How To Eliminate Surprises and Misunderstandings With Your Chinese Factory
You’re probably reading this article because you’ve been surprised, disappointed, or completely taken advantage of by a Chinese supplier and you want to figure out how to turn things around.
Maybe it’s been a frustrating process to communicate with your factory. It seems like any time you don't specify every nitty-gritty detail, the factory fills in the gaps and gets it wrong. It can be exhausting staying up to 10 or 11 p.m. trying to solve problems with your factory. It could be a Chinese factory, a Vietnamese factory, a Filipino factory, or wherever they happen to be. Communication can be challenging wherever your factory is.
It’s not uncommon to feel like:
- You are dealing with unnecessary quality problems.
- Your factory always misunderstands you.
- Your factory can’t even get simple things right.
- You are wasting time and getting unnecessary delays.
- You may be getting scammed by your Chinese Suppliers.
If it hasn’t happened to you personally, you know someone who got burned, and you’re trying to prevent it from happening to you.
During one of the first Chinese manufacturing projects I worked on, we ordered a paperboard package for our product. Unfortunately, it was a last-minute decision, and consequently, we didn’t have time to sample it. But, being such a simple request, we didn’t think twice about it.
“Details about specifications, quality, packaging, color, and design decisions get lost in translation or outright ignored if it’s inconvenient for your factory. There are definitely dozens of different ways this can go sideways.”
Sure enough, it came back wrong. The factory had substituted the paperboard for a flimsy plastic card that couldn’t even hold our product. The products would just fall off the pegs they were hanging from. So we ended up reprinting the package in the U.S. and had to replace 5,000 units. That was not fun–or cheap.
Does this sound familiar? Have you been blindsided by an unexpected surprise when your product arrived?
Details about specifications, quality, packaging, color, and design decisions get lost in translation or outright ignored if it’s inconvenient for your factory. There are definitely dozens of different ways this can go sideways. And, there are a lot of ways it can go right.
“More often than not, we're not as good of communicators as we think we are.”
We believe that a lot of factories get a bad rap that they're out to get you. That’s usually not true. Most of them are working very hard to build good products and be good business partners. But, there are different systems, a different culture, and a different language that comes into play.
And, more often than not, we're not as good of communicators as we think we are. Case in point, when we say, "It just needs to be a little stronger" we know exactly what that means in our own minds. We assume that everybody else knows what that means too. That's just one example of how we typically overestimate our ability to communicate clearly and underestimate other people's ability to read our minds.
The more you go through this process, the more skilled you become at really calling out the critical details of a project to make your desired outcomes crystal clear for everyone involved.
Here Are Three Critical Practices We Follow To Create Clear Communication And Eliminate Surprises From Chinese Factories
We’ve learned a lot over the years. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, and we got a few things right too. So if we can make your life any easier, we want to help.
Capture Specifications And Decisions In One Place To Prevent Mistakes
Many companies send good Tech Packs or CAD files to their Chinese supplier when they start a project. But during product development, information and decisions about the product get spread over email, WeChat, calls, meetings, and various sample revisions. As a result, they lose track of all of the decisions they’ve made.
Companies tend to think the supplier gathers all of this information and documents it for the general manager and workers to manage production. They may do this, but you have no idea what they are documenting.
Do yourself a favor and document every specification and decision about a product in one place and work to keep it updated.
“Chinese factories have this uncanny ability to find the one phrase in an obscure email that you completely forgot about to back themselves up.”
If you don’t keep all of the specifications, changes, and information in one place, we guarantee you will be in for unwanted surprises when you receive your product. A color will be wrong, the material may be different, the size won’t be right, a critical tolerance will be off, or in some cases–the product won’t even work. It’s incredibly frustrating.
You can argue with your manufacturer about it all you want. Chinese factories have this uncanny ability to find the one phrase in an obscure email that you completely forgot about to back themselves up. In many cases, you’ll find out the hard way that you failed to specify a clear requirement at all.
The unfortunate result is you end up stuck with a bunch of inventory that you are less than happy with–or worse, one that is unsellable.
Every time we leave even the smallest requirement blank, factories get it wrong. Every. Single. Time. Or worse, many Chinese factories will intentionally exploit any gray areas to increase their profit.
Leaving design details up to interpretation is a costly mistake for an company to make.
Here are a few things you’ll want to document that are regularly overlooked by companies:
It seems obvious, but that’s the problem. It’s so obvious that we assume the factory knows what our product should do. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Most companies don’t document their QC procedures at all. When they do, they often get so into the weeds that they fail to clearly communicate the overall key function of their product. Be sure that your factory knows how your product should work and how to test it.
Bill of Materials (BOM)
A bill of materials lists all the materials, components, parts, and sub-assemblies needed to create a product. It’s your ingredient list for manufacturing a physical product.
Call out the Pantone or RAL colors for every color on your product and packaging, no matter how small. You must be as specific as possible. If you don’t, it will end up wrong.
Packaging regularly gets overlooked until after it gets screwed up. You have to treat packaging with as much care as you do for your products–clearly call out materials, dimensions, thicknesses, and colors.
Your factory will always underestimate how much abuse cartons take during international shipping. Another thing we see happen quite often is that factories will pack way too much product into a carton and end up crushing the internal packaging during shipping. Using a suitable shipping carton for your product is especially true for Air Freight and LCL shipments.
We see so many good products get destroyed during transit. Think about that. It’s so painful to damage great products after all the work, time, and money you’ve put into them just by overlooking how you ship them.
Save yourself a lot of pain. Do some testing. It can be as simple as packaging up one of your samples and shipping it across the country and back to see how beat up it gets. Little things provide a lot of learning that goes a long way.
Create Clear Expectations To Prevent Surprises
Now that you have all of the specifications in one place, you’ll want to use them to create clear expectations for what you will accept and reject after production.
Acceptable Quality Levels (AQL)
This is defined as the quality level that is the least tolerable for acceptance. Generally, you’ll categorize this into three levels. One for Critical items, another for Major items, and finally, Minor.
Quality Control (QC) Checklist
A quality control checklist gets into the details of the requirements the factory needs to meet. A quality control inspector will use it to understand the objective standards and tests used to verify that products meet the AQL.
Functional Testing Requirements
These are usually on your QC checklist, but they are worth a mention. It’s really easy to get pulled into the weeds of an AQL and a QC Checklist. It’s helpful to step back and ask: what is the product supposed to do? Make sure that this is being captured on your AQL and QC checklist. It seems so obvious, but it is overlooked a lot.
Lab Testing Requirements
This is another part of the QC checklist that is worth mentioning, because it usually takes a little planning ahead. You’ll want to make sure that your factory knows these tests need to be performed and passed as a condition of acceptance. A lot of times they are done on raw materials rather than the finished product.
Communicate Skillfully With These Three Tips
Learning how to communicate with someone who speaks English as a second language, lives in another country, on the other side of the world, and was raised in a completely different culture can be daunting.
Here are a few tips to break through the communication barriers and get your message across
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words
The cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is no truer anywhere than in working with a Chinese factory. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand.
We’ve all but given up trying to explain anything to our suppliers without pictures, screenshots, diagrams or videos. It cuts through all of the language and cultural barriers and gets the job done.
The reason most companies don’t do this regularly is that it requires more effort to take a picture, upload it to an email, and mark it up and send it than it does to just write a few lines of text in an email. Take the time. You will find it is worth every second.
Be Objective, Not Subjective
This is so much harder than it sounds. When you tell your supplier that you want something bigger, printed darker, or a little softer you know exactly what you mean and want.
“If your requirements are subjective at all, they will be misunderstood, and your product will come out wrong–every time.”
But, if your requirements are subjective at all, they will be misunderstood, and your product will come out wrong–every time.
Do the work to figure out how to objectively define your requirements. Get out a tape measure, calipers, calculator, pantone book, durometer–whatever tool the job requires. Be objective in your communication.
Create Your Own Simple Prototypes To Communicate
One of the most effective communication tools is building a simple, rapid prototype of your own that you can take pictures or video of. This can be a 3D print, a sample made from a local seamstress, a sample made of clay, paper, cardboard–you get the idea. Just use whatever you have and make a prototype of what you are trying to build.
I once created a backpack frame from some wire, poster board, and tape. I’d been going the rounds with the factory to get them to understand what I wanted for nearly three weeks. We were at a stalemate until I created my simple prototype. I sent the engineer a video of how it worked. The problem was solved in 24 hours.
Your own rapid prototype will ensure the factory thoroughly understands what they will be manufacturing. It’s impossible to communicate your product details solely on paper. It will also help the factory do a lot of the future problem solving on their own.
Always Identify The Type Of Sample In Review
Communicate your intent for each sample with your factory. During new product development, there are three fundamental kinds of samples:
- Works Like
- Looks Like
- Works Like & Looks Like
You have to be willing to work with them also. A lot of companies want to bypass product development and get a production ready, golden sample from their factory on the first round. It just doesn’t work like that.
Elon Musk believes that, “Design is overrated and manufacturing is underrated. Although everyone is fascinated by 'good design' we believe it is quickly developing and learning from prototypes and manufacturing that makes good designs a reality.”
Use the iterative prototyping process as an opportunity to learn and make your product even better.
Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Good Communication
If this seems like a lot of work, it is. But, taking the time to communicate clearly is far easier and less expensive than the amount of work required to fix surprises and overcome unnecessary setbacks.
If you put these methods into practice, your efforts will pay off tenfold during and after production.
If you’d love hands-on help managing new product development, get in touch by scheduling a Product Strategy Call to talk with one of our expert product managers and see if you qualify.