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Culture Clash: 3 Threats to Manufacturing in China

Published: 22 May 2015 01:36:28 PST

manufacturing-in-china-titleMost people feel doing business in China is different from doing business back home. The way you build business relationships and negotiate contracts is different. People talk about “guanxi”, or personal relationships in Chinese, from here to the moon. But how else can culture practically affect your product? How can differences lead to problems with manufacturing in China?

Everyday life in China is different in so many small ways that what might seem obvious to you may not be to staff at a factory here. Of course, these suppliers can make great products; sometimes they just need more information.

In this article, I’ll explore three cultural differences that can threaten manufacturing in China. You’ll learn some of the common ways that cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings with a Chinese factory and what you can do to prevent problems.

Lacking Familiarity with Common Cooking Products

Partly due to formal education and partly due to upbringing, most westerners are familiar with units of measure when it comes to cooking products. Grandma baking cookies or listening to?Jamie Oliver on TV in the background actually teaches you a lot, and most people in China have never had these experiences. Even the staff of extremely professional suppliers often don’t know how to use many of the products they manufacture.

Do they know spring form pans need a relatively tight seal so they can be used in a water bath? Or that a stick of butter usually comes in a standard size so a butter dish must have specific internal dimensions? Or do they know what flour sifters and garlic presses are? The answer to all these questions, 9 times out of 10, is no. Address these kinds of points with your supplier directly so they’re familiar with how the product actual functions.

Misinterpreting Units of Measurement

As an American living abroad, I have to say that we have shot ourselves in the foot by not adopting metric units of measurement. For example, a brisk 45-degree weather forecast for me might make others around me panic (45°C is roughly 115°F).

When it comes to manufacturing in China, suppliers are familiar with our illogical attachment to feet, inches and pounds and can adapt. What they often get tripped up on, though, are the units of measurement like cup and tablespoon.

An auditor once jokingly told me about when he first learnt that a cup was actually a standardized measurement:manufacturing-in-china-units

The first time I saw the requirement “must have a 3 cup capacity” during inspection, I thought, a cup? What cup? Any cup? How about a baijiu cup [~10mL]? Or what about a Venti Starbucks cup [~600mL]? Since it doesn’t say what cup, any cup is OK.

Obviously, this was a specific requirement, but I thought that this must be a brand-specific thing. It’s like when you buy a rice cooker. It will come with a cup, and the cooking instructions tell you how many cups of dry rice will make 1 serving. Some rice cookers have smaller cups, while others have larger ones.

While giving clear specifications in writing is vital, it can be just as important to follow up on with an informal?discussion. Consider including specifications with metric conversions. Talk about how you developed your specifications or what experience you want your consumer to have when they use the product. While these talks can seem frivolous, they give the supplier more information than you’d think.

Fear of Asking for Clarity

Of course, the factory needs detailed CAD drawings with defined dimensions and tolerances. But an often neglected step after providing these specifics is to take the supplier through the drawing step by step. Explain how each part fits in with the completed product and which dimensions are manufacturing-in-china-clarityset so there are no issues with functionality. If you don’t clarify and make sure the supplier understands all the specifics and units involved, factory staff may have no idea how to best adapt to issues they encounter during production.

The number of factories that don’t understand substantial?parts of CAD drawings because of unfamiliar shorthand or jargon is shocking. You might assume your supplier contact would just ask if they have questions. But for Chinese suppliers and others in Asia, admitting they don’t understand something can lead to embarrassment and a loss of face. The fear is that by asking questions they will look unprofessional or uneducated when, in fact, you should want your supplier to ask questions as needed. So be sure to walk your supplier contact through the details to make sure all is clear before beginning manufacturing in China.


Manufacturing in China can be frustrating. There always seem to be problems, even after you provide specifications, collect and approve golden samples?and carry out product inspections. You may feel like you have a negligent supplier. But what’s more common is that the supplier just didn’t understand something.

  1. Don’t assume that “common” household cooking products are common everywhere. Just as you may not understand some products from the East, you may not be aware of how alien some western products might appear to people there. Engage your supplier to clarify product uses and specs.
  2. Your supplier might use different standards for measurement. Whether you’re product relies on Fahrenheit for temperature or the use of a measuring cup for baking, make sure your supplier understands the unit used.
  3. Lacking understanding can lead to production problems if the supplier is afraid to ask questions. That’s why it’s important that you walk your supplier through important details of your product and the relevant specs to make sure you and the supplier are on the same page.

Keep your supplier in the know by carefully addressing these points when discussing their capability, placing an order and beginning production. And don’t let these cultural differences get in the way of making a quality product!

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