Mr. Chen Said…

  • Communication reflects effort. Passing off via communication does not well-reflect effort.

Are you a verbal facilitator?

In other words are you someone who masks your inability by always quoting what others have said?

Or do you have original thoughts and add value to your conversations, your projects and take ownership?

Perhaps it’s not necessarily inability that’s being kept secret but it’s a way of playing it safe. A way of not sticking your neck on the line.

Verbal facilitators are also “quoters” or perhaps functional name droppers… I’m not exactly sure how to label this communication phenomenon.

We’ve all been guilty of aspects of this type of buck passing, but if we find ourselves doing this, we need to put a halt to it.

Many moons ago, back when I was based out of Dongguan, China, I was speaking to a teammate who just returned from an inspection of a shipment. We were having the debriefing meeting and I was asking this person questions, trying to get a clear assessment of the situation.

After each question, this person would preface each answer with “Mr. Chen said…”.

Mr. Chen was the factory manager and main point-of-contact for the employee who visited the factory.

I’d say, “what about this issue?”.  He’d say, “Mr. Chen said…”.

I’d say, “did you notice any of the…”. The employee would answer and again start off with a “Mr. Chen said…”.

I got to thinking, “well, why don’t you just go home and I talk to Mr. Chen?”

What value was this person bringing to the table? I don’t want to necessarily know anything that Mr. Chen says. Mr. Chen is  a great guy but the responsibility was yours to be the eyes, ears and also brain of the situation.

I want to know what you saw, what you think, what you feel.

They might have done the shipment inspection and they might have done a real good inspection. But they were unable to take ownership of the situation and make it theirs.

This person was not comparing and deducing information based on the facts and then adding their own expertise to the project. They were not go-to hub of facts, solutions and action but instead, simply an information passer.

I know I may be belaboring the point, but I want to make sure I’m typing this clearly.

Communication & Responsibility

This concept happens frequently in China, which is a more group-minded culture and the cultural-form of communication is to spread everything out so that no one individual is responsible. This includes errors and successes. Nobody is technically responsible for anything but good things and bad things are sort of like “forces” that just seem to “happen”.

The same thing happens here in the States and undoubtedly everywhere in some degree.

How about when you talk specifications or requirements with a client and each answer starts off with “My client said. My client wants. The client has to confirm. The client needs”.

My thinking is, “But what about you? What are you saying to add value to the supply chain? Why are you existing?”

How about buyers who just forward their buyers’ emails and delete the name and contact information? Would they put this on their website to their customers?

Contact us with your inquiry and we’ll skillfully forward your inquiry to a capable vendor. We don’t add any of our own skills and expertise to the project, but we’re very good at clicking “forward” and deleting your contat detail.

One buyer told me recently that they didn’t have answers to my questions and they were just “middle men”.

And I get that. We all serve in “middle men” roles in one form or another. We all deal with additional vendors or outsource one function or another. But if you are a serious professional, why would those words ever leave your mouth?

On a smaller scale it’s grating when you go to a restaurant and ask your server questions and for everything you ask, they have to “check with the kitchen”.

Should I go sit in the kitchen and eat in case other questions come up?

This is why the word “middle man” has a bad connotation.

That server, like, everyone else in business, from restaurants, to small business to buyers to vendors should be hubs of knowledge of their own field. There are times when you’re not going to be able to “check with the kitchen” and will have to on-the-spot prove your own worth, make a decision,  or add in your own refined and cultivated proverbial 2-cents into the project.

The people I do business with, whether employees, vendors or clients, I want to hear their opinions. I expect them to bring an expertise to the table. A persons “2-cents” should come from years of refining their own craft.

The easiest buyers to work with are those that don’t have to check with the client over every little question and confirmation. The best vendors to work with are those that know their trade and don’t require you to wait for a response from down the supply chain.

Do you want people to look to you as someone trustworthy who can fulfill expectations? Are you actually fulfilling a role in your supply chain or just playing hot potato with detail.

As great of a guy that Mr. Chen may be, folks who are dealing with you, want to hear what you have to say, what you think, how you are making this project your own and adding value to the chain.

Give Mr. Chen a rest…or either let me talk to him directly.

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  • Thank you for the nicely written post, Jacob.

    Indeed, it’s too easy to run into such situations.

    One thing which is worth exploring is — how do the same people respond when we change our approach?

    I mean, for example, the worker who kept mentioning Mr. Chen might have had a very bad previous experience when he tried to speak his own thoughts, take responsibilities, and make his own decisions. It might not even be an experience caused by you — the current employer.

    So, while it might take big time investment, we could try and encourage the behavior we hope to see from our workers.

    I currently use techniques I read at — ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – by Stephen Covey’.

    But, if anyone reading this have tips on good training ways for colleagues, please comment. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the comment, Yotam and for stopping by. For the personnel in China, I’ve found the best training method is “time”. Time, time and more time. Fortunately as our company grew and there were more seasoned teammates for the newer ones to learn from, the problem sort of weeds itself out. Being a cultural issue there, I’ve noticed remnants of the “Mr. Chen Said” syndrome never fully go away. Like you said, “encouragement” helps.

      As for other folks though, ie folks on this side of the globe, folks not in our company but whoever you meet in life; vendors, service folks..even potential clients… if I can skip them, then I do. Usually the best partners and contacts will take ownership of a project. The fact is, there are some in life who have coasted and don’t have a strong grasp on their position (perhaps ambitious but without the tools to apply?).

      Perhaps I’m being a pessimist and need to encourage more? Sometimes we all can be too patient with bad business partners and contacts instead of finding folks who are serious at addressing issues and being “doers”, not just passers.

  • Dylan Robertson

    Jacob! Been forever. Stumbled onto your blog and read 10-15 entries, some really insightful stuff, stuff that would have been really helpful doing a better job in Nanjing. I thought your thoughts on all the things that can mess up a relationship with a supplier and the results of that were really spot on, and what you said about what pushing for the lowest price really means definitely resonated with something I noticed a bit at the time but hadn’t been able to articulate. You are the man!

    Concerning this post, more good thoughts indeed. My own two cents: For our part of the world in the service and retail industries, I think maximizing cost savings through big volume stores and automated processes have had a big effect on what you are talking about. The goal for places like McDonalds and Walmart isn’t to give an average worker the opportunities, training, responsibilities and especially pay to become a competent person with expertise in their own area. The goal instead is to idiot proof things and hire the lowest cost workers you can. It is a way to function and clearly make a lot of money, but on the buyer end we feel it whenever we expect that someone do more than just follow the most basic procedure and script that they have been given. Plus in increases turnover and job dissatisfaction (who wants to be a robot?), leading to even less time and investment on both sides to developing someone’s knowledge and skills.

    As a teacher I know of schools that try to only hire people with 3 years or less experience, as they are cheaper. But unless you have some experienced, knowledgeable, and committed people in your organization the best you can be is mediocre.

    Take care and I’ll try to stay in touch and read your awesome blog more often!

    • Really great seeing you here, Dylan. Been too long! Thanks for the encouragement…your comments mean a lot to me. Especially since you help me “cut my teeth” in the biz. Li and I were reminiscing on the “the shawl”….LOL!

      You made some good comments on the lower cost employees that are working in max margins and automated environments. I think there is a lot of “catch 22” there but undoubtedly the lack of incentive creates lack of personal growth. But the “coming of the shell” has to start from somewhere and personal responsibility is a mega incentive and reason in itself. I’m seeing the “Mr. Chen said syndrome”not just in lower-pay scale positions though but within the ranks of folks who should know better. I think the internet (amongst other things in our newfangled world) is furthering a “pass-the-buck” mentality

      Is your personal email still the lambertea acct? I’m going to holler at you and hopefully we can catch up. Salute to Sr. Clergy. I hope you and yours are well.

  • Arkash D. Sachdev

    Good day Jacob,

    Been reading through many of your posts; and I can relate to this one.

    Working as QA Consultant, my aim is to bring more autonomous practices to companies for efficient and learn operation. Noticing when quality issues surface, the blame game is thrown outward – “factory boss said this, factory sales said that.” I expect very little from the factory as those are factors out of the control of this office. Hence, I train the staff on a project-to-project to take incentive and put their “2-cents”, I noticed that locals work very different from Westerners, many of them the learnings from previous projects into the next.

    I agree with Yotam, time is the best of teacher. As such, I have launched several reoccurring quality practices that are more focussed on planning first and then executing (seems obvious right?).

    Such example is shown below:
    A. We execute a 10-minute standing brief on what has to be achieved in tomorrow’s inspection. Inspection AQL to what standard? How is the day looking like tomorrow? Who will be doing what role? What happens if two suppliers come at once?. Enabling to run situations in their mind helps them think at the moment.
    B. One quarrel I kept hearing from the “delivery companies complain on the time-lag it takes for us fill out paperwork.” Hence I made “inspection stickers” that are filled out days prior to inspection. At inspection, I instruct the staff to clearly state to the delivery company that these stickers have to be put on the carton underneath the “packing tape” – hence they will have to open them, inspect, close, stick and tape. If they are ok to wait, then we are good to go; if not, please come another time or talk to the factory boss. This goes quite well, as most of the time the factory boss is more willing to lose 10-20 minutes rather than sale. I noticed delivery companies were more willing to cooperate as they understood this was pre-planned job that required execution, rather than just trying to explain the delivery company that we work at AQL XXX…

    What I mean to say is that if the staff cannot translate the learnings from project to the other, my role is to launch repetitive practices that count as their “2 cents”. They won’t be able to say Ms. Chen said.. It is pretty much, I put the effort prior to the inspection and its part of my role so might as well do it.

    I understand the bottleneck this faces, but in time the plan is to launch additional practices that will count as their “2 cents” as the cost of rehiring and training new staff takes its toll too.

    Great blog, hope to contribute more in the long run.

    • Arkash,

      This was a very insightful comment and I appreciate you bettering the original post with it. You concept of empowering the team to put forth their own input (if I understood it correctly), via that repetition…is a great recipe, especially when mixed with TIME. This slowness of repetition, like you said, “bottlenecks” and can be painful, but it beats having to always go back to the drawing board and hire more staff.

      Please stop by often and contribute – thanks again.