I have written many times that most Chinese people are not process thinkers. By this I mean they tend not to spend time thinking of HOW to do something: what steps should we follow, what resources do we need, what results should we expect, how to optimize our approach, what issues can come up, etc.
I was discussing this recently with a friend (from mainland China) and he had an interesting perspective. There are three reasons behind this, in his mind.
1. They want to show they are smart
There are actually two elements here.
First, a smart person will find a way to reach an objective, without the need to rely on an established process. By showing this type of creativity, an individual will be recognized as particularly intelligent. This makes sense to me — it is the way many Chinese people think!
Second, not following a transparent playbook is good for masking one’s real goals. I guess most readers have already come across this quote from Sun Tzu:
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Office people and factory workers are not at war. But this old thinking is still present.
2. Details are boring
This is linked to the first reason. “If you are smart, you focus on the important stuff; you don’t waste your time on boring details.” I have no problem with that approach. But I don’t think processes are “details” in a manufacturing operation or in a R&D center.
3. Focus on the end goal, not on the process steps
They expect their superior to focus on the ‘end’ more than the ‘means’. In this context, why care about process steps?
I noticed over and over that managers only look at results. They don’t coach their staff about the best known method to reach those results. They don’t document the “currently best method we know of”.
They usually do none of the manager’s tasks I listed before:
- Standardize the work, to free up some of his employees’ time;
- Stabilize internal processes;
- Make management more visual, for better communication and coordination;
- Train the staff, coach the staff, lead by example, maintain discipline;
- Spend time where work is performed (not always in an air-conditioned office), observe processes, notice problems;
- Get to the root cause of problems, and solve them once and for all.
Before someone writes an angry comment, let me state clearly that I am aware of Chinese people AND organizations that payA LOT of attention to processes.
The Chinese military force seems to have a culture of its own, and definitely regards processes as something important. Inspectors who were in the army for many years or who come from a military family have a totally different attitude.
Some Chinese companies like Huawei — whose founder used to work in the army — have been quite successful. I have seen companies that go very, very deep into all the details of their operations, and this is also part of the Chinese culture.
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