Jan 6 2020
Swiss Made is a 2013 book by James Breiding and Gerhard Schwarz about the successes of Swiss companies. It came to my attention for a paragraph that celebrates the contributions of my mentor Kei Abe as a consultant to Synthes and its charismatic CEO Hansjörg Wyss. As I was with Kei Abe on several occasions at Synthes and witnessed his interactions with Wyss and with engineers, I can attest that the following quote from the book is true:
“Hansjörg Wyss consolidated and expanded the Swiss orthopedic industry, becoming in the process one of Switzerland’s most successful and wealthy entrepreneurs. Wyss’s career is a tale of conquering the US market and then managing to consolidate the Swiss orthopedic industry, gobbling up one competitor after another — while effectively remaining the controlling shareholder. […] In 2011, Wyss sold Synthes to Johnson & Johnson for $21.3B.
The unsung Japanese genius
[…]The unsung hero of the company was Kei Abe, […] who managed to come up with novel designs for three decades. According to Wyss, Abe helped Synthes by ‘constantly forcing change in manufacturing, bringing new ideas and concepts for machines, thus enabling us to be at the forefront of new technology and having the best margins in the device industry.’
Of the overall strategy, Wyss remarks that ‘competitors thought we were crazy, but this is what kept the company one step ahead and gave us 10% higher margins'”
The book’s authors are journalists and had embellished the story with untrue statements that I edited out. No, Kei Abe was not a professor and never claimed to have “established the Kanban system” at Toyota. He was an aeronautics engineer from Tokyo University who went to work as a motorcycle designer for Honda, later joined the JMA and started his own consulting group, Management & Technology Japan in 1984, where I joined him in 1987.
On my last visit to Synthes, in Switzerland and without Kei, I remember pointing to a machine in a cell and telling my host “This looks like Kei’s handy work.” He confirmed that it had indeed been based on his input.