China Factories: Do You, You, Feel Like We Do?

I am always touting Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Reduced to two sentences, its thesis is that we humans overly worship logic to the detriment of our gut instincts, which are actually based on our lifetime of experience. In other words, your initial feeling about something is far more accurate than you think.

Quality Wars has a Gladwellian post up on China factories, and I like it. The post is entitled, How to Feel a Good Factory – 5 Non-Traditional Indicators [link no longer exists] with the thesis that you know one when you feel one.

I have a Polish client in the fishing industry who is known industry-wide as a bit of a savant when it comes to fish processing plants. He claims he can by doing a five minute walk around a fish processing facility tell within five minutes how good it is. He says he bases this on the smell, the machinery and the faces of the workers. I claim that same “savant-ness” when it comes to sushi restaurants.

More specifically the post calls on considering the following five non-traditional indicators:

1. Does the factory staff/management take home the leftover food if there is any after a restaurant meal? If you have traveled to China on business then you most likely have had a nice meal with a factory owner or other staff. Those that take home the leftovers get big kudos in my book. This is a behavior which represents frugality and good sense over losing face.

2. How do the factory workers’ bathrooms look? China factory floor bathrooms are notorious (as are other country’s). Is there a decent effort by management to keep them sanitary and minimize the stink? This represents placing value on hygiene which will most likely translate into production practices.

3. How easy is it to get to a desired person by phone when you call the factory? For any size business, being able to connect with the right person, quickly by phone, represents good organization and management. Test this by calling the factory reception.

4. At meetings and meals do more junior staff speak up and seem knowledgeable? Promising young talent at the factory is a sign of a healthy working environment. So is management that respects junior staff and encourages them to be heard.

5. How do you feel when you walk in the factory? When you visit the factory, how do you feel in that first 5 minutes when you arrive? Do you feel comfortable and like you’re working with people you can trust? There’s no substitute for gut feeling.

I am going to quibble a tiny bit with number 1, however, because in this period of super-tough times, my fear is the factory owner who scoops up leftovers is doing so out of economic desperation, which may lead him or her not to deliver you your next order.

6 responses to “China Factories: Do You, You, Feel Like We Do?”

  1. Interesting, but I have to disagree with your quibble over #1. Perhaps it is a Chinese thing, but my spouse, who is Chinese, and who makes a US$ six-figure salary, is constantly bringing home doggie bags from lunch. I occasionally have to remind her not to do that when she’s eating with her superiors.

  2. Mr. Gladwell must not be married – I wish my wife used more logic, not less!
    Really, you need use both logic and “feel”/emotions, and consider the long term effects of your decisions.

  3. I think the central point is solid here. You should listen to your feelings when visiting a factory. It is important to remember that your gut reaction is strongly influenced by your home culture.
    I absolutely agree with #3, 4, and 5. #3 is especially an indicator of what I call “easy to do business with”.
    #1 I’d question. If they take it back to the office for employees I’d be impressed, otherwise I would think it a little odd in China – but not a big deal.
    #2 is an indicator I use in the U.S. and Canada all the time. In China it is a tough one because clean bathrooms are not a standard expectation for either managers or employees. (as a side note when I was running my factory bathroom issues took up a surprisingly large amount of time)
    If you are looking for a window into the view of managers to their employees in China I generally look for these:
    – Check the lunch of the employees. Most businesses provide lunch and small increases in cost give large improvements in food quality. Some businesses feed their employees lunch to the tune of 1 RMB a day. you wouldn’t feed that stuff to your dog. At 5-8 RMB a day you get very tasty and nutritious food. For many factory workers this may be the best meal of the day. Ask their food cost.
    – Does the manager know the employee’s names?
    – What is the supervisor/worker ratio? A ratio anywhere near 5-1 indicates that the workers are disposable and need to be closely supervised. Likely this means no training. Any ratio over 15-1 indicates better training and a need to retain employees longer. Ask about the training program.
    – Safety and hygiene: are basic safety features in place? Do you see signs of work related injuries? Do you feel sick after spending time on the production floor? Do the employees seem healthy?
    I visited a plant that had poor ventilation for solvents and lubricants once where every employee had severe eczema. Between that and the blinding migraine I had after 20 min. of exposure it was clear that management was hiding problems from me. I had colleagues that bought from them and had great quality for the first three shipments before things went sour.

  4. One other qualifying factor I often use is comparing the owner’s car to the investment in technology/quality. If the car is much nicer than his factory investments, I tend to find the factory is not worth my business in the long run.

  5. #1 is dodgy no matter how you look at it. Frugality is a nice interpretation, but does that mean the factory owner is cutting costs by cutting corners quality/safety wise?
    #5 I agree with whole-heartedly. On my recent trip to Linfen, I flew into Yuncheng (nearest civilian airport) where I would be met by some guy I’d never met. The guy who ws sent to meet me and take me up to Linfen found me by calling my cellphone- we had each other’s numbers, and you know, when there’s two white guys on the plane and the other one is met on the tarmac by another white guy and taken off some other way, you have to be sure that the one remaining white guy is the one you want- and then it turns out this guy who’s meeting me speaks Putonghua so badly any Chinese person from outside his hometown has trouble understanding. But mutual cellphone rings confirm who each of us is, we take one look at each other, and gut instinct kicks in: Yeah, he’s good. And he got me up to Linfen without even the slightest dodginess. Gotta go with gut feeling every time.
    And I like Jared’s car test. First time I met my boss he was driving an old Santana. He now drives a Passat. Something nice, but not flashy, suits our programme well. The car test has some merit to it.

  6. China Factories. Do You, You, Feel Like I Do? Part II
    There ought to be a law against quoting Peter Frampton twice in one week. The other day, I did a post on how to know, in a blink, whether the factory with whom you are contemplating a business relationship is a good one. We received some comments with …

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