Don’t Look For Efficiency in China

A lot of words come to mind when thinking about business in China: “Booming”, “Exports”,  “Walmart”, “Cheap Labor”, “Outsourcing” – You’ll notice “Efficient” isn’t one of them, and this doesn’t just apply to manufacturing. Over these next few days we’ll be looking at the Chinese workplace, and a few interesting jobs, that seem to be unique to China.

When I first arrived in China I noticed that even the smallest shops were staffed with dozens of employees. My Chinese friends explained that this was because Chinese businesses wanted their customers to have excellent service. I was skeptical as to whether or not this was true after my first trip to a Beijing Starbucks. There were at least 6 employees standing behind the counter and it took me a few minutes to even get their attention, most of them were busy looking at their cell-phones or were actively avoiding eye contact. Once I got my drink I had to search for a clean table, since many of the others were still covered in garbage from the last customers.  Also, I was the only customer.

This isn’t a once in a while experience either, this is a daily sight. In almost every supermarket or convenience store you have to struggle to get past the groups of idle employees just to do your shopping.

This is not to say that Chinese people are lazy; there just isn’t enough work to do for that many employees.

So why not just hire fewer employees?

As I talked about earlier, wages in China are very low. So for the manager operating the store the cost of a few extra employees is a marginal expense that seems to create the impression that this store has excellent service.

I think this attitude has become so pervasive in the service industries that it has now crept into virtually every sector. For example, in the administrative section of the hospital we have far more staff than work to be done. One of my co-workers regularly naps for most of the afternoon or shops online; while the other one watches TV shows or chats with her friends (who also work here). In Chinese colleges the teachers’ office looks very similar to my office at the hospital, with a dozen or so people happily tending to their Chinese Facebook pages.

A fun side note: Another limit on efficiency is the somewhat sacred nap time. In the summer we stop working between noon and 2:30 so that everyone can take a nap. During this time even many of our best surgeons can be found snoring in their offices. To me it seems like life would be a lot better if we took a short lunch and headed home early, but suggesting this to my co-workers has only resulted in angry glares. “But I would be too tired to work,” one of them says.

Until wages rise in China to the point that labor becomes an actual expense (and they are just beginning to), I find it hard to believe that China will be a leader in establishing new business practices. The US response to the financial crisis was to fire workers and improve efficiency, and while it sounds cold-hearted, it is part of why our economy is so strong. In the meantime China created dozens of jobs without any work to be done. Which model do you think creates a stronger foundation for future growth?

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at some of China’s made up jobs that keep the masses employed

11 responses to “Don’t Look For Efficiency in China”

  1. Tim says:

    This topic is awesome, I can’t wait until tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about inefficiencies and stuff that’s just plain weird to me recently. Good stuff.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Ah! the sacred xiuxi 休息!Did it start due to people’s poor diet due to famines and food shortages? Were people literally too tired to work without the mid day rest? For an amusing read about China’s manufacturing “efficiency” read “Poorly Made in China” by Paul Midler. It’s eye opening and chuckle making!

  3. Thank you very much for starting this topic that I find really interesting. Never looked it that way. On the one hand, I think it is good that people are employed (even if there is not much to do) rather than having no job at all (as its happening in Spain) at least I think that Chinese young people are more motivated in that aspect. However, it is true that improving economy its difficult this way.
    Can’t wait to learn more.

    • Kujo says:

      Casi you’re a total babe. I would love to take you out to dinner. Totally agree this topic is fascinating.

  4. Liis says:

    Rising labor cost may motivate business owners to hire fewer idling employees or get rid of the hordes of service people greeting guests at restaurants and spas, but an important barrier to this could be the ever-present concept of face. If they have too few people around, their business does not look good to outsiders (as if the owner didn’t have money to hire more people), which is detrimental to the owner’s “face credit”. I think in the Chinese service industry striving for efficiency and maintaining face will inevitably function as a trade-off.

  5. Bill Rich says:

    I love to see how they are going to compete with other countries when their wages rise up to similar level as other countries. Will these people be working as hard ?

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  7. Chopstik says:

    Tom, you cynic you… 🙂

    I’m finding this to be an amusing post only because my line of work is creating efficiencies and I am only here because I was too lazy to do things the hard way (or the long way). I might have to share this with a few other people…

    • Tom says:

      The stuff I’m laying out in this article is just the tip of the ice berg. Today I’m going to be talking a bit about bureaucracy and paper work. China excels in these areas like few other countries could dream of.

  8. indiefan23 says:

    Heh, what I find funny about living in Asia is how people’s perceptions of the Chinese is so slanted by those who immigrate. The hardest and smartest workers leave and make great lives for themselves. If I were to use one word to describe Chinese culture it would be Fang Bian 方便. Convenience. Why keep a 1,000’s of years old language system that is the hardest in history to learn? Ahh… too much thinking to come up with a better system, so lets just make our kids stay in school 14 hours a day and not be truly literate until their 20’s. The result: kids come out of schools not really being smarter and with critical thinking skills smashed out of their heads after working 10 times as hard. Oh Asia!

    • Kujo says:

      The Chinese are hideously inefficient. There is simply no incentive for them to improve at all in this regard, not in the near term. And it’s hard to see how the cultural complacency will improve any either.

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