cutting corners

The propensity for some Chinese employees to cut corners can lead to serious quality problems; Image created by Elena Chen

By Ward Chartier

After working in high-tech factories in China for seven years, I’ve come to appreciate the many differences working there compared to previous assignments in southeast Asia and Europe.  On the positive side, there is a strong work ethic among Chinese employees.  Daily attendance is often 99% or greater.  It is usually possible to schedule overtime on short notice, while being mindful of the legal limits on overtime hours.  It is almost always possible to ask employees to perform work not within their job descriptions, even in unionized environments.  The deep cultural respect for education and educators encourages employees to desire training, to arrive at training sessions on time, every day, and to remain attentive.

One of the most pervasive problems for operations managers in China is assuring consistent quality of outgoing product and delivered services.  Operations managers and others have often reported about the need for constant vigilance at a fairly extreme level of detail in order to feel comfortable delivering products and services to customers.  When companies with reasonably good corrective action activities investigate to identify root causes, one of the intermediate causes they often encounter is employees cutting corners, unaccountably not following the procedures for which they have been trained.  Due to employees not completing essential steps in the process, companies deliver non-functioning or unsafe products to customers.

In my own factories, my staff and I have rigorously attacked quality problems, and have searched for the true root causes that, once corrected in the right way, permanently eliminate problems.  The root cause for why some employees sometimes don’t follow processes has been elusive, but there are some hints.

Let me illustrate the problem though a few examples.  In one instance, my operation received a large quantity of assemblies back from the customer so that we could retrofit a new design that the customer desired.  The manufacturing and test engineers wrote a detailed rework and retest procedure.  One step in the procedure required assembly operators to remove screws and place them in a bin located a few inches away for later disposal.  Despite hours of safety training, operators let most of the screws fall on the floor creating a slip hazard and housekeeping problem.  Impromptu checks by supervisors and verbal reminders failed to completely halt the problem.

In another instance, a supplier was supposed to heat treat large steel castings for a specified number of days before shipping them to us.  To the naked eye, properly heat treated castings are indistinguishable from improperly heat treated castings.  Only destructive testing and microscopic analysis by an outside lab can identify noncompliant castings.  After a complicated assembly process, the technicians tested the product, which failed.  A lengthy and expensive root cause analysis identified the castings as the problem. The supplier, in a noble attempt to reduce their costs and lead time, arbitrarily reduced the heat treat time by about 75% hoping my staff wouldn’t notice.

Finally, like many companies, mine went through the annual process of adjusting salaries.  Based on a number of factors, there was a finite amount of money for salary increases that the managers could distribute to employees in their departments.  Every year I had to send salary increase plans back to some of the managers because their plans exceeded their budgets.  This wasted their time and mine.

After much reflection, reading others’ accounts, and asking questions, I believe I have found a few of the major causes for the propensity of some Chinese employees to cut corners.  First, there is the global tendency to forget, or to lose track of progress of a process after returning from break, or just laziness.  This tendency also exists in China in proportions about equal to what I’ve observed in other countries.

Second, is the fact that China is a two-class society.  The upper class is the body of officials that can act with impunity, flaunt laws, and can often get away with doing what they want.  Members of the lower class may feel that they are gaining face if they, too, can get away with not following processes or performing their work in the required manner.  There is tremendous social prestige associated with gaining face in Chinese society, and the motivation to do so is powerful.

Finally, there is the deep cultural tendency to do work that is just good enough without understanding the larger implications of cutting corners.  The famed Chinese scholar, philosopher, and diplomat Hu Shi (胡适) wrote a short story in the 1920s, “Mr. Chabuduo” (差不多先生), or Mr. Almost Good Enough, describing the problem in terms with which most of the population could identify.  Whenever I told my staff in China that I was well aware of this story, I often observed mild embarrassment.

The only technique I’ve found to thwart Mr. Chabuduo is to engage in multi-level checks all of the time.  I can make this somewhat easier to do by designing process that are difficult to corrupt, or that have built-in checks that cannot be overlooked.  Intense and constant scrutiny is the only sure measure to take.  This is exhausting and costly, but necessary.

Here is an original translation of Hu Shi’s tale, Mr. Chabuduo for you to appreciate:

Story by Hu Shi: Mr. Almost Good Enough (click Show button to read) SelectShow

Ward Chartier portraitWard Chartier worked in high-tech manufacturing operations in 6 countries for 31 years, with over 10 years as general manager.  He is presently a principal with TechZecs, a consultancy based in San Francisco.  Ward is also a frequent guest lecturer at universities, and mentors high-potential managers.