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Don Iwatani, CEO of PanasonicVery few television viewers sit down on their couches to begin channel surfing, only to find themselves gazing intently at the remote—appreciating its accessible design. While features such as tactile nibs strategically placed on the power, SAP and “5” buttons may go unnoticed by many, such attention to detail is appreciated by those who rely upon it. This is but one small representation of Panasonic’s commitment to addressing the needs of their customers.

Panasonic’s goal to create accessible resources for people with disabilities goes farther than simple compliance with the American’s with Disabilities Act. The company’s mission is to create products for the betterment of society—while fostering a deep respect for individuals. Company founder, Konosuke Matsushita, stated it most articulately when he outlined his management objective: “Recognizing our responsibilities as industrialists, we will devote ourselves to the progress and development of society and the well-being of people through our business activities, thereby enhancing the quality of life throughout the world.”

Now carrying the torch set ablaze by Matsushita is Panasonic’s current CEO, Don Iwatani. Chet Cooper, ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief, recently interviewed Iwatani to discuss the future of Panasonic.

 

Business is People

Although he is no longer with us in body, the spirit of Panasonic's founder Konosuke Matsushita lives on in his principles, which are widely respected within the company and around the world. Born November 27, 1894, in a small village near Osaka, Japan, Matsushita was the youngest of eight children and enjoyed a comfortable early childhood. His fortunes changed when his father lost property, and at the age of nine and he was forced to venture alone to take a job in the big city. A few years later when Matsushita was considering leaving an apprenticeship at a bicycle shop to pursue an education, his father gave him the advice that would shape the course of his future: “The skills you are learning will ensure your future. Succeed as an entrepreneur, and you can hire people who have an education.”

In the belief that electricity would become the wave of the future, Matsushita followed his instincts and applied for a job at the Osaka Electric Light Company. Remembering his father’s advice about the advantages of being an entrepreneur, he left the security of his well-paid job in 1917 to set up his own small manufacturing company. Producing an improved electrical socket he had designed and built in his spare time, he quickly earned the company a reputation for high quality at low prices.

During a visit to a popular Shinto shrine, Matsushita was struck by the complementary roles religion and business can play in life. Shortly after his return he made an announcement that was to guide the company for decades to come, “Our mission as a manufacturer is to create material abundance by providing goods as plentifully and inexpensively as tap water. This is how we can banish poverty, bring happiness to people’s lives, and make this world a better place.”

“Business is people,” was one of his favorite sayings. Matsushita’s work embodied this ideology and he quickly won the support of his employees by making it clear that he placed a high priority on their interests. During a presentation on his management philosophy at an international management conference in New York, his emphasis on management concepts, fair competition, coexistence and mutual prosperity received a warm response from everyone in attendance.
Today Panasonic still embraces the principles from Matsushita and is turning their focus toward bettering life for people with disabilities by addressing accessibility issues in many of their product lines. “One of the unique aspects of our copiers is that Panasonic was the first and remains one of the few companies to offer copiers that are accessible to wheelchair users,” notes Paul Wharton, National Marketing Manager for Panasonic Document Imaging Company.

Eugene Seagriff, Product Accessibility Manager, Panasonic Technologies, Inc. adds, “This year we have two phones featuring our new Voice Enhancer technology. The phone line only transmits frequencies from about 300 to 3000 Hz. Actual speech has a much wider frequency range. Voice Enhancer artificially recreates the full speech frequency range from the incoming signal, making the incoming caller’s speech easier to understand. Next year Voice Enhancer will be on a wide variety of Panasonic phones.”

With a multitude of resources available, Panasonic turns to outside organizations to consult on accessibility issues. “The relationships that our corporate outreach program has established with WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media at Gallaudet University have provided the added benefit of informed input on product features and direction,” comments Bill Rooney, Director, External Affairs of Panasonic Consumer Electronics.

In discussing the product of one such relationship, Debra Sachs, Director of Marketing Operations, Panasonic Digital Communications and Security Company, Wireless Communications Group, outlines the features of the Allure cell phone, “This cell phone is an excellent example of the results of our Universal Design philosophy. For example, it was the first TTY compatible cellular phone on the market. It has a variety of visual and audible ringers, Voice Activated Dialing and commands; it allows user control of backlight color and contrast, has illuminated buttons with high-contrast labels, nibs on the 5 and Send keys, a built-in speakerphone and many other features which will benefit people with a variety of abilities and in various situations.”

“Adopting a Universal Design approach fits well within our founder’s philosophy of providing service to the public and contributing to society. We don’t intend to become an assistive technology company, but we do want our mainstream products to be inherently usable by as many people as possible. Internally, we have codified a number of design elements and are incorporating them in many products. This helps us to continuously improve our accessibility—continuous improvement being another principle of our founder,” said Seagriff.

 

Interview with Panasonic's CEO Don Iwatani

Chet Cooper: How long have you been with Panasonic?

Don Iwatani: I’ve been with Panasonic nearly 35 years and in the United States for about 25 years.

CC: Where did you start in the company?

DI: I began at the corporate headquarters in Osaka, Japan, and then I was sent to the states for a unique overseas training program. I worked my way through various assignments including positions in the warehouse, accounting, credit, the order department and eventually became the executive director’s assistant. After one year of office work I was transferred to the field and worked with the field representative for the sales portion of my training. I helped to both increase the sales volume at existing accounts and establish new accounts. That program lasted two years and then I returned to Japan. I traveled between Japan and the U.S. until about 14 years ago when I was assigned to the Baltimore Sales Office. When I went to Los Angeles, I became president of West Coast operations and then transferred to New Jersey as the COO, head of the consumer group. Three years ago I became CEO and Chairman of Panasonic in the USA and South America. That’s a very brief overview of my career.

CC: Where did you attend college?

DI: I went to a private college in Tokyo, named Medde Guokin for a business degree in economics.

CC: What has been your biggest challenge as CEO?

DI: I became CEO at a challenging time. As you know, the Japanese economy had been stressed for almost five years. Then as I became CEO, the US economy had also come upon trying times. The electronics and communication industries of Japan and the US are interdependent. As a new CEO, my challenges were very broad and difficult because I was not only concerned with selling the products, but improving the organization and efficiency of all levels of jobs in every department throughout the divisions under my direction. These are my challenges.

CC: How is Panasonic approaching the concept of Universal Design?

DI: The first order of our company philosophy is to design products for comfortable, intuitive use by everybody. This means tall, short, sitting, standing, in the dark or light, for the traveling road warrior, for everyone at work or at play. We are determined to find a way to accommodate the physical challenges that humans face, such as those who use wheel chairs, have visual impairments or other disabilities. We are including consistent ease of use in our new designs as well as updating our existing product lines.

CC: Is it then Panasonic’s brand strategy to incorporate the Universal Design concept into all products being developed?

DI: Yes, it’s an integral part of our brand strategy; we are developing products for everyone. Our company philosophy comes from Konosuke Matsushita, our founder, who had the equivalent of only a third grade education. He started to work at a very young age and had many physical problems. I can say very simply his philosophy was, “Love the people.” He cared for all people, not only customers. Perhaps his poor health made him more aware of those with disabilities. He was physically very weak and his health created limitations within his own personal activities. The Panasonic tradition that he created was to always consider the ability of every person. This philosophy permeates our corporate culture like an unwritten tradition. He gave no specific verbal or written directive regarding this, but he cared for everyone. He was the example that still effects the tradition and culture of our company.

CC: Has Panasonic designed any technologies that accommodate a specific disability?

DI: There are several. One of them is a cordless telephone we call Voice in Concert Technology. It is designed to enhance audio frequencies and deliver a clearer voice transmission than a regular telephone. Every customer benefits from this enhancement, especially people who are hard of hearing. We also have a cell phone with very unique features including a range of six color display selections. This feature is for people who have difficulty seeing the black and white display. Color can be selected to identify incoming calls. For instance, you can program all your family in the bright orange. This allows a person to quickly identify if they wish to interrupt their activity to take the incoming call. We are also developing a new copier machine. Recently we introduced a very nice, office-use copier and multifunction printer. It is designed to accommodate people who are shorter and those in wheelchairs by offering both top and front command panels. Everyone appreciates features that increase usability because these kinds of enhancements also make people more productive. We intend to improve every item for universal use, which naturally includes people with disabilities.

CC: As voice technology is becoming more widely available in various products, what is the status for incorporating that technology into a copier?

DI: We are exploring that direction for the future.

CC: How many products does Panasonic manufacture?

DI: There are about 10,000 different models which include things like the variety of battery sizes from D through AAA, clocks, radios, personal care items, and computer peripherals. The actual number of products is about half of that, including products like: telephones, DVDs, televisions and a wide array of accessories.

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