People often ask me to tell some “juicy stories” about inspections in Chinese factories. The ones who are familiar with QC expect me to say a lot of things about corruption, but I don’t have any story on this subject. I am a foreigner and it means I don’t have to be “polite”. I never accept to waste even 1 minute having tea with the boss—I’d rather spend that time relaxing in the hotel after the day is over. Discussions are always kept about the business at hand. As a consequence, I have seen very few outright cases of bribery. All I saw were the offers to “have a good time together” or to take that “red pocket” after the New Year. Yes it’s unacceptable behaviour, but it doesn’t make for good stories.
The most interesting inspections, in hindsight, as those where everything went wrong. I had my share of bad experiences, especially when I started doing QC. That’s when I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do.
A good example sticks in my memory. It took place in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province, between Ningbo and Fuzhou. This city is often described as “very entrepreneurial”. More about that later in this post.
I flew there with a colleague, we slept in a hotel close to the factory, and by 9am we had walked our way there. The director, a short and very talkative guy from Jiangxi province, tried to waste our time (sorry, he tried to be polite), but I reminded him we had a lot of work that day. he was really trying to be nice, and we starting thinking there was a rat somewhere. That’s when he told us “we’ll drive you to another factory, where the goods are”. Oh, really? Didn’t he tell us to come to this factory? It was too late to waste time arguing about this, so we agreed to go there with his driver.
What really happened is this: the importer placed orders to a “main factory” that he probably visited and approved. This factory buys the materials and gives the sewing job to smaller workshops, to lower its costs and increase its capacity. There were two different workshops for this order, fortunately in the same city. Since then, I noticed this type of arrangement is very common in China—not only in the garment industry. Uncontrolled subcontracint is probably what people call “entrepreneurial” behavior: doing whatever is necessary to make a quick buck.
Of course, the workshops were late (most of the goods were still in the last operation before packing), and there were many quality problems. I saw the workers pile the garments on the floor, and I wondered how we didn’t find more stains. This is typical of subcontracted work. The small workshop makes a very small margin and tries to go as fast as possible. They don’t even know if they will get the repeat orders, since the “main factory” might give it to another, cheaper workshop next time. And of course, there is no QC supervision—from anybody except my client, but at this point production was finished and it was too late. I already touched on this issue in Why can quality be so bad in China?
After the first inspection was done, we had to go to the second workshop—we wasted more than 3 hours in transportation that day, and we finished (in the factory) after 11pm. I couldn’t decently abort the job, since my client was pushing the factory really hard to ship the goods out as fast as possible. They were already 2 weeks late.
I had a good time when the agent from Hong Kong called me and asked for a report—it was 10pm, China time, and the client was asking for inspection results. When I was talking to the agent, I noticed she didn’t know anything about the situation. That’s how things often work here: people are all too eager to “just sub it out” to suppliers they know, without any follow-up job.
Not only were the 2 workshops doing a poor job, but the other sub-suppliers could also be criticized. The sandblasting on the fabric was too strong and very inconsistent from one sample to the other. This is the kind of details that can decrease the “salability” of the products in the stores, or even cause a refusal from my client’s customer (the retailer). When I pointed it to the attention of the factory manager, he didn’t have anything to say. I expected a “cha bu duo” (it’s nearly OK), but this time there was no argument. Responsibility was totally diluted. Nobody really cared… “It’s not me, it’s the supplier.”