Product Management with Offshore Manufacturers, Part III

Part III of my cross-post collaboration with Paul Young of the Product Beautiful blog.  This is a continuation from Part II of this post.  The topic is product management and communication with offshore manufacturers.  Paul has made some great points, and I have added my own two cents.

  • Put your overseas manufacturer in a position where they only have to execute, never think.  If they have to think, it means that you didn’t spell something out clearly enough for them, or you assumed something.  Every time they have to think, they will get something wrong, which will add 1 month to your schedule as a prototype gets screwed up, and has to be redone.

My thoughts:  This point builds off of the last bullet regarding the difference between the ability to work with an MRD (Marketing Requirements Document) and design/engineering specs.  An MRD requires extrapolation.  The education and cultural foundations of some cultures make them extraordinarily good at copying, memorization, and rote learning.  But, this same foundation greatly hamstrings their ability to come up with their own solutions, think outside the box, and be creative.  Create the design specs here, then send it overseas for review.  It should be noted that some vendors will be able to provide useful advice regarding the manufacturing of your product.  Generally speaking, they are experts in their fields and are familiar with the machines, materials, and processes that are available overseas.  A product designed domestically may not be designed well for manufacturing overseas, thus their points are worth considering and sometimes changes will improve the product.  Nevertheless, the quickest path to accurate manufacturing is to present the overseas vendor with a finalized design package, with the opportunity for slight modifications should they be helpful. 

  • Strongly consider doing rapid prototypes locally.  Prototyping is about speed and fast changes to designs, not saving a few bucks overseas.  What’s the opportunity cost of your prototype sitting on a container ship for 2-4 weeks?  How much do your really save if you have to air freight your prototypes over from China?

My thoughts:  Whether you have rapid prototyping done or just build a prototype yourself, it is good to achieve some form of prototype locally.  You will be able to present your prototype to a vendor overseas, along with your design package, and this will help you convey information.  If pictures speak a thousand words, prototypes speak a million.  Sharing this kind of information helps a non-english speaker immediately circumvent the language barrier and gather important knowledge about the look, feel, and function of your product through direct interaction. 

  • Find a manufacturer who has done it before.  Very important, especially for decorative items or things with fancy finishes.  We are nearly a year late on some decorative metal pieces, and on our 4th manufacturer (who is only barely adequate), because we have not had anyone in our circle of connections that has experience producing decorative metal with fancy finishes.

My thoughts:  Often, overseas manufacturer’s will tell you they are capable of products and processes that they really are not competent in because they either want your business, or do not realize they are not capable, or both.  It is critical to assess a manufacturer’s capabilities before you begin work with them.  This involves inspecting a vendor’s portfolio of existing products, machines, inventory system, labor, factory space, quality control, past references, sub-vendors, and so forth.  Doing the due diligence up front to find a sound manufacturing partner will save you money, time, stress, and possibly your business in the long run. 

Because there is so much attention on China and Chinese manufacturing these days, I have included a few extra points specific to doing business there:

The Three Biggest Challenges In Communicating in China:

1.It is culturally acceptable for a Chinese person to tell you they understand, nod their head, and say "yes" to questions when they actually do not understand what you are saying.  Therefore, it’s helpful to ask questions many different ways, including open ended questions which require them to volunteer information back to you and demonstrate their understanding.

2.Patience is essential.  Anyone who has ever tried to learn another language and operate in another culture can understand this.  You have to have a great deal of patience in working with the Chinese as they often must research the words and meaning behind your statement, or consult with other staff members prior to responding. They may actually spend hours just reading, understanding, and responding to your emails.  For this reason, email should be used in addition to speaking on the phone.  Most have never conversed with a native english speaker and will have less time to understand what you are saying.  Whereas, an email can be analyzed for as long as needs be.  Still, they may misunderstand your statements.  Thus, see my first point. 

3. Develop a feel for the people you are communicating with.  You will begin to learn their behaviors when they do and do not understand and can react accordingly.

4. Be polite, persistent, and again, patient.