ISO Standards in China – A Journey

Sep 29, 2015 | ISO 9001, The Diary of an ISO Consultant

Marketing Consultant Rob Govier recently interviewed Colin Brown of ISO Consultants about ISO Standards in China, and his recent visit:-

You’ve recently returned from China. Are you trading with Chinese companies now? So what sent you there?

A UK customer was having some issues with the quality and consistency of the product they were receiving from Chinese plants and asked me along to have a look and see what I thought. And, because of my background in manufacturing industry, I had a good idea of what an efficient and safe factory floor should look like.

But I thought that most Chinese suppliers were ISO9001 approved? Aren’t these approvals as respected as UK ones?

ISO Standards in China, including ISO9001, are a big issue, and some factories hold respected approvals and take their certification very seriously. However, just like the UK, there are also other companies that pay it little heed to application of the standard as long as they have a certificate on the wall to get them into their respective markets.

So what are the typical issues?

I suppose the factories I visited split quite nicely into three categories.

The first, excellent. -Tthe management and employees were all very proactive and interested in hearing any comments we had to make, especially about improvements.

Next, the majority of others that were pretty ordinary, with clear omissions in the information available to their employees and management teams. They didn’t seem particularly interested when it was pointed out that this information could be among the reasons for inconsistencies in their product’s performance. They really didn’t “get it”, and it wasn’t just a cultural issue.

The last, (and most alarming) category is of those businesses that would be unlikely to survive in the West; wiring to machines held together with insulating tape, workers standing on piles of breeze blocks to operate machines, and machine tools weighing several tons being moved around by hand by staff without any sort of PPE . Though it has to be said, they made cheap products!

One company in the last category would have been funny if the dangers hadn’t been so real and obvious. People buying from this company are getting a very cheap product, but when the factory has burnt down or the number of injured staff comes to the notice of the authorities (and, yes, they do investigate), buyers had better have a second source available, already equipped with tools, because you won’t be getting more product or your costly press tools back from places like this. It won’t be cheap in the long-run.

And soon after I returned, some of my worst fears about standards were confirmed by the major incident at the Zibo City Chemical Plant in Shandong Province

So, how were you treated at these places? With suspicion?

I was surprised by the response all the companies made to having an auditor present. Most made their Quality Managers available and were prepared to tell me about document control and completing internal audits, but when I started to ask about the products, how their performance was verified, whether the test results were analysed, what happened to failures etc., I was surprised how ill-equipped they were.

It would seem to me that the “audits” they had previously experienced must have been based on ISO 9001 certification type audits, where most of the auditors time is spent looking at how a company manages its Quality Management System, rather than looking how good the product was and whether or not the production process is likely to give consistent product. Surely this alone ought to be the reason for auditing a supplier ?

Do you have any specific examples?

There were a couple of battery manufacturers I visited.

Remarkably, both companies had never been asked about the control of the chemicals coming into the factory or the specification for the chemical paste which becomes the basis for the battery. Now these companies had been visited by some very big companies, including a multinational “big name” in the manufacture of battery operated power tools, yet nobody had asked about the control of THE most critical aspect of a batteries performance, namely what makes the device hold it’s power.

I did wonder what on earth went on at the audits…

You’ve mentioned in the past that there’s a major difference between a quality management system being in place, and actually producing products of the required standard. Was this part of the problem?

I’m thoroughly committed to making standards work. Maybe some European businesses think audits are some sort of jolly, a little holiday for the hard-working Purchasing Manager. If this was the case, then I’d suggest they should review your strategy. If you aren’t going to give the auditee’s a good hard look at their manufacturing process what’s the point of going ? Apart from the duty-free.

So, if other UK-based companies have issues with manufacturing in China, what would you recommend? And how can you help?

1) First of all, don’t send your Purchasing Manager on his own if he isn’t from a manufacturing background. Whoever you send needs to understand the processes used for manufacturing the product if your visit is going to be of any help.

2) Try and be as independent as possible. It’s a lot easier to discuss a company’s sub-standard product or performance if you haven’t got to rely on them to get you home or pay for your hotel !

3) Keep good notes and document any agreements, especially if you expect them to correct unacceptable situations, Chinese manufacturers are not famous for taking actions if they can possibly help it !

And, can you help further if someone has a specific problem with ISO Standards in China?

Of course. The visit was a true “eye-opener” on many levels, but I’ve gained valuable transferable knowledge to add to my 20-plus years experience of standards and auditing in the UK.


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