I always like seeing an importer being very “hands on” when it comes to helping a Chinese manufacturer develop a custom-made product. These are our best clients, and the relationship with the supplier tend to be balanced and constructive.
However, the risk is to “baby sit” the manufacturer, who gets used to receiving help and advice and ends up declining all responsibility (“Hey, we followed your advice all along”).
That why I strongly advise to distinguish two separate stages.
1. Pre production: lots of help and advice
I believe these tasks are part of the customer’s job:
- Setting up clear specifications (yes, a perfect sample is not enough)
- Ensuring factory engineers and managers understand these specifications
- Setting up QC jigs, propose mistake-proofing devices… to reduce the risk of quality issues
Why can’t the supplier be expected to do this?
Because very few Chinese companies know how to do this well. And those who know how to do this seldom accept small orders (small is relative, but here I mean below 40,000 USD).
The risk is that the manufacturer feels the customer has taken over the production lines and decides to “just go with the flow”. That’s a problem because, as a customer, you want their management oversight on the lines making your products. And you want them to feel pressure and a sense of responsibility.
2. Production: a focus on business transactions
Once development is over and the customer approves the launch of production, the attitude should shift to “you agreed to a quality standard and to a shipment date, so penalties will apply if you don’t respect them”.
At this time, the customer is responsible for monitoring production status and quality. It is good if the supplier remains cooperative and shares the challenges they meet. But the process is different.
If problems are found, I’d advise to follow this sequence:
- Supplier proposes countermeasure(s)
- Customer accepts or rejects them
- Supplier put them in practice
- Customer monitors their effectiveness
How to make this shift in approach easy to grasp?
At this point, many readers are probably thinking “but this will come as a shock to the factory”. That’s right.
To make this shift less violent, divide the roles in your company.
You should have “good cops” (the engineers who help in pre-production).
And then, the “bad cop” (typically a buyer, a manager, or the owner). The bad cop only talks the language of business and sends sharp emails. He always brings out the adults in his/her counterparts and tolerates no convenient excuses. He catches the ball when quality issues or delays are noticed.
Working with a third-party agency also helps establish the different roles. In some cases we are the “bad cops” as we monitor production quality. In other cases we are the “good cops” as we provide process improvement and other engineering services. So that’s a good alternative.
What do you think? Do you also try to avoid “baby-sitting” a factory?