Sunday, February 20, 2011

Show Your Work!

Inner-factory communication usually not that great:
press your contact to get proper updates from the production line.

In math class you were probably taught, more than once by the teacher, to “show your work.”  Just getting the correct answer was not sufficient, you had to show your path to the goal, right? 

After 9 years of living and working in China, I can say that the Chinese are not accustomed to “showing their work”.

I think this comes from their Confucian background on not being individualistic and the humility that comes from that way of thinking.  

“Why would I want to talk about me?”  The Chinese are an elusive bunch.  They don’t allow themselves to be nailed down to one opinion.  They seldom choose a side, right or wrong and stay with it.  If you ask them, “which one is right?”, they will give you the good and bad of both sides, without making a clear-cut decision.  They act as if they don’t have convictions and I think this is because they fear the repercussions that could come if the elected conviction turns out to be incorrect for whatever reason.  Normally the feared repercussion is a perceived “loss of face” up to a very real loss of time or money.  Jessica and Joel describe this here, in vivid detail.  

In this culture, it’s considered “simple” to ask questions, therefore, folks don’t know how to ask questions and on the flip side, they are not acquainted with the concept of providing information, freely and fluidly as we are from a Western mindset.  Remember, here they are group-minded, not individualistic.  The prevailing attitude is “Why would this individual need answers?  They are not anyone special.  Just wait and see what the group decides and does.”   

(Complicated I know and it’s complicated to explain.  If you can explain it better than me, please comment here or send me a link to your blog.)     

Since they don’t talk about themselves in China, they therefore don’t talk about their work.  In my line of work and yours too if you do offshore production and importing, this can be problematic.

In the Dark on Production Status:  Suppliers don’t realize an update that says “they are working on something,” is indeed an update.  If you don’t chase down your supplier, you could wait for days on communication.  Imagine, you’ve got thousands of dollars invested into an overseas project and nobody is letting you know anything.  From large updates like photo images, reports and observations, down to a brief email simply updating you on the status of your order, the Chinese don’t understand why this would be needed. 

Spend time educating your supplier: explaining what kind of detail and clarity you expect.  They should be providing you photo proof such as this
Chinese feel it is a sign of distrust if you insist on being updated on your project and they can get quite indignant about the whole matter.  And requesting photos….that’s a whole other topic. 

“How did that Happen?”  Since there is not proper communication coming down the line, once a problem does happen, it’s hard to pinpoint where things went wrong.  Was it something that happened in assembly?  Was it communication between your supplier and the print factory?  Was something wrong with the artwork?  Could this have been avoided if you knew sooner?

All these questions will linger in your mind once the supplier suddenly contacts you after days of silence and says “we have “x” problem”. 

Only, since they didn’t communicate with you throughout the whole process, once they do tell you about this problem, it is hard to trust if it is a legitimate problem, one they caused, etc…  Once they finally do communicate it not only dumps the problem into your lap, but brings up more unanswered questions.   

Achieved Goals:  On the flip side, if you have a good supplier, they are constantly doing things in your favor, but not telling you.  They are not keeping you abreast on newly discovered knowledge, techniques or problems they avoid, thus saving you money. 

So if you ever get jumpy and decide to switch suppliers over cost-savings or whatever reason, you may find you are starting out from “square #1” and the new supplier is not as skilled in manufacturing this item.  You thought the previous supplier was average, but there were task they were doing the whole time, just not “showing their work”.    

Lack of Communication on Production Side, Leads to Problems on Your Side:  Obviously when you don’t get proper updates from your factory, it can lead to a myriad of problems in your side.  Timing, quality issues, points on design that need altering, etc….  There are innumerable possibilities, that in short, will affect your pockets and your relationship with your brands/clients. 

It’s the classic scenario that has been portrayed on television sitcoms since the dawn of sitcoms….

…Imagine, the little son hides jello in his Father’s bedroom slipper.  The Father goes to put his shoe on and steps in the gooey, messy surprise.  He turns to the son….

Dad:  How did this jello get into my shoe?

Son:  I put it there.

Dad says frustrated:    Why didn’t you tell me?

Son sheepishly replies:  Well you didn’t ask…. (laughter proceeds)

The same thing happens on a daily basis in China.  Folks don’t freely offer information.  This is a problem in daily life, think how it can be when large amounts of money are on the line in manufacturing goods.  You’ve got to ask, prod, probe, ask the same question more than once, scratch and claw to get updates. 

To find out what’s really happening around you in China, you have to turn yourself into a police detective.  This is not a language thing; the same thing happens between Chinese to Chinese.  You have to ask questions over and over and the same question in different ways to get to the bottom of things. 

If you passively wait for proper updates and communication, it could result in being like that (attempted) sitcom example I gave above…only just like any bad sitcom, you won’t find it very funny. 

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  1. Great post Jacob. Interesting how the Chinese have a flexible approach to the same issue. I guess this comes from thousands of years of history and believing that in the end what one person decides doesn't make a huge change in the big scheme of things.
    Thanks for enlightening us on how different working and doing business in China can be.

    Have a great week

  2. Thanks again John for sharing here. "I'm just one person, what can I do?" is a strong attitude here. You need to strike the right chord with relying on the team versus "self" ("If it's got to be, then it's up to me!).

    Open and free-flowing communication is a novelty here. Saying, "I don't know but will check" isn't considered an update here. It's embarrassing to many folks here to say "I don't know" to a matter. But I've endeavored to train JL's team and even our factories that communication, no matter how mundane needs to flow like a river, because that's what keeps us connected and customer quality and service at the forefront of our thinking. The more important a job, the more you should communicate about the job.