The Perils of “Close Enough”

Downspout [ˈdaʊnˌspaʊt] – noun – A vertical pipe for carrying rainwater down from a roof gutter.

Seems simple enough…

  • a pipe
  • vertically oriented
  • connected to a roof
  • that transports rainwater to the ground

Based on that description, is this a downspout?

To be, or not to be, a downspout?
To be, or not to be, a downspout?

In China the answer is obvious: yes of course that is a downspout.

It doesn’t matter that the spout doesn’t reach the ground. It doesn’t matter that a section is offset and another is missing entirely (likely stolen and sold as scrap given that it was within reach of the ground).

These are mere details. Taken as a whole it is all close enough.

We have a phrase for this in Chinese: 差不多 (chà bu duō).

As the marketing director of a Chinese manufacturing behemoth I am daily on the customer-feedback frontlines. Furthermore, the customer issues that actually make it up to my desk are the ones in which we as an organization have totally, completely fucked up.

In a way, this is perfectly normal. After all, if all major Chinese companies were as well-run as Google or Microsoft or BMW… well, the world would be a very different place.

Each time I’ve solved the latest drop-everything-start-digging-for-answers-five-alarm-customer-service-disaster I stop and retrace the steps, all the way back to the very beginning when that customer first had an inkling in the back of their mind about doing business with us, and determine the key point in the process where we failed that person.

The immediately obvious “reason” is rarely correct. We make terribly complicated machines, ship them around the world, and then fine-tune them on the customer’s factory floor. When everything goes right the outcome is a shining testament to mankind’s ingenuity and brilliance. When something goes wrong… it rarely ends well.

And so I dig, I investigate, I interview, and I check… and almost every time, once I’ve identified and isolated the exact moment at which our failure began… that phrase is waiting for me:

差不多 … “close enough”

“The machining tolerance for this component is 0.015 to 0.018mm and the component you selected was 0.019mm?”

差不多 … “close enough”

“Per quality control requirements the equipment load balance testing must be calibrated at six different points across the machine and you only used four?”

差不多 … “close enough”

“The operational pressure range for this hydraulic line is 5% higher than the range for the valve you connected it to?”

差不多 … “close enough”

The worst part is how insidious and contagious this mindset can be. Assemble a team of 10 engineers, half of which work properly and half of which follow the “close enough” principle and after 6 months they all will.

The mindset pervades the entire culture of China. Uprooting and replacing it takes tremendous resources, effort, and above all else – will.

Among the myriad problems China faces in the 21st century, there is no greater.

Will China conquer her demons, eclipse the United States, and become the preeminent superpower?

Or in the end after much struggle will she simply settle for… 差不多?