossary of Terms
  • Kazihiro on the American Worker
  • Etiquette: The Dos an Don’ts of Doing Business in Japan
  • Working Hard: A Comparison of Average Work Weeks Around the World

THE GUIDE also includes an essay that looks at business as depicted in the movies. For an introductory section on how to use the Management Goes to the Movies™ program, click through to Using The MGTTM Training Program.

This guide will soon be available for purchase as an instant download for $5.95.