Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
When China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of 2001 the gates opened for the country to fulfil its potential of becoming the “World's workshop”. Consequently, China's exports to the rest of the world leapt from US$ 266 billion in 2001 to US$ 969 billion in 2006, well ahead of its increase in imports. Since, China is becoming so important as a base for producing manufactured goods, I have, in various previous issues of Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, used the opportunity of this Editorial to comment occasionally on matters relating to Chinese manufacturing and the lessons it is teaching to, and learning from, the rest of the world. In Vol. 17, No 7, for example, I mentioned the rapid advances that have been made in terms of automotive production. Then more recently, in Vol. 18, No. 3, I discussed China's desire to increase its R&D activity and thereby improve its indigenous technological capability.
However, the most recent news about China's manufacturing industry has been less than favourable, with US toymaker Mattel recalling more than 18 million of its Chinese-made toys due to quality concerns. In some cases these related to excessive lead in paint, while in others the problem was with small magnets coming loose – both being of great concern when the products are destined for use by children. It all made for dramatic newspaper headlines and added fuel to the arguments of those critics who claimed that China did not compete fairly when compared with international standards. Of course much of the criticism, not surprisingly, came from the places where jobs have been lost to Chinese competitors.
In this example, there are clearly lessons to be learned on both sides. But ironically these are almost the same lessons that the Western World and Japan taught each other over the last 50 years. The problems that are being experienced with Chinese quality now are little different from those we heard about Japanese products in the 1950s. At that time “made in Japan” meant being cheap, not reliable, except this reputation very quickly changed. Most importantly it was American quality experts who first taught Japanese companies about quality management, initially W. Edwards Deming in the early 1950s, followed by Joseph Juran who extended the lessons from individual factories to the whole organization. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s it became Japan that taught the west about quality management, except the message was a new one; that quality could be continuously improved, but by concentrating on organizational and motivational factors rather than setting and maintaining quality standards, which was the essence of the western philosophy and principles previously given to the Japanese.
It is this message that now needs to be learned by China. No quality control chart or acceptance sampling scheme is going to prevent the sort of human errors that resulted in Mattel's Chinese supplier using paint from unauthorised sources. Such a systemic failure in a company's systems must call into question the whole quality process from start to finish. The solution for China should be to learn from Japan, not from the dictates of its American customers. But will it listen?