Monthly Archives: June 2007

I’m A Broken Record

Yep.  I feel like a broken record, repeating the same old, same old information.   This company, it seems, made two fatal mistakes.  First, it lost control of the quality process.  But equally important, once it got a hint of a problem it didn’t immediately address the issue.  Things built up so long and so big that eventually the company couldn’t afford to address the issue without committing suicide.  Here the failure of oversight was a fatal mistake in more ways than one. 
 
Business / World Business
Chinese Tires Are Ordered Recalled
By ANDREW MARTIN
Published: June 26, 2007
A U.S. tire importer disclosed that its Chinese manufacturer had stopped including a safety feature meant to prevent tread separation.

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Factory Visits

Interesting that the story linked below follows in such proximity to my story about the Quality Control auditor being beaten up.
 
In short, the following link is to a story about a N.Y. Times reporter who signed into a factory, walked around, and took photos. He was detained by the factory manager when he refused to turn over his film. He called the police, who failed to intervene.  It seems in the end, he kept his film after an extended standoff.  If he did, indeed, keep his film, that’s the surprise for me.
 
The World
My Time as a Hostage, and I’m a Business Reporter
By DAVID BARBOZA
Published: June 24, 2007
Detention in a toy factory says something about the new power of the Chinese marketplace.
 
 
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In a not entirely unrelated vein, on Sunday we caught a TV show originating from Hong Kong on the topic of business ethics. The question addressed on this segment of the show was whether Asian and Western standards for business ethics are the same or fundamentally different. Key values being discussed were honesty, fairness, and transparency.
 
A panel of experts gave extremely "politically correct" answers. The CEO’s of a couple of large corporations noted that of course, there would be minor differences since Western business organizations are likely to be publicly held whereas the Asian organizations are, fundamentally, family run enterprises. But then they insisted that the values are all the same, at their core. The closest they would publicly profess about differences in corporate values was to say that while each business culture has the same list of ethical values, perhaps organizations in different cultures place different priorities on the various items on the same list.
 
Well, umm, hate to tell you this, but if that were true then consumers in China wouldn’t have to worry about whether their baby formula might poison their children, and I wouldn’t have to scrutinize every single yuan I receive as change to see if it’s a fake.  If honesty or fairness are core values, then they are way, way, way down on the list.  Any transparency is a threat since it might reveal the dishonesty and lack of fairness.  Those CEO’s simply must be walking on a different continent than me. 
 
Or, is my viewpoint overly jaded?  At the moment, pet food with melamine substituted for protein, toothpaste made with ethylene glycol, and counterfeit antimalarial drugs are high on my radar screen.  A popular joke is, "You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are yours."  I could, likewise, joke that "You know you’ve been in China too long when, you think everything you see is a fake." 
 
But perhaps this is an overly pessimistic view of the ethics of Chinese business organizations.   I can think of examples that run counter to such a jaded view.  For instance, there’s a particular restaurant manager who helps me order and gives me a 10% discount without ever being asked, there’s a lady in the wet market who teaches me the names for different types of green vegetables, there’s a vendor who automatically gives me the lowest price without being asked, and I have numerous Chinese friends who take really good care of me in many ways.  Is there an explanation for such wide divergences in my experience of who takes care of me and who doesn’t? 
 
Perhaps there is an explanation.  The key, as explained by Hall in "Beyond Culture" (see link in book section on my blog) MAY be (and here I blatantly speculate) a cultural difference between how Asian culture and Western culture assigns the amount of duty owed to a stranger.  
 
Hall instructs the reader to imagine a series of concentric circles, like a target in target practice.  Various circles represent the categories of people to whom one owes any duty.  The people in the smallest circle, inside the bulls-eye, are those people we would, say, give our life for.  Another, perhaps broader, inner circle might be people we would extend ourselves financially to assist — or children or our parents for example.  Larger circles might encompass people we interact with in daily life:  friends, coworkers, shopkeepers, etc.   Another, even broader, circle, might include people we would stop beside the road to assist if their car were broken down or if they had been in a traffic accident.  My own circle tends to be rather large.  For instance, I’ve several times assisted foreigners in China who didn’t speak any Chinese, simply because of the fact that I knew they were strangers in need of help.  It’s not that I felt I "owed" it to them to assist them, but simply that I knew they needed help and I could give assistance without undue risk or effort.  On the other hand, there are also people who fall completely outside the circle.  The people outside the very largest circle are those that we feel no obligation toward whatsoever. 
 
Bearing in mind this idea of a graduated sense of obligation, symbolized by different sizes of circles, Hall notes that people in Asian cultures are more inclusive about who falls inside the innermost circle.  And also, they will do more for those people inside the innermost circle than a westerner would.  For example, a parent will not only pay for education of a child, but also will pay for a house for that child.  A child will provide financial support for a parent even if the parent doesn’t really need it.  An aunt or an uncle may pay for the education of a niece or a nephew.  A sibling may provide education for another sibling.  To extend this idea even further, one relative or colleague may provide financing to another to start a business.  To some degree or another, these duties go beyond what one Westerner would be expected to do for another.  It might even be something that one Westerner wouldn’t even think of asking another to do.  It’s not that one westerner wouldn’t do it for another one, but more that it’s not an ingrained part of the cultural expectations.  This cultural difference, of what level of obligation one has to those in our closest circle, can lead to some interesting cultural stereotypes.  For instance, there is the stereotype which says that Westerners don’t take as good care of their parents as Asians.  A Westerner may take issue with this, but it’s a fact that few Westerners expect their parents to live with them in old age. 
 
On the other hand, while the Westerner’s innermost circle of obligation is smaller and he does less for people inside that circle — the Western person might be surprised if a nephew expected or asked him to pay for the nephew’s education — the Westerner has a broader array of people that he expects to owe SOME obligation to.  For instance, the Westerner is more likely to stop his car and assist someone who has been in a traffic accident, even if the Westerner doesn’t know the person.  The Westerner will feel likely some strong compunction to give food to a person in genuine need, even if the person is a complete stranger. 
 
Of course these are sweeping generalizations, but as a general principle I believe the Westerner will do less for his inner circle but will do more for complete strangers.  Hall makes the point, in his book, that it’s difficult for Asian people to understand why a Westerner will give money to a beggar on the street but fail to pay for housing for his own mother.  Westerners, on the other hand, sometimes find it hard to fathom how an Asian can turn a seeming blind eye to the abject need of the beggar. 
 
Perhaps — just perhaps — this cultural difference can be used to account for differences in business ethics, and for the perception that business in Asia depends on personal relationships.  For in Asian culture, perhaps the corporate values of honesty and fairness are perceived as only being owed only to those inside the circle of relationship.  Outside the circle, there is no duty. 
 
I recently overheard a Quality Control expert explaining that Chinese organizations are only concerned with meeting "specs," (specifications for product) rather than the underlying quality values that the specs are intended to ensure.  This person discussed the "spec" for protein in pet food, for example.  If melamine would meet the spec, then it was deemed as adequate even if it wasn’t really protein after all.  If ethelyene glycol enabled the toothpaste to meet the spec for sweetness, then it was deemed adequate even if the sweetener wasn’t really safe to eat after all.  I’m quite certain that a Chinese person concerned for my personal safety wouldn’t offer either of these products to me if they knew they were unsafe.  But if the products were just being offered to a stranger . . . . well, what duty is owed to a stranger?  None.  Perhaps, I speculate, in the absence of any other duty of care, it’s adequate in the Asian mind’s eye if the product simply meets the spec. 
 
This would explain why the last time I ordered gan bian siji dou in a restaurant (dried spicy green beans), the restaurant manager told me the green beans were possibly tainted with harmful pesticide and suggested a different type of bean.  But this also explains why the restaurant had the possibly tainted siji dou (green beans) at all.  If someone really wants them, the restaurant will supply them regardless of potential pesticide.  No particular duty is owed to prevent a stranger from eating them.  If that’s what the stranger asks for, then why deprive him of that choice.  The restaurant in China will stock the beans even knowing they might be tainted, whereas I can’t imagine a Western restaurant stocking a product they knew might be tainted with unsafe pesticide. 
 
Well, this is rambling speculation on my part.  The speculation has led far astray from the account by a reporter of his experience with trying to report on doings within a factory.  And what the Reporter in the above story encountered was objection based on transparency:  the reporting of the true conditions at the factory.  But no discussion is complete without transparency, is it?  Because that’s the rub.  
 
It seems that if Asian business culture were going to be "up front" about the fact that, in their culture, they don’t owe a duty to anyone, then they wouldn’t care if the whole world knows they are spraying lead paint on children’s toys.  The fact that there is some defensiveness about the process means that there is, in fact, awareness that international standards are not being adhered to.  So . . . the fact of lack of transparency is a smoking gun which reveals all my speculation is rubbish.  It’s like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden:  their guilt was revealed by their awareness that they were naked and by their efforts to cover up.  If they had been innocent, they would not have tried to hide, would not feel threatened by investigative reporters taking pictures.  Everything, perhaps, is fake after all?  Even fake ethical standards?  Whether you agree or disagree, if you have thoughts to share, please comment below!  I’m open minded. 

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Danwei TV

I’m posting this blog entry as an advertisement for Danwei TV — and particularly the Sexy Beijing series — which I really enjoy.  I classified it under "entertainment" because it is media, but the media link could easily have been posted under cross cultural issues or daily life, because it illuminates issues related to both.  (I also use the vignettes to practice my Chinese listening and speaking skill.) 
 
Danwei TV’s "Sexy Beijing" series is a light hearted examination of life in China, made humorous by the juxtaposition and resulting contrast that comes from a very American viewpoint and journalistic style.   There are several episodes in this series, but my favorites are "Lost in Translation," linked below, and then "Finding Love," and "Finding Love in the Country."  All of these, and more, can be accessed from the danwei site:  http://www.danwei.tv/ 
 
But for starters, I recommend "Lost in Translation."  If you like it, you can use the above link to find more videos. 
 
Here are links to two web sites where this five minute video can be viewed: 
 
For North American users and speakers of English, I recommend the You Tube site:
 
For Asian users and speakers of Chinese, I recommend the Toudou site: 
 
For what it’s worth, I’ve shown the video to some of my Chinese friends.  They all thought it was hilarious, and none of them were offended. 

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Comfort Food

Our first year in China, we could never find decent beef. This is probably a reflection of resources and economics: in a land where every inch must be devoted to growing food for people, beef has far too low a conversion rate to be feasible for feeding people.

One time during our first year here, on a trip to Shanghai, we were a bit surprised when our Chinese host took us to an American steakhouse to eat. But that sirloin steak tasted so good I even ate the gristle! Later, back at the hotel, when I confessed what I had done, David grinned and replied, "Me, too."

Since then, we’ve had the good fortune of learning where to buy beef in our city. Good beef, even. So yesterday I bought some nice beef, and we had dinner together with some friends — steak, baked potato with all the fixin’s, salad, bread, good wine, brownies and milk. Comfort food! Something very quintessentially American.

Then today, I’m in Hong Kong. More American food! Lunch was salmon on salad at Hard Rock Cafe (fixed very nicely with herbs I might add); dinner was soup and salad at Outback. You don’t realize how nice a creamy soup can be until it’s been more than a year since you had one! More comfort food! Sometimes comfort food can be nachos with sour cream and homemade chili, too.

So, exactly, how would one define, "comfort food"? Food from one’s own culture, something that might be fixed in one’s own home. Yum. As much as I love cai xin, qezi bao and ma po dou fu — and even if I learn how to prepare them properly — they will never be comfort food for me.

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Quality Control

Standards, procedures, statistical sampling, testing. 
 
I’m not an expert, but we all know that statistical quality control is what makes the difference between a good company and a great one.  But statistical quality control here in China is not quite ready for prime time.  You might say, it’s non existent.  It’s just not in the culture.  Suppliers are chosen based on personal relationships, not verifiable quality standards.  Hopefully, the fact of a personal relationship supplies incentive in the quality department, but it doesn’t supply tools.  Western newspapers are presently full of stories that illustrate failures of quality systems where Chinese suppliers are involved. 
 
Stories also circulate about fraud and about companies creating paperwork to document quality systems that don’t exist.  They get caught when they, well, get caught.  A purchaser is wise to verify all facts independently.  That is, if they can be verified.  Sometimes the truth can be painful, literally. 
 
I was talking with a friend the other day who told me what happened when her company tried to do a quality audit of one of their suppliers.  The auditor was finding things that were not good.  Rather than say "thank you" for finding issues that could then be resolved, to root out the issues and put systems in place to address them, the factory manager attacked the auditor.  Literally.  He had the quality auditor beaten up and kicked out of the factory.  They had to take him to the hospital for first aid. 
 
One, seemingly simple, answer to the quality problem is to switch suppliers, but here’s the rub for my friend’s company.  They’re a small company.  While they’re placing orders for just 1,000 widgets at a time, big American companies jumping on the China bandwagon are placing orders for 100,000 widgets at a time.  In light of this level of demand, their suppliers have no motive to meet quality standards.  They have to switch, and switch, and switch.  Even when they find a good company, quality depends more on the particular manager and so when that manager leaves, they are back to square one. 
 
I’d like to invite comment or speculation on cultural factors that contribute to quality issues.  I can think of a couple. 
 
For one, this is culturally a place where there is a lot of pride.  To be open to improve something, one must first be open to the idea that there is room for improvement.  If someone is heavily vested in justifying the way things are, in proving that the status quo is superior, then that gets in the way of finding ways to improve. 
 
Second, there is a value to being frugal, but at some point being penny wise becomes pound foolish.  What good does it do a company to buy a cheaper screw, if the entire widget breaks because the cheaper screw isn’t strong enough?  Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many examples of companies focused only on the cost of that one screw. 
 
Embedded in the inordinate focus on cutting cost, at the expense of quality, is a difference in the analytical process by which factors that go into making a widget are sorted out:  the screws and bolts and fabric and threads, cost of equipment to make it, cost of returns, whatever.  In this sense, I think that western, more linear, styles of data analysis are superior to eastern, more holistic styles of analysis. 
 
Well, that’s my two cents, and those thoughts are probably worth exactly what you paid to read this.  But, it’s a thought and I’d love to hear  comments, especially with examples! 

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Cross Cultural Jokes

"What is your quest?"  I mostly love British humor, but sometimes it’s a stretch for me.  Humor is very culturally based.  It requires deep knowledge of stereotypes that are not widely discussed.  My quest is to find jokes that cross cultures.  Here’s a joke that one of my friends told me her Korean friends think is hilarious.  I have a suspicion that her Japanese friends wouldn’t find it exactly hilarious, but here goes:
 
Three Chinese guys and three Japanese are traveling by train to the same city.  The Japanese buy three tickets, but the Chinese only buy one.  The six of them are all sitting in the same compartment, when they hear the train conductor coming around.  The Chinese guys quickly run to the restroom.   All three of them pile into the small loo and close the door. 
 
The Japanese guys, still sitting in their seats, give the train conductor their tickets.  Then the conductor knocks on the restroom door.  The door opens, one hand appears and gives the conductor a single ticket.  The conductor punches it, and walks on to the next car.  A few minutes later, all three Chinese guys come out of the restroom and return, smiling, to where they had been sitting before the conductor came through.  
 
The Japanese guys discuss among themselves, "why didn’t we think of that?" At the next stop, the Japanese guys buy just one ticket for the next leg.  But the Chinese guys don’t buy any tickets. 
 
This time, when they all hear the conductor approaching, the Japanese guys jump up first, beating the Chinese guys to the loo.  They all go inside and close the door. 
 
Shortly afterwards, as they hear the conductor approaching closer, the Chinese guys knock on the door of the loo.  One hand appears, and passes out the single ticket.  The Chinese guys take the one ticket, and go to the next car. 

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