Working With China: To-Do List Minded

Working with China, in business, managing a team or just living there and navigating through life’s daily waters;  you will come across what I call “to-do list mentality”.

You could also call this “task minded.”  Normal work routine consists of going from task to task and knocking each item off the to-do list.  It’s the attitude of someone saying, “I got that done boss, what’s next”.  Everything an employee handles has to be administered by someone else; usually someone in management or an owner.  They will do what’s been given and then once said task is rushed through, they look to the higher-up for the next thing.

This can go on all day long.  There is very little real self-management where an employee / supplier / restaurant worker assess a situation and decides what needs to be done.  Daily work consists of “boss told me to” tasks.   And if boss is not real creative and doesn’t make a fail-safe system then employee goes back to looking at boss with Bambi eyes wondering what is next on the list.

Being to-do list minded means you seldom go below the surface fundamentals of the matter at hand.  The examples I could give are many;  this is an aspect of China I was never particularly wild about and even in my daily China work now, as I’m living in the States, it can still be frustrating.

Let me give a few examples:

Example 1:  You’re manufacturing a promotional product;  let’s say a bag.   You inform the factory to make the logo large enough to see and standout.  They then make it ridiculously huge that anyone in their right-mind with any sense of design or appearance wouldn’t have done.  You tell the factory that this is not what you had in mind.  They throw up their hands, let out a big sigh and say, “but this is what you told us to do”.  Now the sample delays and they need another sample fee.

Example 2:  You inform your employee that we’re going to do client prospecting and they need to send 5 introductory emails per day.  To the employee, that means sending a canned emailed and only changing the email address.  If you’re fortunate the employee will consider changing the person’s name, but this is going to higher-end thought and you’re better off reminding them to do this and double-checking or else Bob is going to be receiving Steve’s email and you’ll look like an idiot.  (after reading this example, you may think I’m being jerk, but I’m serious – getting someone in China moving on a right path takes extreme micromanagement).

The employee comes up after 5 minutes of work.

“Hey Boss, I sent the emails, what’s next”.

(Boss):  “Did you research the customers before you sent the email?  Making sure you catered each email to each customer’s needs?  Did you purposefully contact each company, making sure they are prospective businesses that can use our services?  Are you keeping a close follow-up with previous contacts?

(Employee – blinking eyes and staring at you like a deer caught in the headlights on back country road):  “But you said to only send 5 emails”.

You get my drift….

We are humans and when we delegate a project, give a command or ask someone for help, the command is not usually sufficiently wordy or containing 9000 precepts and subclause possibility that tells each person listening what to do in each case, how to respond if this happens, what you do if that happens, etc….

Production Line

To the above boss, the employee should have enough common ability to know what’s next after the initial request.  True it won’t be as detailed as an old-hand at the action, but being a professional adult in a company, there would be some inkling of an idea.

There are only 24 hours in a day and the boss couldn’t pack each sub-command in his request.  To the boss, he’s thinking that he should be able to give a nudge, a leading, some basic teaching and then the employee will be creative enough to come up with his or her own ideas on how to accurately spearhead the project.   … Not in China.

The employee thinks:  “if you wanted all that done boss, why didn’t you tell me to do it?”

The above factory, once they realize their cartoonishly large logo wasn’t accepted, they go in to what I call “do-whatever-you-say mode”.  This means they won’t budge one iota until every request you give is “clear”.  Clear, meaning they have to think less than before.  “Do-whatever-you-say mode” is even more dangerous than being “task-minded” because now since you’ve irritated them, they won’t look out for basic red flags.  This will only change once you’ve given them a few repeat orders of the same bag or at least they feel like they won’t be blamed for something you should have told them.

The employee will become systemized in prospecting and grasp the spirit of the law behind the letter.  After a long stretched out period, will step by step be able to add their own input in to the projects.  What should take a month or two tops, could take half a year to a year.

Time is key to success in working with China.  Lots and lots of time.

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  • RenaudAnjoran

    Wow this so true! 
    The bad part is, it takes micromanagement and constant checking.
    The good part is, write a good operations manual and they will follow it closely.
    It’s just another way of working… We have to adapt to them at least as much as they try to adapt to us.

    • One large, killer operations manual is definitely needed.  Compose as exact a manual as possible and leave everything up to patience and time.  You’ve heard me say before, you can put 999 contingencies in the manual though and # 1000 will come and you’ll hear “but it didn’t say in the manual that I couldn’t…” 

      Good point on adapting as much to Chinese work-style as they (attempt to?) adapt to the global community.  

      • RenaudAnjoran

        Well, it’s good to write detailed work instructions for the common tasks, but you can give a few general principles and then let each person do her own way for the less common situations. 

        • Guidelines and eventual self-management is the goal, for sure.  Thanks for further sharing, Renaud. 

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  • Joryab

    Jacob,
    Wow, we’ll said. Reading this was like a walk down memory lane for me!
    Thanks for sharing these cultural observations and experiences!

    •  Hi Jory – good to see you hear – been a while since we connected. Yes, I bet from your time of China sourcing and battles you could write a few posts. 

      Hope your summer is going well.

  • Interesting, Jacob. Thanks.

    I found there is a range of levels of Chinese workers. I’ve got several who are simply champions and totally make my operations a success.

    Every once in while I provide more guiding lines for their decision making.

    Of course, these Chinese speak English very well, and are experienced in international trade and interactions with foreigners.

    I also found that investing in showing them your world, and the reasons of why you are asking xyz, helps:
    – I share photos of our projects environment (rural Africa),
    – I explain about the cost for us when a unit fails, etc.

    Also, before asking anything, I’ll first compliment in a specific way a few aspects the person is doing great, for example, thanks for the attention, thank you for the service and efforts, your xx suggestion was great, it helped us in xx..

    All is very much along the lines of ‘How to win friends and influence people – by Dale Carnegie’, and also ‘The 7 habit of highly effective people’.

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