Four simple steps for starting to do quality control

by Renaud Anjoran on 14 October 2009

Some importers have been buying from China for many years, and yet they have never done quality control in a professional manner. The science behind inspection protocols seems complex–nearly intimidating. Buyers don’t know where to start, and they don’t know how their suppliers will react.

On the other hand, quality control is a necessity for most shipments. The constant search for cheaper suppliers, the bad habit of subcontracting to lower-grade factories, and the high risk of communication mistakes, all make a strong case for systematic inspections.

So, how to start? What are the first steps? After helping a few importers to start doing quality control, here are the first four steps I recommend.

1. Establish clear expectations

Some buyers choose a sample, negotiate a price, and then wait for delivery. This might work for off-the-shelf (standard) items with low quality/safety constraints, but not for most made-to-order products. And, think about it: on what basis will an inspector approve–or reject–a production?

You should try to get perfect/golden samples (i.e. representative of what you expect to get out of bulk production), but this is usually not enough. You also have to prepare–or confirm, if your supplier accepts to do it–a list of specifications. And these specs will become the checkpoints for the inspector. See this useful infographic: How to prepare a quality inspection checklist.

2. Don’t focus on final inspections

Final random inspections are a good tool for approving all aspects of production (total quantity, product specs, aesthetics, packaging…). But they tend to put a lot pressure on the supplier: what happens if serious non-conformities are found at that time? It is too late. The risks for a factory that gets caught are pretty high: re-work of the goods, re-production, penalties, air freight, or even order cancellation…

Instead of sending inspectors at the end (i.e. using them as policemen), try to send them when the goods are in process. Issues can get caught and corrected early: this is not only an extra safety for the buyer, but also a helping hand for the factory. This is how you should frame the discussion when you tell your suppliers about your QC intentions.

Early inspections (during production) have several positive side effects. They are a way to ensure that production is taking place in the right factory. Samples can be picked up randomly for lab testing. And it can prevent long shipment delays if the factory corrects course immediately after quality issues are noticed.

Don’t get me wrong, Chinese suppliers will not welcome this idea warmly. Many of them see QC inspectors as a nuisance. I have seen long-time suppliers of an importer (more than five years) getting used to inspections… But they would never admit that it is a necessity. Which leads me to the third step.

3. Inspections are not an option

You should be careful about the signals you send to your suppliers. Small things can go a long way:

  • You should write “Quality inspection required prior to shipment” on your P/Os.
  • If you pay by letter of credit, you can require a passed inspection report from your nominated QC provider.
  • When you develop new products, ask extra samples for the inspector’s use.
  • Keep track of the final inspection date and the shipment date, not just the shipment date.

All this is quite standard, and thousands of importers follow these tips.

You still have the freedom not to book an inspection for a given shipment, or to do skip-lot inspections for the most reliable suppliers. But you are the one to take this decision, not your suppliers. They should see inspectors as an extension of your organization. On the other hand, you should make sure you work with professionals who will be respected by factories.

4. Find the right balance between helping and arm-twisting

A buyer can play it “tough”, be “easy” on his suppliers, or find the right balance in between.

The “tough” way: a focus on final inspections performed rigidly.

Suppliers have no choice: either they comply with the rules, or they are charged penalties and/or re-inspection fees. Charge-backs are triggered by late changes in planning or non-respect of quantity requirements, for example. The fees are charged by the inspection firm to the importer, who re-invoices everything to the supplier.

It works well for large buyers who are adequately organized and who have the power to charge penalties systematically. But small-and-medium-sized importers can seldom play this game.

The “easy” way: in-line inspections and/or tailored final inspections.

As noted above, inspections during production don’t create much adversarial tension, and there is less timing pressure.

Once production quality has been secured, final inspections can be a little less formal. Why? Because it is less risky to loosen requirements about the proportion of presented products.

This “easy” way is only possible if you have at least *some* trust in your suppliers. It is technically possible–but rather difficult–for them to cheat.

Any other tips, anyone?

  • http://www.intouch-quality.com/ Andrew Reich

    I think the most important point of this message is “Don’t focus on final inspections”. Renaud is dead-on when he says that controlling the quality in China is all about getting involved early in the process. Professionals who have been doing this for years know this well.

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Thanks Andrew.
    Yes, it’s very important and tends to be completely overlooked by foreign buyers.
    Importer who start doing final inspections quickly realize that it’s often too late to make any meaningful correction. In-process QC helps fight this frustration.

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  • Kevin

    How do I go about getting involved in a career doing this. i have been living in China now five years and have no intention of leaving. Doing this would be a great way to earn extra income. Any help would really be appreciated.
    Thanks

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Hi Kevin, this is a great question. You can have a look at this article: http://www.qualityinspection.org/how-can-china-based-foreigners-find-quality-control-jobs

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  • Jeane

    Hi Renaud, thank you for your interest in helping other foreigners her in China. I lived in Taiwan for 4 years, where I completed my MBA and moved to Shanghai in January. I want to get involved in QC for companies in South Africa any start up ideas will be appreciated. I will also work trough all your concepts on “how to” first. Is it necessary to have specific QC qualifications to enter this field?

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Hi Jeane, I am going to send you an email.

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  • David A.D.

    Hi Renaud, thanks for all the QC advice! I would also like to know about qualifications for entering the field. Thanks!

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Hi David, I am going to send you an email.

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  • http://www.cn-market.ru Alexey

    Hi Renaud. I also would like to enter in this field. QC its very important for us today and for my future customers.

    Would like to talk to you and get some advice!

    Thank you!

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Hi Alexey,
    I am going to send you an email…

  • david williams

    Thank you renaud, right now i have a problem of this kind and i don’t know what to do. I went to china and placed an order with a supplier to produce female shoes. 30% deposit has been paid but the supplier end up producing poor quality different from sample.
    What do i do?

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Hi David,
    I just sent you an email, but it bounced back.

    How have you noticed this problem?
    On samples sent by the supplier, supposedly from production?
    On the products that you saw yourself in China?
    On the products, after shipment?

  • Thomas

    Re David Williams’ problem.
    Since I am working in a factory for 5years,that I want to provide some comments:
    1,keep your eyes on the factory,on the production line will be better.
    2,inspect the complete shoes very frequently,one day a time or two day a time.
    3,check with the factory and ask them to pick out the bad,and then fill up the remain.
    4,quit this order,to avoid the larger indemnity from the importer.
    I met this problem,if you deliver the goods,some giant risk remain.

  • Frankie

    Hi Renaud,

    I am looking for a trainer for my Quality control staff, any advice from you will be highly appreciated, thanks and hope to hear from u soon,

    Frankie.

  • Renaud Anjoran

    Frankie,
    I am going to refer someone to you. I will send you an email.

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  • Milo

    I am a Chinese student, majoring in international trade. i want to learn more about QC. anyone can give me more information or advice on this field? Thanks!!!

  • http://www.qualityinspection.org/ Renaud Anjoran

    Good articles on http://www.qualityinspection.org/basics-of-quality-control/ for someone like you!

  • Milo

    Thanks! If i work in this field someday, i may have more questions. Let’s keep in touch!

  • http://www.guangdonginspection.com/ PierreMd

    I used to work in a quality control company in Guangdong province. I could see customers extremely upset by the final quality of their order. Dispute resolution is much more difficult in post production than during the production process (distance with the supplier / language barrier / bad faith of the chinese supplier with the typical answer “no problem”…). Corrective actions can be implemented by the QC company itself. Nevertheless, if the order has already been produced, there is still one good way to avoid troubles : QC in the whole order (100% QC) – for isolating all faulty products in the entire order. After such a QC the supplier as no other choice but fix all troubles (if he can of course).
    http://www.guangdonginspection.com offers its kind of 100% QC for SME’s and I think Vtrust aswell for bigger orders.

    Anyway, thanks Renaud A. for these articles and the awareness you provide.

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