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Even if it's not your fault...

By David Dayton in "Silk Road International"

On of the things that I've learned, the hard way, about doing business in China is that as a (foreign) buyer when there are problems, even if they're not my fault, I'm going to be asked to pay for them. Image

For me, this is the single most exasperating thing about working in China (and Vietnam and Thailand and Taiwan and India too). Bad quality we can monitor and keep to a minimum. Ditto late deliveries. Changes in the prices and terms after we sign contracts really sucks, but the changes usually are not killing deals. But mistakes, even (or especially?) factory-acknowledged errors that cost time and money (and my face) are the thing that always makes me mad.

"Nothing can be done perfectly" I'm always told (after we've approved the sample, paid the deposit and committed to the client). What does that even mean?! OK, so about 99% perfect? No? 96%? Who, if it's not me (the guy holding the bag), gets to choose what is and is not perfect? Which part of "yes, we can do that" does not cover the current imperfection?

Now, I'm not unreasonable, I understand that mistakes happen. Anyone that reads this blog knows about my (poor) typing skills, everyone has something they don't do well. That's just part of life. Typo's are my fault and I'll refund your subscription if they are too much for you to deal with. I want that same offer from my factories. Or at least an offer to pay for the fixes!

Only once or twice has that ever happened though. So, more often than not, we have to find ways to solve the problems or go crazy being angry all the time.

Usually when we find problems, we're also told something like, "It's just really hard to do what you want" or "We've never done this before" or "What you're asking for is impossible." I've found that one of the best ways to resolve production issues is to ask these questions back to whomever is telling you no: "Is it impossible or just difficult?" And: "Is it impossible or have you just never done it before?" Impossible means you need to find a new factory. "Difficult or "never before" simply means we need to try something new. Most production issues are NOT impossible to resolve. But because China is so task specific (a product of both hierarchy and a focus on labor) people are usually tied to very a very limited number of repetitive duties. They are paid to NOT make any changes or deviate from SOP so they do not solve problems.

For example, this week we had a hat manufacture that had (handmade) perfect samples but was now having issues getting some layering correct in mass production. They even went so far as to tell my QC that what we were asking for was "impossible."

I went to the factory, they were politely embarrassed but agreed to build a hat with me. We walked through every one of the production steps with one of the hats, from cutting materials to final ironing and packaging.

Now I'm not a seamstress (seamster?) so I had lots of stupid questions about why they were doing it the way they were. They had answers for most of the questions and a couple times they were honest and just said "that's just how we've always done it." After we produced the same (wrong) result together ("See? This is just what we can do!") I asked them to switch up a couple of the steps in the process and see what would happen. They wouldn't do it. I finally told them I'd pay for whatever happens, the wasted sample, the material, extra bills. Just switch up the steps, please. They did, amidst a bunch of grumblings and comments like, "It just isn't done this way" and "I don't think that our machines will be able to do this" and "You're not a professional" and "We've been making hats for 15 years and never done this before."

What do you know? It worked! They were as surprised as I was and we solved the problem at no extra cost to me (which was the whole point). This wasn't me solving the problem as much as it was just being in the factory and taking responsibility for trying out potential solutions, one of which happened to work out.

I was talking with my friend, and 25-year China vet, Bernie, about why this lack of "just try it" attitude exists. He mentioned that it may have something to do with that fact that there is no one who is responsible for the mistakes it may cause or the fact that it's really no one's specific responsibility to try new things either. So no one does. It also opens the door to future "adjustments" and "changes" and gives the client the expectation that they are welcome to come in and change process and try other things out in the future.

I agree and would add that there is no incentive to try new things as that means new processes and potentially new and currently unknown problems and/or costs. And if you get paid by the piece, why would you do anything but the same thing as fast as you possible can over and over, even if it's wrong (as long as your step in the process is done correctly)?! In fact, if you're paid by the piece and you know something is wrong, it's better for you to not say anything and then have twice as much work (income opportunity) to do later.

Side Note: Did you ever see those management clips where the guy in the US factory pushes "the button" and stops the whole line? The boss comes down, they talk about the solution that this line worker thought up and all of a sudden the planets line up, world peace happens spontaneously and everyone is happy. You know the one I'm talking about, right? Well the Chinese have never see it. In China the guy would be fired, the loses from a delay in the line would be taken out of his salary¨Chis family would probably be billed too, he'd be locked out of his dorm so they could sell his stuff, and if he had the guts to tell a manager that they were doing it wrong (or there was a better way) he'd be laughed at, cursed at. If foreigners were there at the time, they would be apologized to profusely and promises would be made that something like that would never happen again.

For whatever reason, it takes pressure from someone with influence (paying client), a manager (responsible party), a technician (the person running the machine) and then an agreement that the change can be repeated (without extra costs or time or money) in the production process to make even a simple change and have it last.

I'm serious about getting all these people involved. If you don't have a technician, you're not getting the full machine capabilities¡ªthis person is really important and they don't usually have any financial stake in the production process; they're getting paid no matter what. They will say things that the salesman or the manager won't and they know production details that that admin folks do not. Pay attention to these people, buy line workers or QC or engineers drinks gets and you'll get access to privileged info and you'll have a "friend" on the inside for future problems.

And no matter how many friends you have on the line, you'll never be able to do anything without having a manager sign off on the process. What I see more often than not is that this admin guy may also have to be at least the co-author of the solution too. Not always a bad thing since he's then invested in making it work too.

Knowing the process isn't as important as knowing the final result/testing standards/quality spec's and being here to make sure that you get what you want. I can't know everything about every product that we manufacture. There are just too many variations. And I can't do anything without a ton of other people signing off on the processes, prices, standards, timelines and contracts. So, as in all business, I trust a limited number of people in each part of the production process. Each has specific value added that I can't do without.

First, I trust the factory that they know what they are doing¡ªeven if I don't agree with the way they are doing it. Hopefully I've done enough homework that this trust isn't misplaced. But I'm also not arrogant enough that I don't back up my own decision; we always have a second factory (or even third) that can do what we want if Option A fails. This also means that I've verified a supplier's previous products, clients and as much history as I can find; so it's not a blind trust.

Let's be very clear about the trust here. I trust factories to know how to make product and buy supplies. I do not trust them to value my business interests over their own. So I also trust in very very detailed bi-lingual contracts and instructions and lots of on-site QC.

Further, I've learned that while there are specific steps and standards that can be translated from the West to China, there are many things that are done completely differently here but still achieve the same end result¡ªwhich, again, is the goal. Don't confuse the importance of the process with the importance of ending up in the right place. I know, sometimes you can't skip steps. Some times process IS the end result. But many times, what we think is absolutely necessary isn't even an option in China.

Second, my staff, an honest QC, a detail orient project manager and an aggressing negotiator are as good as gold in China. If you have people that you can trust to look out for you first, you can get just about whatever you want in China (or anywhere). It is worth just about any amount of money to have quality, committed staff.

Third, my clients, they are often banking their lives (second mortgages, loans, etc) on their products and they have a HUGE store of information/knowledge about what is and isn't acceptable and usually a list of things that have already failed. They almost always know more than I do about their own product/industry than I do and they want to share and be involved. People already in the industry are a gold mine of information, especially if they have a vested interest in your success.

Chinese factories have issues with letting others in or letting people know that there is a problem. For some reason there is a deeply ingrained fear of mistakes being made public. I've said over that if you want to solve the problems (or even know about them) you have to be here and you have to ask the right questions. If you're not here to ask, you won't even know there is a problem until crappy (already paid for) product shows up in your warehouse. But even if you are here, you've got to get to the root of the problem before you can solve 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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