Why China Is Not Ready for Lean Projects
April 09, 2012 - SCMR Editorial
One of my Silicon Valley clients is sourcing products from several factories in the Pearl River Delta. As part of the relationship with these factories, my client is committed to supplier development including offering training in new techniques. So when product quality at one of these vendors was not achieving the company’s standards, the VP of Supply Chain dispatched a team of people to go to China and teach the factory problem-solving Lean Manufacturing techniques. He thought the vendor could leverage Lean methodology to improve the processes and address the quality problems, just as they would in US factories.
The team arrived in Dongguan and went to work giving an overview class on Lean techniques. The factory workers seemed attentive and interested in learning. The next day, the Silicon Valley Lean team gathered the people from the assembly line to begin the process of working on the quality problem. After 3 hours, the Lean team ended the session in utter frustration. No one participated. No one would identify problems on the line. No one knew how to approach gathering or analyzing data. No one volunteered.
So what happened? The training was adequate and the Lean principles and methods are sound and easily understood. Why weren’t the Chinese factory workers participating?
What methodologies such as Lean, TQC, Six Sigma and others don’t take into account are the cultural differences between the Western world and China. Lean principles are based on Western ideas and methods including critical thinking and collaboration. The teachings of Confucius, on the other hand, suggest behaviors that oppose collaborative problem solving and public criticism. The Chinese have been practicing Confucian values for nearly 3000 years. Children are taught Confucian values in elementary school and families practice them in their daily lives. For example, “saving face” is way more important than concerns for quality. If a worker were to criticize the production line processes as the cause for quality problems, the line supervisor would surely lose face. So it is very unlikely that anyone would speak up to offer criticism.
In the US and Western Europe, Lean Processes have become a way of life. But for the hundreds of thousands of other Chinese factories, Lean is often met with resistance or at the very least passive non-participation.
Lean programs in the West are often led by Manufacturing Engineering or QA or an internal consulting department. In China, the workplace is all about production, not the refinement of processes. Chinese engineers are assigned to production and only production, not strategic projects. Chinese QA exists to assure that the customer’s specs are being met. Internal consulting is an unfamiliar concept. These functions within Chinese manufacturing organizations don’t have the time nor the inclination to take on Lean projects, no matter what the return on investment suggests.
Of course, Lean Manufacturing principles, techniques and methods are being introduced in the large global manufacturing sites in China and slowly adopted. Over time, this may lead to a broader adoption in smaller factories, as manufacturing matures in China. But for now, and the next 10-15 years, I see traditional values winning the race.
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