by Etienne Charlier
Any person experienced with China sourcing knows perfectly well that strict quality control is one of the keys to reliable delivery of products.
Most people buying from Chinese suppliers will know how important it is to inspect the goods before they leave China or upon arrival at destination.
We always strongly recommend pre-shipment inspections because it allows for faster and easier resolution of any identified problem. In addition, pre-shipment inspections make the end-to-end process faster as possible failures are identified and resolved before the 30 to 40-day sea transportation.
But is this still required when you buy from a Chinese supplier that recruited Westerners to manage operations?
An increasing number of Chinese factory owners with significant export business are recruiting foreigners to manage some key elements of their business: marketing, business development, R&D or operations. These foreigners may be Japanese or Westerners.
While evaluating these companies, you will witness many of those good practices you like to see: documentation management, WIP tracking, standing operating procedures . . . Often, the foreigner will actually accompany the evaluation team or the auditor.
At the end of the evaluation visit, generally you will have a good feeling. And this is legitimate as these factories are often better managed than you average Chinese supplier.
… that is the question:
This is very tempting. Still, I strongly recommend that you continue to perform pre-shipment inspections.
The control may be lighter than what would be done for other factories. For instance, if using MIL 105-E, the inspector could adopt a “reduced sampling approach” at the outset to make the inspection faster. Or the inspection could be done only every few deliveries. But it is important to keep a certain level of control.
To illustrate why, let me introduce a real case we went through. Names and some details are changed to protect confidentiality of both the client and the supplier, but the essence of the case is unaltered.
A client of ours is purchasing high end professional speakers from several factories in China. The companies were evaluated and found rather good. We also know that they use several people from outside China to reinforce their practices. In particular, one of the factories has recruited a Westerner with responsibilities in engineering and quality. Quality assurance and quality control policies were discussed with him and all seemed to be well under control and properly documented.
Still, sticking to our policy of not relaxing our own quality control too easily, we recommended to our client to require inspection for each delivery. When the goods were ready for the first purchase order, we asked good quality inspector’s professionals to perform the pre-inspections at the factory. And the results were surprising: too many small problems for a professional product and the delivery was rejected. Supplier was asked to rework the goods and solve the defects.
We were all glad that we did not relax too quickly, in spite of the seemingly good management of the supplier. It takes more than a few good managers to ensure quality consistency. It requires that all the staff adopt a special focus on quality.
In this case, it seems that some imported parts were delayed and the production had to take place very rapidly to keep the committed schedule. Were the well documented processes by-passed knowingly? Or were workers under too much pressure and they skipped some steps? Or are the workers in the factory not experienced enough to perform the QC deeply enough and due to short leadtime, the experienced managers did not have time to review all this?
We will never know, but the key is that the goods ready for shipment were not up to standard. The supplier recognized this. In their words:
“The inspector did a good job and found some important things which should never be sent to the customer, it is embarrassing for us. All of these have been properly re-worked, and the shipment is now low risk of any problems from our end customer. And of course we will stand behind our products.”
Being a good supplier, they swiftly performed the required rework. And we have all reasons to believe that they performed a proper root cause analysis and implemented appropriate corrective actions.
But imagine what would have happened if you had gotten the goods in inventory. Or worse even, if the goods had been drop shipped to the end user.
In China, it is always better to keep a hands-on approach on quality control.