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During slump, talk with customers, says Japanese manager

Posted: 15 May 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ee careers? Japanese ee? foreign engineers in Singapore? Hitachi?

Atsuhiko Kitamura is marketing communications manager at Hitachi Singapore's Semiconductor & IC Division
In Singapore, many managers of the electronics industry who faced difficult challenges during the still-hot global slump of last year, surprisingly did not come from technical institutions. Here, it seems, the traditional notion that only an engineer can manage another engineer is constantly put to the test.

When Atsuhiko Kitamura, Marketing Communications Manager in Hitachi Singapore's Semiconductor & IC Division, decided to take up economics in the late '80s, he never expected that he would end up in a career that goes beyond the basic rules of "supply and demand."

"I joined Hitachi in April 1992," said Kitamura, who hails from Tottori Prefecture in Japan. "It was my first job after graduation. I was assigned to work as a Product Marketing Engineer in Hitachi Japan's Technical Marketing Division under the Microcontroller Sales Promotion department," he recalled.

The 34-year-old Kitamura said he received all the necessary technical training for the job in Japan. Like everyone else, he also had his share of apprehensions when he was first fielded for the job. "I remember being tasked to do the programming for microcontrollers and other simple applications. It was an entirely new world for me," said Kitamura, laughing.

Years later, as his engineering skills increased, Kitamura said he was assigned to Singapore to work for Hitachi Asia Ltd's Product Marketing Department, Semiconductor and IC Division. "I was assigned as Technical Advisor. Later, I was promoted to Marketing Communications Manager in the same department," he added. "I have been with Hitachi for almost 10 years now."

Focusing on R&D

At a time when the industry is reeling from the economic slump, the Singaporean chip market is doing its best to fend off further damage. "Currently, global chipmakers are facing a very tough situation and the Singaporean market is rebounding from the downturn. For that reason, we are concentrating on system LSI and other products," Kitamura said, trying not to sound cryptic. "Now, it is very important to provide marketing info and support to our customers and to get feedback from them to enhance our R&D capabilities. That way, when the boom cycle arrives, we can take the upper hand once again."

According to Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), the country's economy shrank by 2 percent last year after having achieved a 10 percent growth in 2000. This confirmed reports that the sharp reversal in growth was due to the slump in external demand with merchandise exports being dragged down by the electronics market.

With the slowdown greatly affecting the Singaporean chip market, the degenerating employment rate has additionally burdened this Asian city state. By the end of last year, the unemployment rate was at 4.7 percent, the sharpest drop in employment in 15 years, according to the MTI. This rapid contraction in economic activity raised to more than 25,000 individuals the number of retrenched employees.

Keeping the lines open

Despite the effects of the economic slump, Kitamura has managed to keep production and motivation high among his technical team. "First, I have a smaller number of staff here (Singapore) as compared to Japan," he explained. "And with a smaller number of staff, managers can better focus on the project planning aspect of specific tasks. Take for example, sales promotion. During a slump, people are less likely to be interested in purchasing products, unless you can offer them something better. This is where customer feedback plays an important role. With the right project management, you can take customers' suggestions and relay it to the designers and probably, a device that features what the customers require would be ready in a few months time."

"I think the most important management skill that many technical managers out there will find useful is the ability to communicate with your customers," Kitamura said with conviction. "Communication is a very important factor in the kind of business we are in. People in the business should be able to master this, whether you possess engineering skills or not. Having good communication skills attracts customers and when you attract customers, you attract business. Keeping customer relationships going can help you know what is changing in the Asian environment as a whole."

"Second, which I think is critical during any slump, you have to motivate your staff to perform well," Kitamura said. "Promotion is the best way to give your people credit when specific project targets are achieved. This way, it is basically a two-way street. Employees perform their tasks better and you help keep the unemployment rates down."

A sixth "S"

Kitamura said he has moved forward in his company because he welcomes every challenge presented to him as an opportunity to prove his mettle in the industry. "When I first moved to Singapore with my family, I had to adjust to a new way of doing things. At the beginning, I had to learn how to speak the English language and assimilate the new culture. Back then, I had to seek temporary help from the company's Japanese office as well as get feedback from the customers here in Singapore. It was a challenging experience but I found it very rewarding in the end," he said.

Kitamura admitted that despite some modernist management views he has acquired in Singapore, he still adheres to the classic "5S" Japanese principle. "Many people in the industry, particularly in the manufacturing sector, believe in the 5S. It is an effective means of management and it stands as the basis of all known management skills. However, I would like to add a personal enhancement to the 5S principle."

When asked what that personal enhancement was, Kitamura simply said, "Stick to the directives beneficial to your department, then apply the 5S."

? Anthony Avrahm Capati

Electronic Engineering Times ? Asia

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