When doing business internationally, it is important to understand the culture of the destination and any hurdles that may arise. The cultural differences between China and the US place an emphasis on studying the Chinese culture to shape how you approach your business and social dealings. There are many examples of business people making social etiquette mistakes leading to additional challenges building relationships and reaching professional objectives.

Prior to working abroad in Southeast Asia I did some cultural research, and started by reading Rosemarie Coates book, 42 Rules for Sourcing and Manufacturing in China. One of the key learnings for a process engineer, and one that I experienced personally, is the different approach needed for implementing process improvements.

Considering ‘Face' When Implementing Improvements

The foundations of Lean and Six Sigma are rooted in a collaborative approach to process efficiency. Often a company culture must be shaped to empower all employees to identify inefficiencies and bring concerns to management. Kaizen events and quality circles involve employees in an open dialogue in which all employees ideas are treated as equally good ideas that will later be further analyzed to align with company vision and plan execution.

In the Chinese culture, the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma are very difficult to implement. The US approach must be adjusted. The Chinese culture is based on deep respect, and ‘saving face;' therefore, the open dialogue used to identify issues and process improvement initiatives can lead to uncomfortable situations.

To mitigate these issues, ideas for process improvement are best gathered through a silent approach, such as written note cards, or a suggestion box, where ideas are submitted outside of a group setting. Ideas can then be taken to the group for further discussion. This approach will yield a deeper conversation without the fear of causing others to lose face.

When process improvements are suggested by superiors, expect employees to agree to changes. This may not necessarily mean that all employees support the improvement. In order to obtain buy-in for an idea that will be implemented, the idea must originate and have consensus at the level of the organization responsible for implementation. Employees will avoid telling you ‘no' or pushing back on an idea, for the purpose of avoiding someone to ‘lose face.'

Here are a few additional social learnings which will likely help you in your Chinese business relationships:

Exchange of business Cards

When doing business in China, note that the exchange of business cards is a very important aspect of meeting business acquaintances. In the US we may accept a business card and put it in a pocket for safe keeping, but in China, this is looked on as disrespectful. The proper way to accept a business card is with two hands. Carefully study the card and place somewhere for safe keeping. In meeting settings, it is appropriate to place business cards on the table in front of you, so that you can refer to them during meetings.

Having meals with your host

Your host will likely invite you to share a meal or multiple meals. This can range from lunch at a factory to large banquets. Regardless of the environment, be aware of the cultural differences. The ‘Western' and Chinese definition of manners can be quite different, so be sure to take notes from your host. Additionally, be sure not to clean your plate. While in the US cleaning your plate may indicate that you greatly enjoyed your meal, in China it can signal that you weren't provided enough food. This can embarrass your host, so it is best to leave some food on your plate.

More on ‘Saving Face'

If you study the Chinese cultural, you will quickly become aware of the concept of ‘face' and the need to protect all from ‘losing face.' This is a critical cultural learning, and it should guide how you interact throughout your business relationships with Chinese counterparts. This translates to avoiding making sarcastic comments directed at others, and also making an effort to cover mistakes made by others and help them ‘save face.' If you accidentally cause someone to ‘lose face' it will be a long road to reestablish a positive relationship.

Contact CapTech for more information on our experience working with international teams across a variety of programs and industries.