Posted by Rachel Johnson on
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Brother is a Japanese company that initially began a
joint venture with a Chinese firm in Xi’an in 1993. In this location, they make
low-end to high-end industrial sewing machines as well as machine parts for
large machinery primarily located in the south of China.
Our presentation was made by a Japanese employee who was
fluent in Chinese, and reasonably good at English, although he kept distrusting
himself and switching to Mandarin and one of the Mandarin speakers in our group
would translate, usually Derek. He said that there were 11 Japanese employees
at the plant, and only one of them spoke Mandarin. Their upper level plant
managerial staff all spoke Japanese, and workers could attend Japanese courses
if they wished. We found this very interesting – this is something seen in
France and Japan, I would say most, this sense of national pride and an
unwillingness to compromise national culture in a multinational venture. This
is in reality too broad an indictment of all Japanese and French firms.
However, I do believe that firms in China will either wish to speak their own
language, or expect to conduct business in English. I feel that the Chinese
have not yet attained a level of status in the world that would force those who
wish to do business here to learn their language. Until then, I will be pleased
that my language is now the language of the world, making my life much easier
Our presenter wasn’t actually prepared for us when we
arrived. He said that Chinese people are usually 1-2 hours late, and thus he
didn’t expect us to be on time (we were five minutes early). Thus, some of the
charts weren’t in English, and he seemed very flustered and unsure of how to
structure what he had to say.
The most surprising part of visiting Brother was in hearing
how not lean the processes at the plant were. Brother is headquartered in
Nagoya, the same city as Toyota, and they ascribe to lean principles and the
Toyota manufacturing method, and yet the volume of work in process inventory
just sitting on the factory floor was staggering. The workers also weren’t
wearing hard hats or safety equipment, but that is probably beside the point. The
company’s core values, dress code, and team metrics were posted in prominent
places in the factory. But, I just couldn’t get over the volume of inventory
lying about – it was clearly not a just in time sort of operation.
The most interesting part of the presentation to me was
the discussion of profit, or lack thereof, in the operation. Brother already
makes virtually no profit on their lower-end sewing machine, which retails for
$300, and is primarily intended for markets such as Bangladesh. They do quite well
on their high end machines, but the presenter was saying that wage increases
and logistics difficulties in transporting parts and finished goods were
seriously eating into the potential profits of the business.
really appreciate the time that Brother gave us in Xi’an. This was a real
business tour, not a sanitized version for public consumption. We got a real
picture into difficulties running an outsourced manufacturing business in China,
something China is famous for in business worldwide, and the ways in which it
wasn’t a successful venture, and the ways in which it was.