Chet Babb has been on the front lines in the Quality Wars for over 40 years. During the past 4 decades Chet has seen firsthand major improvements in US Quality and then witnessed the alarming rise in quality problems as the result of manufacturing being outsourced to Mexico and Asia. Chet’s “Letters from the Front” depict real world situations occurring every day in The Quality Wars.
A few years ago we took over making service parts for a complex automotive component. We were given a list of parts suppliers, one of which was in China. Our Purchasing Manager, Ed Farmer,* passed along some key lessons he learned when dealing with Chinese suppliers.
Ed told me, "It is a common practice for Asians to take an English first name and keep their own last name. I guess they consider their English speaking customers will be more comfortable with an English name. This supplier’s English name was Neil and his factory was in Shanghai, so we nicknamed him Shanghai Neil."
"The first thing we learned about Shanghai Neil was that he would only answer one question from an email. If you asked him three questions, he would ignore two and answer one, usually the easiest and simplest one. We quickly learned to ask only the most important question, and to keep it simple. Because of the time difference with Asia, Neil was asleep when you sent an email, so you would get your answer the next morning. So it became one question one day, an answer and one question the next day and so on. I have found that to be typical with many Chinese suppliers. Sometimes they just don’t understand the question or will pretend they don’t. You think you are speaking clearly, but they are hearing something very different. Often it can actually take a few days to get your question fully answered."
"Lesson #2: Shanghai Neil’s quality processes were limited but thankfully consistent and they weren’t going to change anytime soon. We found after several orders that Neil shipped a pretty predictable 22% bad parts. Neil would always apologize but he never changed. We would just order extra parts to ensure we had enough good parts. We had to pre-pay Neil for all of the parts before he would ship, but he would always give us a credit for any bad parts in the next order. We learned to order at least 22% extra and we always sorted all parts received."
"The third thing I learned is that the Pacific Ocean is huge and container ships take a while getting here. When you add in the time for the trucks on either side you understand why long lead times are a reality when dealing with China. This can mean 12 - 16 weeks or even more if you happen to order before Chinese New Year, when the whole country stops for about three weeks. Planning ahead is crucial and your customer has to be aware of the lead times as well."
So the three things Ed taught me about purchasing from Chinese suppliers are:
1. Develop a workable system of communication. Realize that the time difference and language barriers will make communication more difficult and time consuming. Plan for the extra time and get confirmation that you have been understood.
2. Know the quality standards of your supplier. Plan to order enough extra parts to meet schedules if you expect poor quality. Have an inspection process in place to verify quality. Some of our customers ship directly from China to Continental to get this sorting done.
3. Plan for long lead times including shipping by boat unless you want to pay extra for air freight. Add extra time for Chinese New Year (occurring in late January or early February).
Chet Babb has been on the front in Quality for over 40 years as the Director of Corporate Quality at Guide Corporation (a GM Spin-off) and now as the Director of Quality and Manufacturing at Continental Inc. in Anderson, IN. Chet works with Continental’s clients to improve their quality, improve their supplier’s quality and manage quality issues as they arise. Chet works hard to help Continental’s clients change a culture of constantly "fighting fires" to implementing pro-active systems that resolve quality issues before they become a full blown crisis.
*Names have been changed