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Getting to “I don’t know”

by David Dayton in 'Silk Road International'

Beyond doing things correctly (correct materials, correct standards, correct processing, correct completed product) when working with suppliers I really only have three other expectations. 1. We’re going to be very strict about QC and testing. 2. I need to have a schedule–I know things change, but I need to manage other venders and clients’ expectations and so a schedule is paramount. 3. Good or bad, I just want to know the truth. I want to know what the problem is and what can and can’t be done now (and what can or cannot be done with more time and/or money).

As we set up projects I try to be very clear with factories about these things too. I know that my staff warn new suppliers that we’ll be strict about these things too (to which the suppliers ALWAYS respond, “Don’t worry. Our clients are Japanese so our standards are already very high.”). But even with suppliers that we’ve work with before, we tend to have the same issues over and over again–little or no transparency, missed dates (usually its us telling them they are going to miss their dates and then them coming back later and confirming what we already figured out), and complaints about us being “too strict.”


Story #1. Printing.

I’ve spent the last three days printing with a factory that has worked with us for years now. They know how we work. They know that we’ll come out at any time to fix things. They know we won’t take bad product. They know we pay our bills (that’s why they’ve worked with us for so long). We even have the magical pixi-dust (guanxi) with these guys. But today, when we get to a print that is very obviously different than all the other 12 SKU’s we’ve printed in the last 36 hours the manager’s response to the question “Why?” is a slap in the face. “Well it must have sat too long—this sample is bad. You can’ use it for a print standard.” I’m not sure what to say to him. I start with asking him about all the 15 other samples that we’ve used for the last 3 days. And then I move to the print proofs from the supplier themselves that match the sample; Not good either, eh? How did we get all the production of the other SKU’s to match and have the same colors?

His answer is obviously complete BS—he doesn’t know what the problem really is. But why do that to me now? What could be possibly be gained by lying about the real problem (or the fact that you don’t know what the real problem is)? He knows I’m not going to accept it. Is he just looking to make conversation? Am I not supposed to answer (call him on the BS)? Is this some Chinese secrete code that I’ve not figured out yet (possible)? Of course I point out how none of those things are the problem. And so he says, “This one is RGB and the other’s are not.” OK, now that may be true. Let’s check. Last order, same file–no problems. A call upstairs to the computer/film lab confirms that nope, its not RGB. I don’t say anything, but everyone on the floor knows the manager just got busted.

So I try it again, this time I ask the engineer instead of the manager. “Why?” His answer is: “The pixels are not the same. It must be that you changed your file.” Again, how can we be using the EXACT same files as last time—and all the colors for all previous 11 SKU’s still match perfectly except for this one? Of course, it can’t be the fault of the supplier–they didn’t change anything, they maybe don’t have the skills to repeat what was done before (it is a new engineer). Not only did we not change the file ourselves (we won’t change clients’ artwork) we don’t have anyone in our office that knows how!

I don’t accept it and they take off the screens, wash the machine and start over on the next one. They’re pissed that they are “wasting time” because it was “close enough for the Japanese.” By the way, who the hell are these amazing Japanese with incredibly high standards and yet horrible QC? And what about my time they’re wasting right now!?

But who really cares about details or right or wrong, when you have a schedule to keep to? They want to finish this ASAP.

The desire/push to get finished quickly is certainly understandable. They’ve already had 2 film issues in the 15 previous print runs that we’ve done this week and they don’t want another one on the second to last run. While we’ll quickly switch screens and do the last remaining run, this mistake will most likely mean they’ll have to stop the machine and wait for the problem to be resolved (can’t switch out inks for other client projects without losing even more time switching back again). They really just want me to approve it and move on. They want to get this project off the machine as quickly as possible so that they can make money on other clients’ work without having to fix anything or do this again.

But just because it’s understandable doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I don’t accept sub-par production just to move things along. If I did, I’d be no different than the hundreds of other project managers/trading companies trying to make money off of the uncertainty and unprofessionalism of China. The difference is, I’d have to pay my client back for rejected product while no factory west of Taiwan would ever even consider doing that.

Turns out that the lady upstairs that was making the files for the print screens also “adjusted” the files (which she wasn’t supposed to do). She changed one of the blue colors to make it match the other items that she was putting on the same screen. Didn’t tell anyone. Didn’t check with the order to see which pieces were supposed to match. She was just trying to get everything “close enough” so that it would be faster. No one else has a clue about this—she just changed one shade of blue on this one file—she told us as much as we worked back up the line to get this problem resolved.


Story #2. Samples.

We’ve been making iPhone cases for a number of clients for a few years now. We’re sampling a few new ones right now for a new client—the samples are not coming out well. We go to see them before they are sent and every time we’re rejecting them—6 rounds of rejects. For the first few, every time one problem was fixed there was another new problem. Then the old previously fixed problems start coming back on new samples.

After two rounds of bad samples I was on the phone with the manager asking, “Why are we’re having problems with samples?” His response is: “We’re really busy right now. And your order isn’t our biggest one.” Not sure what that means… you’ll take my money but you don’t want my business? It’s not like I twisted his arm to do this. OK, I tell give me my money back and I’ll take my business elsewhere. Of course, that option is quickly refused and he tells me that they are busy but they’ll get it right for me this time.

After the 4th sample I call again—“What’s going on?” He says, “We’re just too busy but we’ll get it right this time, I promise.”

A month later and finally sample #7 is correct. Apparently the factory was “so busy” that doing it half-assed 6 times and once correctly saved them more time than doing it right once. Wow, that’s really busy. Of course we already took the project to someone else, after sample 4. (Yes, the last three samples were us trying to get what we’d been promised (6 times) and what we’d already paid for. But it wasn’t just done completely for spite, we now have a confirmed backup.)

Turns out, the person that manages their sample department for them was on maternity leave. Manager didn’t know what we wanted and was basically stalling for time until she came back. Congratulations! She’s back. Too bad we’re paying someone else.


Why is “I don’t know” so damn near impossible for Chinese people to say? It certainly has to be easier than making up a lie and then trying to remember it for the next time you meet, right? Or maybe lying is easier precisely because you don’t have to remember it for next time because no other Chinese person will call you on it in public.

He’s my belief window about working in China: You will not lose face if you tell me you don’t know. In fact, if you tell me you don’t know but that you’ll find out for me I’ll probably be more impressed with you (not less). You will not lose my business if you tell me you don’t know. In fact, if I know that I can trust you to actively solve problems I’ll give you more business, not less.

Saying I don’t know doesn’t make you look less professional or stupid or unprepared or anything negative whatsoever. Everyone is hit by surprises sometimes and everyone has things they are not sure about. I know that in China there is lots of dishonesty–meaning there are tons of situations that you could never know about before hand (like the changes the film lady made to the blue color or the order details that the lady on maternity leave usually deals with). Not knowing about these things is completely understandable. Lying to me about what you don’t know is not.

What makes you look stupid and foolish is lying about little things. What makes me want to take my business elsewhere is you trying to pass off less-than-I-paid-for quality just so that you can hurry up and do something else.

If I know that there will be delays I can manage expectations. If I know what’s really wrong I can help with solutions. If I’m told the truth, chances are I’ll be much more forgiving and understanding. But flimsy stories that I can see through immediately make me ask more questions. Delays and cover-ups immediately make me look for other options. Lies (from “friends“) are insulting and just piss me off.

Guanxi too often seams to mean that Chinese suppliers think they can can lie to me and I won’t call them out in public. Guanxi too often seams to mean that a supplier can screw up and they still think that I’ll share the costs of their mistakes AND I’ll pay for the late delivery penalties on my own. Guanxi too often seams to mean that suppliers think I will share in their quality/product lies to the end client (as if there is some value in that for me too). To this date, I’ve yet to see guanxi used to fix problems and have someone other than me pay for the expenses of it. I’m sure that guanxi has been used to “save my face” on multiple occasions. But I’d much rather be rich and embarrassed than paying for someone else’s mistakes while everyone stands around and smiles at each other.

My advice? ”Never lie to Foreigners. It’s just not worth it.

David Dayton is the owner of Silk Road International and currently lives full-time in Shenzhen, China. He speaks English, Thai and Mandarin and has worked in Asia for more than 15 years. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at

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