Why Chinese sewing contractors are superior?

How many of you read Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior? It was very unsettling for westerners to read, generating rampant criticisms all around. I don’t intend to rehash the parenting debate but the context of skill acquisition deserves a hard second look especially because unreasonable expectations about learning new skills have become commonplace. Perhaps it is due in part to the culture of narcissism and its immediacy (tweet culture) but it’s more than that. Call it techno-lust or what you will, we’ve all come to believe (on some level) in the idea that there exists a tool you can acquire that lets you take a competency shortcut to leapfrog over everybody else. You wonder why your line isn’t taking off? Maybe it’s related to the time it takes to acquire competencies. It could be that simple. Consider this blurb from Asset Stock Accumulation and Sustainability of Competitive Advantage:

Given incomplete factor markets, appropriate time paths of flow variables must be chosen to build required stocks of assets. That is, critical resources are accumulated rather than acquired in “strategic factor markets” […] Sustainability of a firm’s asset position hinges on how easily assets can be substituted or imitated. Imitability is linked to the characteristics of the asset accumulation process: time compression diseconomies, asset mass efficiencies, inter-connectedness, asset erosion and causal ambiguity.

(simplistic) English Translation: If doing X were so easy that you could do it overnight, it wouldn’t be any great shakes because the market would be inundated with competition because anybody else could do it too. Meaning, if it were possible to start a clothing line as simply as many think it should be, you wouldn’t have the means to make yourself heard above the din.

Think about it seriously though; if it were that easy, you wouldn’t be attracted to such a crowded field in the first place. If it were possible to score the right tool (an asset) or know the right person (another asset) who’d open doors for you, you wouldn’t stand out in the crowd or be unusual -specifically because no effort would be required. Beethovens and Einsteins would be commonplace -and boring. In some respects we can be grateful that genius and competency aren’t commonplace but the painful circuitous conclusion remains that you have to work for it.

If you think about it, a company is a complex asset comprised of other assets. Generally you buy or build assets. Meaning, you have two options if you want a line. First is to buy the assets of a going concern. This is what larger players do because it can cost less to buy somebody like you than it can cost build their own especially if it’s an untried market -and which is why you have less to fear from monolithic big brands than people think (they didn’t get big by being dumb). When products are copied, it’s usually by smaller or start up operations rather than big ones. Large companies copy too but they’re more likely to copy processes and operations (read: implementation tools) than products. Small operations also copy processes but often to their detriment in that they attempt to adopt complex operation complexities like push manufacturing when they don’t have the same infrastructure. Another example would be a new designer who thinks they need to produce dresses, coats, sportswear, caps etc because that’s what they see on the department store floor.

Your second option is to build your own assets (which circuitously makes you valuable as to be worth becoming acquired or becoming publicly traded). Even if you’re pulling from the same sourcing pool as everyone else, the ways in which you combine those resources can be unique creating another advantage. [f anyone cares to admit it, the strategic (unique) combining of materials, method and market is really the game in apparel and sewn products.] You can read more about that in The dynamics of resource application and accumulation. And you have to do it better and for less than anyone else with whom you share market space. Developing that operationally is a valuable asset unto itself.

It takes a lot of time and skill to accumulate assets. Assets aren’t like wildflowers you can pick along the side of the road. If they were, everybody would have them so they wouldn’t want yours when they could get their own for nothing. In that case, the only thing you’d be in the market to provide would be delivery services for people who didn’t want to get their own. In many respects, delivery services is what some apparel producers provide; that’s their real business. Is that what you want? I didn’t think so. And sure, there’s nifty tools you can buy to make it happen but you’d still need competencies to make headway. Again, if it were easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be remarkable anymore.

You know what could be really scary? That Chinese sewing contractors could be superior (especially if they were run by Chinese moms). There’s only one solution to this frightening apparition: Hard work and lots of it… Like I’m telling you something you didn’t already know… :)

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15 comments

  1. Rocio says:

    Great find Kathleen!

    I forwarded the “Chinese Mothers” article to my mum and asked… -“Who does this mum remind you of?”-

    I watched the BBC documentary “Chinese School” and it brought back so many memories of the discipline instilled in us while growing up in Mexico City.

  2. Theresa in Tucson says:

    The editorial in today’s paper (Arizona Daily Star) was by Nicholas D. Kristof titled “US could learn from China’s education system”. Kristof’s wife is American of Chinese descent and the children in her family’s ancestral village were a year ahead of his own children in an excellent public school in New York. He talks in his editorial about China’s strengths but also says that for all those strengths, they envy our system because ours encourages creativity. What we lack is respect for learning and academic rigor. There is no “Easy” button.

  3. Reader says:

    I read the article. Chua’s approach is extreme, to say the least, although I agree that many kids benefit from discipline. But it has to be tailored to the child, and in some cases there can be a huge price to pay. I’m sure you’ve read by now that young Asian American women have one of the highest or the hghest rates of suicide in the U.S.

    The Chinese business analogy that occurs to me in this situation is the time that China exported contaminated products that killed children abroad. China’s response was to execute the Minister in charge. Ouch!

    I believe in oversight and accountability, but I think I’d stop short of executing government officials unless they took bribes or did some other atrocious thing. Mere incompetence, as incensing as that is, would not be enough to end someone’s life.

  4. Seems to bash western society and the American way of life. America stands for Light, Truth and Justice. The respect of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

    Whether that is kindness and fairness in parenting skills which appears absent from the discussion about Chinese Mom’s, or in the business world, where America places importance upon worker rights, worker safety and fair pay on the factory floor.

    Consider promoting articles about creativity, innovation and sustainable business practices.

  5. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    I recall reading somewhere that acquiring expertise any given subject requires roughly 10,000 hours or practice (and [i]useful[/i] practice at that; 10,000 hours of making mistakes won’t work). (Just looked it up; it was a claim made in the book [i]Outliers[/i] by Malcolm Gladwell, 2008.) Clearly this can’t be applied to everything; someone with marginal ability for math isn’t unlikely to be able to achieve mastery of physics regardless of the time they spend learning and practicing.

    However, it would certainly seem to apply in this discussion. Having the latest and greatest tools aren’t going to make you an expert patternmaker overnight (my best efforts to the contrary notwithstanding), nor will a few hours of reading make you an expert in business. You can certainly acquire people that already have the talent (at a price; expertise is never cheap), and you can certainly practice and get critique for improvement, but there isn’t a shortcut.

    And now, off I go to trying to teach myself better patterning skills…

  6. Kathleen says:

    Joseph -This not being the place to contradict anyone with facts countering nationalist fervor, I’ll let that go.

    Consider promoting articles about creativity, innovation and sustainable business practices.

    If you read the content on this site regularly instead of coming in via google alerts, you’d see the entire focus of my site (to the tune of 6 years and over 2,000 entries) is teaching -not solely lauding- innovation and sustainable business practices in the apparel industry. As such, I have the liberty of opening with what you interpreted as an inflammatory precept.

    Creativity on the other hand… is over rated because we have that in spades. Any kid with a box of crayons is creative. Where we fall short -but the Chinese arguably do not- is execution and thus a disservice to pander to readers by parroting all that we believe to be true about ourselves. Fervor and self serving validation solves *nothing*. Were it sufficient for “us” to be “right” and thus not need to learn lessons from others (no matter how unpalatable we find them), again, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the positions we are. Creativity in problem solving dictates that we should analyze what our competitors do well and wend it to our purposes.

  7. Dear Kathleen,

    Thank you for the response and your points are noted in regards to the Chinese supply chain. My comments should not be considered as nationalist. Those ideas are important, not just for the American people, because they form the foundation of basic respect and rights for all humankind. We must place people and the environment ahead of business profits in a new world order.

    I look forward to reading your unique and interesting editorials in the future. Thank you.

  8. Paul says:

    Are Chinese sewing contractors superior? I live in China and to hear Chinese talk about products made for the domestic market you would have to question whether there could be any truth that Chinese sewing contractors are superior in any way. Yes, contractors for export products are generally superior to domestic, but I would not say that is necessarily true in comparison to sewing contractors in other parts of the world. The general perception here is that products for export and products that are imported are far superior to domestic products. That may be one reason why there is a reluctance to allow unrestrained growth in imports.
    When I first moved to China I asked people why they did not buy Chinese made automobile brands. The first thing I got was an incredulous stare and then a laugh. Chinese in the know do not buy domestic cars because, in their own words, the cars are junk. I was told that many are direct copies of foreign brands right down to the styling lines, but the mechanics and engines lack the materials knowledge to make them last. I expect the Chinese will get better, but now they have to shake off the reputation among their own countrymen that Chinese cars are inferior to foreign brands.
    Like you said, some things take time to build. Some things you cannot simply copy.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Is anybody reading this entry? Did I say Chinese contractors were superior? Please note the title of my entry ends in a question mark. At closing I wrote (emphasis in bold now):

    You know what could be really scary? That Chinese sewing contractors could be superior (especially if they were run by Chinese moms).

    Other than my attempt at humor that obviously wasn’t appreciated, superior to what? And as compared to what? Making blanket statements without establishing defined criteria is not something I do.

    Furthermore, I’m not going to do it because that presupposes we are off the hook -and we aren’t. The issue is not whether someone else is bad because they are worse (basis undefined) than we are but are we all that we can and should be? Who aspires to be least worst? That we are good because we aren’t as bad as someone else? I can’t speak for you but my aspirations for producers is that they become the best they can be regardless of how bad someone else is. If all one can say about themselves is that they aren’t as bad as X, they don’t have much going for themselves.

  10. Sahara says:

    I’M reading your entry (as I read many of them). And I understand what you said, with one exception. I think our media’s culture of narcissism has INCREASED entry into crowded fields, due to excessive exposure and admiration of the surface qualities of outliers. It would seem logical that if a field was crowded you wouldn’t be attracted to it. But I’m not seeing that, especially in young designers, entertainers, etc. The SKILL is in getting media attention, not acquiring the assets or competancy from hard work; narcissists think they stand out already (I’m fabulous, I DON’T NEED to work hard) they just need someone (who they feel is important) to see, or wear it. Combine that with IMMEDIACY and the formula’s in. They don’t think they have THE TIME to become competent; fame is fleeting, after all. Now, getting the attention of the media is work too; but it’s more FUN to go to events, than to sit behind a knitting machine.

    We also want to be a nation of directors. Who wants to sew? Or knit? Not for nothing, the Chinese knitters I’ve worked with are very skilled and are interested in learning new machine techniques and fabrics – the goal being to produce a beautiful and well made product. It’s too difficult with interns – forget the free work, I’d rather pay – and college grads who are minimally skilled, would rather do cut and sew (full fashioning is too much work, and pattern-making is involved), and actually not do it at all. I get “I don’t need to know this, I could get someone else to do it for me.”

    The best was this statement. “I’ll go into the music business and start my clothing line that way.”
    Only in America.

  11. Jennifer says:

    The issue is not whether someone else is bad because they are worse (basis undefined) than we are but are we all that we can and should be? Who aspires to be least worst? That we are good because we aren’t as bad as someone else? I can’t speak for you but my aspirations for producers is that they become the best they can be regardless of how bad someone else is. If all one can say about themselves is that they aren’t as bad as X, they don’t have much going for themselves.

    Very well put, Kathleen. I really believe this and can’t stand people who are always making excuses or putting down other people to make themselves look better, regardless what nation they are from.

  12. Maripat says:

    According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers” you need a minimum of 10,000 hours to perfect your craft/passion/sport etc. How you achieve that, and in what country it happens is not really relevant.

  13. Dei says:

    I would suspect the knee-jerk reaction running through some of the thread may be in relation to the debate generated by Ms. Chua’s book and a re-evaluation of our own competency in more than just parenting. I’ve only read excerpts and intend on reading the book in full, but the tenor of her discourse is at times tongue-in-cheek meaning she acknowledges her own short-comings and cultural differences. It’s one woman’s opinion.

    If no one else did, I get the gist of your post. Skill is an asset in any venue and takes time to nurture and acquire. You toss out the Chinese Industry and Chinese mom relation as a cause and effect analysis…which I interpreted as not to be taken literally other than to highlight the merits of industrious, creative, productive, skilled labor, in any industry or pursuit.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Yeah Dei, like that.

    Did anybody catch Chua’s interview on Fresh Air? Between that and the follow up article in the WSJ, she says the original article was an *excerpt* from her book, says her parenting style evolved and intimates she got her comeuppance. Her husband participated in the Fresh Air interview I heard. I didn’t catch all of it but what I gleaned was that he didn’t realize it would be so controversial. They had a child raising agreement, her parenting style, his faith (Jewish). Mr. F-I laughed that of course the two would be congruent because both cultures are noted for instilling the value of accomplishment and competencies.

    Re Sahara’s comments in this continuing context:
    I wonder (hope) if some of the criticism amounts to a last gasp backlash against the juxtaposition of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and more recent studies relating to self esteem affecting an increase of narcissism. While I’ve written about all of these several times, I don’t know if I mentioned its aggregate affect on risk taking or rather, lack thereof and what it bodes for skill acquisition.

    Ex: kids who are praised for being smart (self-esteem boost) rather than for accomplishments attained (as opposed to today’s mantra of medal for everyone!) increasingly do two things. One, they don’t take risks because they don’t want to lose their smart badge. Two, they cheat. Cheating is at unprecedented levels –especially among business majors.

    Worse, empathy among the young is about 40% lower today as compared to 20 or 30 years ago. This makes me uneasy for a few reasons. One is the dichotomy. Gen Y has a reputation for being more progressive but the empathy and narcissism data don’t back that up. I think they’re better at marketing (across the board). Two, our progress in instituting work place reforms abroad will be compromised if empathy is decreasing. Third, talk about a vicious circle, people who buy fakes are more likely to rationalize it, to be dishonest and think that others are more morally deficit than themselves. This means that piracy (with the worst workplaces of all) will be increasingly difficult to reduce in the face of lowered empathy, tendencies to cheat and the idea that “everybody” does it. Like I said, vicious circle…

  15. Deanna Bartee says:

    The corelation that Kathleen made between countless hours of work to achieve competence in our field and the Chinese mom expecting it of her child to learn to play a piece of music has been thought provoking. I would term “achieving competence” as “breaking through my personal barriers.” My experience is “that’s life.” There have been countless times that I have come against a situation that seemed impossible, and yet when I got past that barrier, (the formerly impossible) seemed easy.

    And yes, probably like the little girl in the article, it was then (for awhile) my favorite thing to “obsess over.”

    I don’t have any statistics about gen Y, but I do have children raised as Gen Y. ONE was in ballet, the INSTRUCTOR pushed them to get past their personal barrier, dance on their toes, stretch a little higher, etc. ONE has been in football, state runner-up team. In his case the COACHES push the players past their personal barriers. It has boiled down to “how bad do you want it?” Bad enough to come to practice in the HOT summer, run til you feel like dropping, etc. I know the article about the Chinese Mom seemed to denegrate American sports but in my son’s case the coaches did what SHE did, they “motivated” the team to excellence-to get past their own personal barriers. That is a great life lesson (IMO) regardless of the reason (sports, music, academics, or how to make a perfect welt pocket…?)

    Will the rest of Gen Y (or we) know how to the apply the self-discipline it takes to break through those limitations we have in our own lives…I think so but that’s my world view -not a narcisisist.

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