Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blind Shaft

For an intense, fast-moving, well-done, glimpse into what it is like working in Northwest China’s coal mines I highly recommend viewing Blind Shaft. My favorite librarian recommended this movie after I told him how corrupt China’s business practices actually are (see my review of Paul Midler's book Poorly Made in China).

Blind Shaft tells the story of two itinerant coal miners who devised a scheme to take advantage of China’s corrupt, unregulated coal mines. They befriend a co-worker; have him pose as a relative, murder him, collapse the coal mine making the murder look like an accident, then pocket the hush money. The perfect crime scheme begins to self-destruct after Song (one of the miners) develops a soft spot for 16 year old Feng, their latest recruit.

The movie was secretly filmed in China at illegal mine sites along the border between Hebei and Shaanxi provinces. Li Yang the movie’s writer-director used back-door bribes and smash and grab camera techniques to film Blind Shaft which includes 50 hours of underground shoots. Also interesting, the movie was banned in China because it was made without permission from the official film bureau.

Blind Shaft is in Mandarin with English subtitles and runs 89 minutes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The risks of conducting business in China

Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China: An Insider's Account of the Tactics Behind China's Production Game is the most eye-opening business book I’ve read this year. If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to do business in China this book is for you. Midler who lived and worked in China for ten years writes of his experiences working as an intermediary between American importers and Chinese Manufacturers. His book provides valuable insight into what it is like to work with Chinese manufacturers while exposing the risks of conducting business in China. Here are some of the lessons provided:

Buyer beware –
What seems like a good deal may be nothing more than a no-money-down special. American importers arriving in China are wined and dined by potential suppliers then offered deals that seem too good to be true - because they are. Once the importer has committed to a particular supplier no tactic is off limits to the Chinese manufacturer who does whatever it takes to turn a profit. Tactics include copying designs and selling the knock-offs in secondary markets at higher margins, skimping on quality with cheaper materials in both the product and its packaging, raising prices at the last minute after it is too late to cancel an order or switch to another supplier. Since, China does not have a strong legal system in place that enforces contracts, the importer has no choice, but to accept whatever the manufacture doles out. They have no recourse and no leverage to insist the supplier improve.

By buying Chinese products Americans have traded safety and quality for price -
China does not have the same safety and quality standards Americans are accustomed to. There is no place in China to even report a safety issue, no place to leave an anonymous tip, and the media is controlled by China’s central government.

Chinese manufacturers manipulate quality through a large number of small variables. If a shortcoming is discovered in one area, other undetected shortcomings will still be in place, so they will still be able to make a profit. Manufacturers are more interested in covering up product safety challenges than addressing them. Factories slap on quality-control stickers that are meaningless. For example the “No Animal Testing” label on one of Midler’s supplier’s products was truthful - because no testing was being performed at all.

When testing is required, laboratories check only for specific substances and each test is costly. There’s no limit to the harmful substances that might have been introduced to a product, either accidentally or by changes to the product formula without the importer’s knowledge, so most importers look the other way hoping their customers won't notice:

In the end, the quality problems that the factory caused were not immediately life threatening, but they caused us to wonder. We were put in a constant state of never being quite sure of what it was that we were receiving. And as the importer, we should have known. We should have been in a position to know everything about our product - but we didn't. (pg. 128)
American importers are afraid to admit doing business in China is not as lucrative as it is portrayed -
Importers would be the last to admit to problems as they have to convince their retailers that they are doing a better job than others. Midler says
“To some extent, we deserve these problems because nobody wants to discuss it.”
By not disclosing the truth, additional American importers continue to move their manufacturing to China believing they have no choice if they are to remain completive.

Americans no longer prefer “Made in the USA”-
American consumers once preferred to see the Made in the USA tag, but there had been another shift in the marketplace. Somewhere along the line, made in China began to sound like a bargain. When an importer told a retail buyer than an item was quoted at 65 cents and made in the USA, the buyer figured it could be purchased somewhere cheaper. When the same product was quoted at 65 cents and was said to have been made in China the buyer figured it could not be found for any less. (pg. 172)

What is Midler’s prediction for China’s future?
China in recent years has been able to play catch up by copying other country’s technologies and business models.
No economy could ever win the race by merely catching the wind off another’s sail, and China has big ambitions for itself. (pg. 139)

When asked “You think China is going to crash.” Like “The rise and fall of China” Midler writes:

“More like the rise and stall,”

What went wrong? How did we get where we are today?
This decision to fling open wide the doors of trade with China- before we were ready, before China was ready, before we understood what we were getting into; an action motivated by our own greed - this decision more than anything else was the one thing related to China that was truly poorly made. (pg. 240)

A word of caution if you like happy endings, after disclosing all of the problems with doing business in China, Midler doesn’t provide a solution most likely because there isn’t one.

For me, I took a quick look around my home at some of the products I’ve purchased recently that failed to meet my expectations: the Tobi fabric steamer that gushes pools of water rather than steam onto my clothes was made in China, the iPod tunebase we had to send back to the manufacturer for complete replacement was made in China, the Pottery Barn Sausalito dinnerware I previously wrote about were made in China. In the future, I will be more cognizant than ever about where my purchases are manufactured and I will never purchase soap products from a Dollar Store.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Moving on after a personal attack by co-worker

A reader writes:

I recently had a personal attack made on my by an equal co-worker.  Here is what she said:

"I’ve never been addressed verbally or in writing so belligerently and unprofessionally in my life. You disgrace this company. If you want to talk to me, as a civil professional, you know my number."

I did not respond to the attack but did get my manager engaged, she disagreed with the comments made against me and told me I am one of her best professional, most ethical people on her team that I am a well respected employee and so on.  She apologized for not paying closer attention to the emailed verbal attack.

There was a meeting with my co-worker, manager and HR representative, where the co-worker was to apologize. While she used the word "apology", I felt she did not apologize for the personal attack.

How do I get pass the lack of ownership, or is that these attacks are really not about the person attacked but the person's own attack on their situation? I really need to understand this and I have been told I must continue to work with her. I have indicated that I am a professional person and will do so but I am struggling with the lack of ownership for the attack on me.

I realized today, I may need professional help to get past this attack. Any information would be most helpful.

First, let’s look at the situation. Your manager clearly disagrees with your co-worker’s comments and considers you one of the most valuable members of her team. She apologized for not paying closer attention to your co-worker’s email (it sounds as though she didn’t take your co-workers comments seriously). Once she realized how hurtful it was to you, she arranged a meeting with the two of you and HR. Your co-worker then gave a half-hearted coerced apology.

You are correct the co-worker’s attack isn’t about you it is about her. All you did was point out she made a mistake and she went berserk and attacked your character. She most likely is not capable of giving a real apology.

In my own personal attack with my company’s HR manager I wrote about here she never apologized either. As you may recall, she told me I was the weakest manager our company had. What bothered me was not that she never apologized, but that she actually believed I was a weak manager. It took me almost a year to recover from that statement. I even questioned whether I should stay in management or look for a job as a financial analyst. There were times when I too felt I should talk to a professional.

What I did do that was helpful and made me stronger in the long run:

Like you, I talked to management and several co-workers about my situation. I received positive feedback and was told by our company’s chairman that I was actually one of our company’s strongest managers. Throughout the year I consulted with my boss and a trusted manager of another department about how to interact with her.

I worked out a lot - at least three times a week. It helped me keep a clear head and allowed me to sleep better so I could focus on my work the next day.

I kept a self-discovery journal. Each day I wrote down three positive thoughts or occurrences from the day. At the end of the week I reviewed the week’s entries and wrote a small paragraph about what I’d learned about myself that week. I did this faithfully for over a year and still enjoy going back and reading those entries.

The act of writing. Before this happened I hadn’t realized how healing writing could be. Not only writing in my journal, but also writing on my blog and commenting on other blogs as well. I wrote not only about my personal attack, but on many other topics as well. It was a nice diversion to think about something else and I was continuously surprised and amazed how supportive and knowledgeable the blogging community is.

I continued to be active in my professional organization volunteering for leadership positions. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone; making cold calls and speaking in public. All of this (even stammering a tad speaking in public) allowed me to be a stronger person in the end. Now a year and a half later, it is easier for me to recognize when someone says or acts in a way that is more about them than me. Instead of internalizing their negative actions and words I now think wow they must be in a bad place.

So my best advice to you is to maintain your focus on your job and continue with your personal standards of courtesy, decency and professionalism. Do whatever it takes to keep a clear head: work-out, talk to a trusted friend, go see funny movies, make an appointment to talk to a professional. The fact that your co-worker is a jerk has nothing to do with you. She will be that way whether you work with her or not. Good luck!

I answered the above reader’s question based on my own personal experience. If anyone has additional advice or comments please chime in.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

A brief interlude during unsettling times

It has been an unsettling couple of months at my place of employment. My company’s success is dependent on the construction industry which has been decimated by the recession. Last year, two separate rounds of pay-cuts, layoffs and expense reductions were implemented. I wrote about them here and here. Our company’s 2010 budget was prepared with the anticipation of Obama’s stimulus monies kicking in mid-year; just in time to pull us out of this recession. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Two months ago, after draining the company’s life insurance policies of all eligible borrowings I asked my boss, “What is plan B?” I thought he was holding back when he said, “There isn’t one.”

He wasn’t holding back. There wasn't a plan B. Instead I’ve had to endure two months of meetings in which every possible scenario has been tossed around. I never would have anticipated how political and dysfunctional this process would become. Managers and employees alike are pouting; pointing fingers, saying things like, “I’ll fire so & so if you get rid of Bob.” “I’ll get rid of Bob if you reduce Susie’s hours she can’t possibly have anything to do.” “I can’t reduce Susie’s hours she is a single mom” (plus she is my girlfriend)… Then there is Mary the receptionist who refuses to answer the phone when Susie is at her desk because she doesn’t think she has to and on and on and on….

Thursday, I was told I needed to eliminate a position in my department. I had until the Tuesday after Labor Day to decide who. I and my boss would be responsible for doing this person’s work. (While I was on vacation in early August our HR manager the FOB (friend of the boss) took my place in these meetings and I haven’t been invited back). I flat out refused. I offered to reduce everyone’s hours to 32, but no way am I eliminating another position. This is ridiculous all three of the employees in my department are busy. Despite sales being down, payroll checks still need to be issued, cash and sales need to be posted and bills need to be paid not to mention the hundreds of collection calls we need to respond to each week.

I started a job search…but I’m not too hopeful. My friend Jess says it will be impossible to find a new job in this economy. Last week, I sent out two resumes. One turned out to be a scam. The other is looking for someone with five years of public accounting experience which I don’t have, so I probably don’t have much of a chance. The other interesting jobs I’ve seen are for contract positions. Next week I’m meeting with a recruiter. Jess has advice on this as well, “Good Luck! I met with him years ago and the only thing he did for me was make me feel small. He said things like, “I see you don’t have this and I see you don’t have that.”

Friday morning I was up early feeling guilty for refusing to let an employee go. I started thinking maybe I should reconsider. Plus, I knew our HR manager was firing (not laying off actually firing) someone on Friday; a six year employee who has repeatedly been warned about his sloppy paperwork. He has a wife who doesn’t work; a one year old and a baby on the way. In addition, he incurred an enormous amount of medical debt when a daughter who didn’t make it was born premature two years ago. I couldn’t help thinking do they have to. I’m not familiar with this employee’s work, but I can’t imagine it is so terrible they have to fire him. And why didn’t he try to improve.

Then while driving in I heard this song on the radio: Michael Franti’s, “Sound of Sunshine” and for a moment, one brief moment, I experienced an interlude from all the drama. Enjoy: