Less Speech, More Action – Training Issues and Solutions in China

When I arrived in China about 15 years ago, I remember how fresh and full of “naïve” ideas I was.

I was already working with China for some years (distance management with some monthly trip over there), and I had already my plan : I will go there and at first recruit real performing team members, then spend some time to train all the staff and then everything will be all right…

I arrived and indeed I select and interview so brilliant candidates, I recruit them, I train them. Everything was on the right track, the team members was a little bit passive during the training, but they were absorbing and responding positively to the contents, so my confidence was unshakable…And then, everything start to crash down…. My all plan seems build on sands and winds :

-          The brilliant resume I recruited was unable to perform a simple action on the field : the expert of Lean management, capable of talking during 30min on the tack time, was simply unable to use a stopwatch….

-          The audit grid I spend hours to detailed and explained, simply came back all green evaluated… not a single issue to spot… until I go there… a single glance at the factory and all my frustration was about to explode.

What happened ?

I was simply experimenting what all of the westerner arriving here does : this is another world and the keys are not the same.

We are entering a culture where during 2 thousand years the knowledge has been raise as the ultimate achievement: once you get your examination, you will have social status, respect and an “army” of “small hands” to do everything for you. China is the country where there is always someone to do for you. See the difficulty for every DIY concept to successfully develop over there. Even IKEA has been forced to adjust and send people to build for their local customer what usually westerner ones struggle to do by their own.

There is a major difference here between knowing and doing, knowing prevent you from doing.

I have seen in recruitment for a Quality manager a candidate replying me to my request of him doing an inspection with me : “I know and I can do it, I don’t want, because there is some persons in the factory whose it is the job, and it’s not mine.”

We face a world of subtle communication, where age, social and foreign status generate a necessity of formal consideration and communication. It renders impossible a direct jeopardy of the persons and what he represents. This “excess” of politeness appears to us as a weakness at most and an acceptation of directivity at worse, when it just point out at which degree we (as westerners) could be “deaf”.

It is very difficult for foreigner to detect what I called the 3 level of yes :

-          Yes I hear you,

-          Yes I hear you and understand you,

-          And Yes I hear, understand and will do it.

Nevertheless, we face every day yes full of no and no full of yes, recognizing them and using them may appears as a burden in most of the case.

No way you will received information that could jeopardize your position.

In such situation, how do you want an Chinese team member from his traditional approach to give you any feedback, to publicly demonstrate your errors or mistakes…

They certainly hear your request of feedback and know you expect it, they actually did it, not their fault if you didn’t understand or hear it…

We are dealing with a culture that did not know Descartes, Montesquieu, Leibniz, Franklin… A culture that base its philosophy on the perpetual mutation (just need to have a glance on the Yi ing book : every thing change, nothing is stable) and not the logical succession of cause and consequences, where victory by avoiding the battle is more respected than brutal obliteration of the opponents (read the “art of war”, it is very significant), where using the energy flow (“Chi”) is far more efficient than imposing its willingness to the object.

In such situation, how do you want a Chinese team member from his traditional approach to fill an audit report mentioning red evaluation and communicate it to his supplier publically, to identify a “root cause”…

They surely understand the logic of the method and expectation (of the training contens), it is simply secondary compare to other consideration : respect (or we can call it face), efficiency, achieving result, …

What does it mean ?

It means that when we arrive with all our tools, training methods and contents that are using our common western basis and principle : clear cause and consequence succession to point out the result we expect, formal logical theory unifying all the situation among 1 “concept”, powerpoint slides that express our expectation in term of action, … We may think that it will be enough to transmit the knowledge! And we are wrong :

ð       All those tools have been developed for and by a culture that is not the one of the person we want to transmit the information/competency to…

Training in China require a re-conception of the training contents and method we are using in our western countries.

This is a necessary adaptation : not to become Chinese ourselves, that’s impossible, not to change Chinese persons into westerners that also impossible and not desirable.

The necessary adaptation of the way we introduce and transmit the competency.


The first rule I will recommend for any training : act, do.

Don’t present the theory at first ! Do with your trainees, implement the method, the knowledge you want to transmit concretely as it should, demonstrate that it works on a simple case. Then afterwards, explain the theoretical base.

Act and then speak. Act really : take a product, place the trainee in a real situation and do with them.

You will use a very powerful Chinese cultural lever, what one can call the Chinese efficiency => if it works, I repeat and implement.

We all have experience this incredible paradox in China : every problem has a solution even if this solution seems illogical (the umbrella to protect the computer from the leakage in the ceiling, the cleaning of the product before putting them in the box instead of cleaning the line and the tools that creates the oily marks, …), there is a solution that works = there is a solution that make the situation still conform with a minimum immediate investment.

Result prime over method, so first show the result by implementing the method/competency as it should. That will give credit to your input toward the Chinese trainees.

The second rule, is same as the first management rule when you join a new team in China : create social link !

I don’t mean you to organize a Karaoke event before each of your training, no.

In China it is more critical than any other place to create quickly inside your training a social link between the trainee and the instructor : create small group, make them work together, be involved inside their group, introduce also personal information, appears as a man among other man and willing to know them…

This is the only way for an instructor to generate a space where the Chinese will entrust him and be able to give feedback (other than traditional politeness: “yes”, “your Chinese is so good!”, “no questions”,  “very clear”, …).

In China trust is generated by social link, not by the logic sense of the communication. I trust you because I know you and because you know me, we belong to the same network. This is a fundamental key to get access to feedback : generate space and time where your team member, your trainee can exchange in 1 to 1 with you, can know you.

At same time I suggest that every training include a part on cultural differences, it is important to explain to Chinese trainees that those methods, those ideas we want them to implement correspond to a certain way to see the world and its interaction with us. This way is the result of thousand years old western culture and conducted to different methods and tools. Explaining this cultural basis that creates those tools is all except optional.

The majority of Chinese have no exposure to The West until they join a western company, there is no way for them to understand the culturaldifferences that they will have to face. Even if the cinema is spreading more and more and carrying with it some “western phantasm” (the super boss omniscient and omnipotent), the reality is far different.

It is a simple fact with huge impact : we (Chinese and Westerners) have inherited a more than 2,000 years tradition and “education” which are not built on the same base. It is a fact that cannot be ignored: we come with our tools and method built on that tradition and education and we try to spread them inside a tradition and education as long, as strong and different.

I used to express it through an image : Westerners are more “classic mechanic” object when Asian are more “quantum mechanic” object. It is not a question to promote one or the other theory/conception of the world, the point is to render our collaboration easier. Find and create the space where quantum and classic mechanic join together, somewhere between the infinite small and the macro scale.

As a conclusion, I will recall the title : as training are involved in China, “less speech more action” is required :

1)       Action in doing with the trainee to transmit the culture of the competency = knowing + doing Vs the culture of knowledge.

2)       Action in demonstrating in real the result.

3)       Action in creating social link, so the space to get feedback and generate interactivity.

Success of training is evaluated by every operational manager the same way here or in the West : ability for the trainee to implement immediately on the field what they’ve learned, autonomy reach by each trainee to progress by themselves, gap/jump in the result/performance of the team.

The means are different.

You will have the choice between :

-          the standard Western method who rely on the mutual comprehension of the logic and sense supporting the method/competency (promoting autonomy at the cost of the competency acquisition and with the risk of total unreliability),

-          the Chinese traditional answer who rely on a pure transmission of words and correct answer (promoting exclusively the knowledge: I’ve seen 2 days training materials consisting in a set of 250 slides…),

-          an hybrid system integrating Chinese cultural levers in the method (for increasing the relevancy and the impact of the training) and maintaining Western contents (to promote autonomy and competency, creating the mindset jump).

Once again, there is no good or bad solutions, better or worse method, there is 2 millenary culture that needs to learn to communicate each others, to understand each other in order to generate efficiency.

When the words are not enough, use the signs and the action to communicate.

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The Contributor

Hubert Delelis is Material Science Engineer with 20 years experience at a MNC Decathlon – OXYLANE Group, 12 years of which as a General Manager of business units in Shanghai, Taiwan and Shenzhen. Mr. Delelis is also the founder of AKA Outspring, a company that focuses on operational and management trainings for Chinese middle managers. Mr. Delelis has a broad knowledge on managing technical (production, quality, supply chain) and service departments (IT, finance, HR), using international management methods and standards such as delegation, empowerment, lean, participative management and others. He has recruited and trained hundreds of Chinese team members and successfully promoted local middle managers. In his previous experience, he created a multinational team of experts who delivered technical training and expertise all over the world. Led by his passion on human development and human management, he is now sharing and transmitting his experience through AKA Outspring™. Mr. Delelis has successfully developed and adapted training and coaching methods to boost local teams’ efficiency and autonomy. His training are based on 2 principles : Using Chinese traditional Cultural levers to render the training more efficient o Game oriented : use the attraction of game for Chinese o Social link : because of interactivity, create a specific “link” with the trainee to generate trust and involvement, o Demonstrated efficiency : show that it works to enhance acceptation of the new method teach. “Hands on” training contents to boost the Return on Investment o All trainings are based on placing the trainee in a real situation where he will have to perform the method o All training are adjusted to fit the specific need of the customer (we create the situation required) o All training integrate the Western cultural approach to give Chinese team members the key of a better understanding of customer and/or manager expectations. Held in his unique and exclusive Operational Training Center or in house, AKA Outspring™ provides more than 25 trainings topics. Find out more by e-mailing training@akaoutspring.com or visiting his website. Because Human Resource is the core asset of a company, team autonomy is the ultimate means for efficiency and sustainability.

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