A Lesson for HPC Companies: Crossing the Manufacturing Cultural Divide

By Ted Cruise

June 24, 2008

HPC companies, like many large manufacturing organizations, are finally starting to realize the importance of cultural differences. Understanding cultures may be equally as important as technology when it comes to establishing profitable, mutually rewarding relationships in many countries. As business becomes more global, the best U.S. corporations have realized the need to train their employees to understand foreign culture and its relationship to American business. But what most companies fail to recognize is the importance of adapting their own manufacturing culture to better fit these new environments.

Manufacturing management and engineering professionals have historically learned to adapt to new ideas and philosophies. They have adapted to new and radical ideas such as interchangeable parts, assembly lines, batch & queue, zero defects, statistical process control, just in time production, and now lean manufacturing.

Companies have spent decades building coherent manufacturing cultures that sustain themselves through training, management, and the passing of knowledge from experienced employees to new hires. Now those same companies are trying to take that culture and replicate it starting from the ground up in a foreign country.

HPC companies, whether manufacturing or simply assembling in a foreign country, should take these lessons to heart.

As the general manager of an American-owned startup in China, I learned that a manufacturing culture is based on assumptions. Most of those assumptions are unstated and grow out of the larger culture of the home country. Many of the American manufacturing assumptions are at odds with Chinese cultural values. Navigating these difficulties takes understanding, humility and intentionality.

My own ignorance of the importance of “face” to my employees cost me one of my key engineers. I’d provided him with a desktop computer and a large, hi-definition monitor for working with CAD software while I gave another engineer a notebook computer because of his frequent need to visit suppliers. Little did I know that the perceived status of having a notebook raised the second engineer over the first. A resignation soon followed. If I had paid more attention to keeping the balance of face I could have kept him on my staff.

Another example of Chinese and American differences involved the open door policy. The open door policy is a common business practice in most American factories. My Chinese workforce grew up with the traditional respect for hierarchy built out of Confucian values. They would never think of going directly to the general manager. I therefore had to keep an open door policy to satisfy American corporate guidelines even though it was never once used by the Chinese employees. My visiting American and Canadian trainers used it all the time, but not one local employee was comfortable with this approach.

Both face and hierarchy were large obstacles to process improvement. My American manufacturing background had taught me that the person closest to an operation is the most important person in that operation. In China, however, getting my operators to share their thoughts on process improvements usually met with nothing more than blank stares. After months of trying I realized that I was dealing with two factors. First, going directly to a senior manager past the older operators or line supervisors violated the traditional rules and respect of hierarchy. Second, to tell anyone that there was a way to improve the process meant a loss of face to the people who first built the process.

I knew that I had to adapt to be effective, so I began to work harder at building my relationships with each and every employee. I increased the time spent walking through the production floor to learn more about the personal lives of all the workers. I increased the number of company social events and made the rounds of birthdays. I learned the names of spouses, children, and home villages.

The time spent building relationships paid off, but not how I expected. I never got the kind of input for process improvement I wanted. It improved quite a bit, but never to a level that paralleled the U.S. factory. What did happen was that I was able to open communication about work concerns and learn of problems much earlier. This allowed me to correct problems before they festered and became more serious. For instance wage and benefit concerns were addressed before employees became disgruntled. The surprise outcome was a high level of personal loyalty from the employees. Employee retention, a constant problem in China, improved. Two key managers stayed on despite better offers.

Manufacturing or country managers need to understand the role local culture plays in their workforce. With proper understanding and patience, they can create a new manufacturing culture in their own plants. These new cultures will necessarily be a hybrid of the best practices of manufacturing and the realities of local culture.

If your organization is placing more and more functions overseas, taking the time to understand and adapt to local cultures can have a huge impact on efficiency, productivity and ultimately, the bottom line.

About TsaiComms LLC

Ted Cruise is a senior consultant with TsaiComms LLC (Portland, Ore.), and he specializes in business operations and manufacturing in China. TsaiComms is a leader in intercultural competency training and coaching for companies doing business globally and is a Tabor Marketing Group partner. Lillian A. Tsai, founder and president of TsaiComms, is a 25-year, high-tech, marketing and corporate communications veteran and has worked with companies such as GemStone Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Logitech, Mentor Graphics and Tektronix. For information about intercultural competency workshops or coaching, and other services, email [email protected] or visit www.tsaicomms.com.

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