China Product Quality: It’s Getting Better All the Time

International Manufacturing Lawyers to protect your manufacturing molds

A domestic U.S. products liability lawyer friend of mine sent me an article essentially saying Chinese factories (1) do not care about quality, (2) try to get away with whatever they can because they are run by evil people (3) are getting worse, and (3) companies that get their products manufactured by Chinese factories are stupid.

I am over-simplifying the article, but not by much.

I am not going to link over to that article in deference to the person who wrote it (who I know personally), but as you have probably guessed by now, I am going to skewer it. I think it bears mentioning that, as far as I know, the person who wrote that article has not done any China business for years.

I am going to leave the big issues raised by such claims (racism, ethnocentrism, etc.) to others, and just attack it for being wrong.

Though one story does not a rebuttal make, this one story is so apropos, I am going to lead with it.

I met with a client all afternoon on Friday. He is from China, but moved to the US maybe 20 years ago for graduate school. He eventually formed a now thriving construction parts business. We talked about his history of getting parts from China and he talked about how it took him two years of his training factories in China before he had product he could sell in the US and the EU. He said it took him another couple years before he had factories that understood how US and EU quality definitions are so different from China. We talked about how in China if you make a $300 part badly, you just reduce the price to $150 and sell it, whereas in the US or the EU, that bad quality part cannot be sold at any price because nobody will accept it. Nobody. My client talked of how his Chinese factories simply could not grasp this at first, but he now has around ten factories who have consistently been churning out excellent parts for him for years.

Did these ten factories start out evil and then become moral? I don’t think so. What happened is the US company taught them how to make quality parts, taught them the long term value of making quality parts, and then, literally showed them the long term value of increasing their purchases and forming a partnership.

This story is actually fairly typical. I must hear at least a story a month from clients who tell me of crippling quality problems their first few years in China, but of how for the last few years, things have been going smoothly. Sometimes this is because they stuck with their initial factory and worked out all the kinks and sometimes it is because they moved on to a better factory and worked out the kinks.

Manufacturers, what are you seeing out there? Is China product quality improving, declining, or staying the same? And, more controversially, in your experience (and be honest here), whose fault is it when product quality is bad, the Chinese factory or the foreign company for failing to be clear on how things need to be?

23 responses to “China Product Quality: It’s Getting Better All the Time”

  1. There certainly are ‘evil people’ in China who will try to make money at any cost, that is equally true for other places, like the USA, only in China it is still ‘easier’ to cheat and pollute etc, and the chance of getting caught is lower, and kept lower because of hongbao etc.
    However, big honking however, that is a minority, and the majority just want to make money the ‘right way’. The problem is often that they do not know what the ‘right way’ is and nobody tells them (and they don’t go out to find out on their own, that too).
    Take the car industry for example. The first time a Chinese car was imported into Europe, it was a disaster. Besides looking like a shoe box with wheels sticky-taped onto it, it was about as safe as a shoe box with wheels sticky-taped onto it, preventing its sale in all but Germany (after welding some steel bars on the bottom of it). It would have gone something like: “What do you mean crash-test? We looked up how to make cars on Google and it said nothing about crumple zones, just that a car needed wheels and an engine and such. Our car is safe, look: we have added seat-belts”.
    Six months later they tried again and their now car-looking cars scored like any average cheap European car on the safety tests. Sure, it wasn’t a Mercedes or Volvo yet, but going from nothing to reasonable in half a year is a great achievement.
    Beyond this, my own experience is that when properly instructed, there is no quality problem with China manufacturing. The components we buy from our Chinese suppliers are good. The products we manufacture ourselves are flawless, although not the latest and greatest (mostly because that is too expensive and often limited by USA export controls). And our stuff is good not because I (the non-Chinese manager) personally inspect every unit coming in and going out, ’cause I don’t. It took a little while (two to three years) to explain what was required, why and how, but then the Chinese staff said “oh, okay…” and went and did it. Things that my team had to learn included such things like letting me know if there was or would be a problem, or ask me if they didn’t know or understand something, even if it looked like I (the big scary foreign boss) might be busy. When you explain that the face gained by getting a three week job done in two days work and five minutes of asking questions far outweighs the face lost by five minutes of asking questions, then you can get a real jump in productivity. The same goes for quality.
    So, in answer to the question of who’s fault bad quality is, it’s the latter: US company not specifying precisely what they want (and don’t want).

  2. I agree. It also corresponds to my observations.
    Now, how to know which factories will really make the effort to comply with a buyer’s demands? There are several factors to consider:
    – Is the boss truly convinced that it is the necessary path to his company’s success? Or will he only make a few efforts to please this one customer?
    – Does the importer’s potential business seem large (and profitable) enough to attract top management’s attention? Or will a salesperson have to fight with its whole organization to get to required results?
    – Are the factory’s other buyers also asking for higher quality/reliability? Or will the factory have to maintain 2 standards in its operations? (from my experience, this is virtually impossible)

  3. So an article is not cited or quoted, but is casually described as racist. What did the article actually say? “Chinese people’s slanty eyes are unable to see clearly enough to make quality goods?”
    Will Silk Road International (a favorite of mine) be moved from your “China Blogs” blogroll to your “Racist Blogs” blogroll?

  4. Dan, your viewpoint is right on. Over the past 10 years of working in quality control in China it is quite obvious that Chinese factories are starting to “get it.” The understanding of and sensitivity to quality standards is increasing along with the general product quality.

  5. I don’t have much experience with manufacturing physical goods, but we make websites, and I have a similar experience with software programmers. When a new programmer starts on a project with us, they usually seem to feel that meeting 80 or 90% of the requirements is fine. However, after working with me for a couple months, they realize that they have to meet 100% of the requirements AND that they should be looking for ways to improve further.

  6. While I am in services, not manufacturing the improvement in quality of goods is clear from the PRC domestic market. 10 years ago it was genuinely difficult to buy really high quality goods locally. Now, high quality products dominate the urban markets and shoddy, cheap & nasty stuff has been shifted out to rural markets. Even there, the move by the major chains (Gome, Suning, Walmart etc) into 2nd & 3rd tier cities, allows non-urban populations to purchase quality product at urban prices (sometimes even cheaper with some manufacturers offering discounts in smaller cities that aer not offered in major urban locations). The change is extraordinary.

  7. The real questions are: if it takes several years to start getting quality products, might not a company be better served by manufacturing in a country where factories already “get it”? How many businesses can really afford to invest years training factories to produce high quality goods? Is the cost savings really so great as to outweigh the loss in business continuity and quality that ensues during that training period? And how much does production cost increase once a factory starts producing decent products?
    In other words, is the net cost of going over to China and bringing a factory up to spec really much cheaper than just sourcing in the U.S., E.U., East Asia ex-China, etc?

  8. “…because they are run by evil people….”
    We really should stop using the word “evil”. Some Chinese now call Western Culture “EVIL”.

  9. I agree with you Dan (Harris), the article in question seems to be more along the lines of someone having a rant (and is not really news) than anything else.
    In my observations during my current business trip in China and in my conversations with colleagues there, it seems that manufacturing is pretty much business as usual…if you want to ensure that your order(s) are consistently produced to the quality standards you need, then it’s certainly in your best interest to make sure that quality inspections are regular and that you have trusted representation on your behalf with any supplier.
    I have not heard that the potential for “quality fade” has disappeared or anything like that – some vigilant QC is necessary. Conversely, I have not heard of anything new that suggests suppliers here are doing anything purposely worse in production than they ever have.

  10. @will
    Chinese traditional culture has a great many evils (such as trying to hide problems instead of solving them) that need to be changed, for their own good as well as ours.

  11. @outcast
    Q: What’s black & white, black & white, black & white, black & white, black & white (i.e., “evil”)?
    A: I don’t know, but it’s sure easier to view the world this way.

  12. there can be a whole different discussion on what “evil” means, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that what the article in question allegedly says is “evil” may better be defined as greed, i.e. over-the-top self interest.
    In the world of arms-length, commercial dealings, it seems rather sophomoric to be characterizing things as “evil” when in reality the “victim” is simply failing to take adequate measures to protect him/her/itself. If you don’t know who you’re dealing with, then proceed with caution…caveat emptor and all that good stuff.
    But, let these people scream words like “evil, communist, red, despots” as loudly as they can from the mountaintops. The rest of us with our feet planted solidly in reality will go about our business happily enough.
    P.S. I agree that China is very capable of quality–you just have to make sure you instruct, supervise, and inspect carefully (rather than expect them to be philanthropic mind readers).

  13. I agree. The emerging and improving market economy in China will help to improve the quality more quickly. The coming fiercer and fiercer competition forces the competitors (the products producers)to improve their product quality constantly. If they cannot guarantee the low quality products disappear, they will be forced to disappear.

  14. “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white (i.e., “evil”) as long as it catches mice.”
    Or does it?

  15. Cheap Manufacturing in the 20th Century
    Obviously quality gets better over time.
    If it doesn’t get better it ends and
    moves to another location.
    Japan- 40 years ago – junk
    Taiwan- 20 years ago – junk
    Now China, finally starting to “get it”.
    In twenty more years it might be Africa’s turn.

  16. @Levi:
    Yeah, we all knew this day would come sooner or later. With regards to Africa, they haven’t really started to industrialize at all, choosing instead to import manufactured goods (mainly from China). I wouldn’t bet on 20 years though, I’m thinking more like 50+.

  17. It appears from the anecdotes above that much of the impetus for improvement in Chinese manufacturing quality over the years is due to demand by customers, primarily overseas customers, who wanted and demanded a certain quality in the goods they bought for resale in their domestic markets. My guess (and that’s what it is at this point) is there have been many instances where overseas customers simply wouldn’t pay for shoddy goods, broke off commercial relations and shopped around for another source. In other words, free market behavior taught Chinese manufacturers what was required of them and smart Chinese manufacturers got a clue. The less scrupulous manufacturers never learned but simply sold shoddy goods in markets where the demand for quality wasn’t so strict. From what I’ve read about every manufacturing country, the USA included, this seems to be the rule in development. It’ll be interesting to see how many of these less scrupulous manufacturers survive as living standard increase in the interior portions of the country.

  18. @ Wayne: you are absolutely right.
    In some industries, quality has gone up a lot: car components, pharmaceuticals, etc. Why? Because the importers couldn’t afford any quality problems.
    In other industries, getting quality products is still the exception rather than the rule: shoes, garments, etc. Why? Because the consequences of getting poor quality goods are not dramatic for the buyer. And also because competition on price is very strong. Importers just switch suppliers for a few pennies. This is a bad signal to send to suppliers…

  19. Any proof of this? It’s accepted as conventional wisdom that quality has to get better, but that assumes the factories WANT to improve. In reality some do and some don’t. It depends on a lot of factors including the buyer, competition, industry, etc.

  20. I have purchased and had given to me presents and have found that they have been made in China but like two identical pairs of sandals (look pretty) from Shoe Zone, on wearing both for a very short time it is disgusting how the quality has been very poor. After wearing the first pair for just over 1 hour there was something wrong and the lady in charge who lives near me gave me another pair and I wore them a bit longer and guess what, same things happened again plus a piece stuck on the sole made its way off.
    As somebody once told me, in Chinese they think we like things to be “Cheap and cheerful”. A company found that what they tried to have made in that country only lasted 3 months and the company was so annoyed that the people in China would not make the items as the company wanted so they brought the order back to the U.K.
    A pair of gloves from Marks and Spencer a friend bought me, as soon as I put them on there was a hole between each finger and thumb. Marks and Spencer took them back and gave me my money back. I make greeting cards and over half of the stock in M & S is made in China and yet so many people make lovely ones in our country. I am personally against all this stuff being MADE IN CHINA. I love to see and purchase things MADE IN THE U.K. OR MADE IN ENGLAND.

  21. I have noticed an increase in quality in many Chinese made products here in the US. But China still has a way to go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *