Sunday, May 29, 2011

"No Problem" is a Problem

In a short article in Value China, an author named Zhang Xujing shares some valuable management tips that highlight common problems in Chinese management that anyone doing business with China should be aware of. Dim sums has a hypothesis that "no problem" problem is at the heart of China's food safety dilemma.

Zhang Xujing observes that managers often go to the factory or wherever production takes place to see what's happening on the ground. When the manager asks employees how things are going, the inevitable answer is "no problem" (in Chinese, "mei you wen ti").

Zhang insists that "no problem" is not an acceptable answer. He outlines two scenarios to explain his point.

The first scenario is when an employee says "no problem" when in fact there is a problem. Managers often ascribe this to employees' dishonesty, but it also arises from a management organization that gives employees incentive to cover up problems. An employee may be afraid to admit that problems exist since it would reflect badly on him, he would be held responsible and subject to punishment or downgrade. That means employees keep problems hidden, preventing them from being detected and preventing the company from improving its performance. Problems become entrenched, employees get used to them, and eventually the problems are just ignored.

Second, the author insists that an answer of "no problem" can reflect an attitude of complacency and stagnancy. There is always room for improvement. A "problem" is the difference between the current state of affairs and the ideal. There are always problems to be solved. "No problem" means the bar has been set too low.

The author recommends that managers change their mindset. Managers should not act like police who are out to punish employees responsible for problems. The objective is to solve problems and prevent them from recurring. Managers should see every problem as an opportunity for improvement. He recommends a Toyota-style approach to management based on continuous improvement and problem-solving (that was all the rage in U.S. management circles about 20 years ago.)

This article points to some very old tendencies in Chinese organizations--the reliance on rewards and punishments and a tendency for loyalties to be horizontal (to family, friends, neighbors) rather than vertical (to the company's or organization's goals). In this context, "no problem" becomes a game of hide and seek for auditors, regulators, and even a company's own management. Problems get hidden and are allowed to fester until they blow up.

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