Most Chinese manufacturers are not aware of the quality requirements of foreign consumers. I think anybody who has spent some time here in factories to fix production issues has come to this conclusion.
Chinese production people and “cha bu duo”
If the top manager of the factory does not relentlessly emphasize the importance of quality (and only a few do), the supervisors have other priorities: minimizing waste, producing as fast as possible, and not shipping (too) late.
That’s when quality professionals have to fight hard to make sure the standard is respected. The sentence that comes back again and again is “cha bu duo”: it’s not good, but we’re nearly there. The fact that it is indeed “cha” (not good) does not seem to be a problem in itself.
One has to understand a little about the people who work on the factory floor. Importers are often in contact with English-speaking staff in their twenties. But young graduates who speak English NEVER work in production, so they are certainly not the people to look at. There are two sorts of employees who work on the factory floor:
- The management (“supervisors”, “team leaders”, “technicians”…). They are mostly in their thirties or their fourties, and they generally work long hours in their workshop… They have no clear idea of what happens outside their narrow world.
- The operators. They are not paid much. Many of them come from poor provinces, and they send money back to their parents regularly. They usually don’t have high ambitions for themselves. They work in a very strict environment, and they often don’t care about the outcome of their work. If stopping the chain because of quality issues might cause trouble for them, they’d better say nothing.
Factory owners themselves often don’t understand the importance of respecting their customer’s desires into the details, as stressed in an interesting article published today (In China, quality control is still a work in progress):
A factory boss who for decades was used to making do with what was available may genuinely not understand a foreign customer’s frustration with last-minute changes to fragrances added to a shampoo, or substitution of colours on a mobile phone. Nor are manufacturers concerned with making everything perfect when many Chinese consumers, demanding low prices and also accustomed to years of imperfect products, are willing to accept minor flaws.
Should buyers accept quality that is “not good but nearly there”?
The best analogy I can find is from my student time in France. If class was scheduled to start at 8:30am, most students were arriving in the room and taking their seats around 8:35am. This was driving some professors nuts. Some of them were trying to reason the students, but there was always an excuse (“the bus was late”, “I’m only 5min late”…).
The only solution was to lock the door at 8:30am. Only a senior finance professor dared to do it. There were some protests, but over time it was effective.
If I draw any conclusion from that, it is that the standard has to be enforced without any “exceptional” tolerance. Chinese manufacturers are not stupid and they know where their interest is. If they are really off only by “a little”, and it costs them dearly (repairs, re-inspection fees, penalties…), they will make sure it is really good in the future.
The trick is to communicate what is expected clearly, with samples and specifications. And to check carefully whether these expectations are all respected!