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Challenges in managing quality inspectors in China

by Renaud Anjoran

I stopped counting how many people complained about their company’s inspectors. It seems at least half the companies that employ their own inspectors in China are unhappy about the behavior and/or their working methods of some of their QC staff.

How is this possible?

The challenges

There are two reasons why managing quality inspectors is hard:

  • They often do their work “in the field” and alone. It is hard to keep an eye on what they are doing. Worse, the experienced ones, who often have many bad habits, are seen as examples to follow by the newbies.
  • The type of people who go into an inspector role tend to like repetitiveness. They like the safety of knowing exactly what to do, and doing it over and over without the stress of the “what should I do now” type of question. They don’t like change. Imposing them to change their approach is very hard.

And there are additional difficulties in China:

  • Suppliers sometimes try to bribe inspectors (this is present in many developing countries) and often try to pressure them.
  • Chinese employees are good at “gaming the system”, therefore auditing them is often insufficient to uncover wrong behaviors.

However, if we dig a little deeper, in the long run what really prevents inspectors from doing a good job is something else.

What is the biggest source of unreliability?

I believe the biggest source of unreliability is the fact that inspectors think they can follow their intuition. For example, they will improvise every time when it comes to checking a product’s appearance (“I can just have a quick look and find the problems, no need to go down the checkpoints one by one”) or performing time-consuming tests (“I feel I can trust this factory to do the hi-pot test by themselves and to tell me the result, and I don’t need to supervise them closely”).

Unfortunately, their intuition is NOT reliable.

As Daniel Kahneman explains, professionals should only trust their intuition when they learned a skill under two conditions:

  • The environment is stable over time
  • They get regular feedback from the environment

For example, anaesthetists get immediate feedback when they make a mistake, so they learn their skills rapidly. But radiologists seldom get feedback on the validity on their diagnostics, and psychiatrists seldom see the long-term effects of their treatments, so they don’t master their professional skills as well.

Is the inspectors’ environment stable over time? Yes. Do they get frequent and clear feedback? Absolutely not. From time to time (hopefully in rare cases), they get a complaint about quality issues on a shipment they checked. But I would bet that many quality issues are not found and/or do not come back all the way down to the inspector. This type of feedback is totally insufficient.

So, is it impossible to prevent QC inspectors and auditors to take shortcuts? Of course not.

How to manage QC inspectors

First, you need to design a procedure to follow. If you think “we hire experienced inspectors so they know how to do their job”, you are doing this wrong. You are in effect giving total freedom to your staff, without any guidelines to follow. If you see them take a serious shortcut — for example picking samples all from the first carton they see, for convenience — you can’t tell them they are doing a bad job.

Second, give them training in the procedure to follow. I don’t mean classroom training, though — this is ineffective in China, where people think they “know” something as soon as they are given a piece of information and before they have the occasion to apply it. I mean follow them in the field, coach them, and give them immediate feedback.

Third, try to give them working documents that support the procedure to follow. Ideally they would fill out a form that follows the steps, one by one. We are testing a mobile application that does just this, and it works great.

Fourth, organize regular coaching sessions (see point 2 above) to reinforce the message and notice who doesn’t follow the procedure. Inspectors are naturally more cautious when someone shadows them, but a good observer will notice some cues. You will have a good idea of who is playing a part during coaching sessions.

Does this mean you should hire more junior inspectors, train them the right way, and coach them regularly? That’s often what has to be done, but it is not a must. Each situation is unique.

What do you think?

Renaud Anjoran has been managing his quality assurance agency (Sofeast Ltd) since 2006. In addition, a passion for improving the way people work has pushed him to launch a consultancy to improve factories and a web application to manage the purchasing process. He writes advice for importers on

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