The Incredible Mrs. Lin, a Profile of a Chinese Manufacturer and Mother of Two
Many Westerners go to China to learn how to manufacture their inventions, but Mrs. Lin has supply chain and manufacturing figured out, and raises her family while running a factory.
I first met Mrs. Lin when I visited a plastic factory in Shenzhen to shadow Andrew, who is a product engineer at Aqua Design Innovations working on aquaponic and hydroponic desktop kits. Mrs. Lin is in charge of sourcing parts and getting them to the factory on time, as well as managing manufacturing. During lunch time, we went to her apartment, where she cooked a six course meal for people from the factory. Incredulous that one lady was able to do so much, I asked Kevin, who runs ADI and learned Mandarin to work with manufacturers, to help me interview her.
“I don’t have much for you to write about,” Mrs. Lin says humbly. She moved to Shenzhen with her family eight years ago and started work in this factory, which manufactures aquariums and related products. The factory owner is named Jasmine, and after one year, Jasmine saw Mrs. Lin’s potential and introduced her to the production line, which she has been managing since.
It can be very challenging for someone new to manufacturing to figure out how to buy parts that are high quality and up to specification. Mrs. Lin sometimes has to source the same part from different suppliers, because one place does not have enough capacity to fulfill the entire order.
Mrs. Lin says that the first step is for her to request samples of the part. The factory tests the functionality of the sample, and then checks with the engineers that they are manufacturing for to make sure the sample is correct. Once they have good samples, they can start talking to suppliers about whether or not they can produce the parts to the right specifications.
One of the biggest fears of a new manufacturer is to receive a mass produced product that is different from the sample. Mrs. Lin says that if this happens and it is her fault for giving out the wrong specifications, she will take responsibility and reorder the part, and her factory will take the loss. For example, one of the pumps on a product had a flow rate that was too fast, but the engineers didn’t discover this until after the parts had already been ordered, so they had to buy new pumps to replace the old ones. On the other hand, if the supplier did not match the specification, then she will ask the supplier to re-manufacture the part for her for free.
Mrs. Lin says that the one part that she constantly has to re-prototype and go back and forth with the supplier about is boxes. Her factory also does packaging, and the size of the packaging is based on the prototype product’s approximate dimensions. Every time the size of the prototype changes, they also have to re-prototype the boxes. When Mrs. Lin orders samples, she likes to order eight so that she has enough to do testing.
Lastly, Mrs. Lin has to make sure that the parts will be delivered on time before assembly begins at her own factory. She gives the supplier the delivery deadlines for the parts (based on her manufacturing schedule), and follows up with them until the deadline is met. If she needs it quickly, then she’ll ask them to do a rush job.
“How often do you follow up with them?”
“Every day or every two days.” Using QQ or WeChat, Mrs. Lin messages suppliers regularly to check on their progress and ensure prompt delivery. She’s often busy at work, but when she thinks about following up, she does. If she doesn’t remember until she gets home, she’ll message the suppliers from home as well.
My friend tells me about a time when the plastic engineer at the factory noticed that there was a small piece of plastic that jutted out where the plastic was bent, near some LEDs. Mrs. Lin and the others at the factory saw that this plastic part didn’t look bright and clear enough, and without any prompting from the product engineers, they fixed it. For each piece that came off the production line, they trimmed off the extra plastic, sanded, and flame polished. “We always have to be observant, and see how to make the product perfect to the end. We have this mindset, so we always have to be checking our work,” Mrs. Lin explains.
I ask Mrs. Lin how she hires new workers to ensure that her employees care about quality. She says, “We have different positions at the factory, and each time a new person comes in we have them try each one.” At her factory the probation period is half a month to a month. This way she learns each worker’s strengths and can use them accordingly. Other factories also have a trial period, usually one to three months long, but Mrs. Lin developed this hiring protocol by herself, and isn’t sure what the other factories do.
I’ve heard from someone else who ran a factory that women (and he specified women under 30 years old) were the best factory workers, since they were more careful and produced a higher quality product, but Mrs. Lin disagrees. “Actually, it’s not about men and women. It’s about their sense of responsibility.” She adds that actually it’s best to have both men and women, because some positions in the factory can only be filled by men due to strength requirements, even if a woman knows how to do it.
She also says, “We have to communicate so that we know each other’s work, and so that we understand the products.” Mrs. Lin positions herself to be an equal with her staff, so that she can talk to them and work with them to make molds or discuss the product together.
“Has there ever been a time where something didn’t go as expected in production and you had to work very hard to fix the issue?”
Mrs. Lin recounts the most stressful and tiring time of her career when, after most units of a product had already been packaged, they had to take it back out and rework it. The problematic piece was an aluminum backing for a light. She noticed that after the aluminum backing was stamped by their supplier it was a little bent, so they hammered each piece flat before sticking it onto the light with epoxy. Unfortunately, the heat from the epoxy caused the aluminum to lift up just one millimeter away from the part it was supposed to be flush against. One of the product engineers noticed this, and decided that it wasn’t acceptable and had to be fixed.
Since it was already in the package, they needed extra people to help and paid overtime.
“Doing something over again is many times more tiring than doing it from scratch.”
They had to take out the product from the packages, protect it with tape, fill the 1mm gap with silicone (a very messy process), clean everything up, and repackage the product.
Everyone worked 8am to midnight, and Mrs. Lin herself worked from 8am to 1am in the morning. They worked through Saturdays and Sundays, rushing to make the delivery in time before Chinese New Year. The factory gave out three times the normal wages for weekend work (part of Chinese labour law), and Mrs. Lin cooked for the whole team.
Mrs. Lin said she was very nervous, because she worried that the company they were working with would not accept the product. “This is an experience I will never forget!”
Work and life philosophy
Mrs. Lin wakes up every workday at 6 o’clock. She makes breakfast for her kids, and they go to school. If she has time, she buys groceries in the morning. At 8 o’clock she eats some food and goes to work. When 11am hits, she goes back home to cook lunch for people at the factory, who walk to her apartment to eat. After eating she goes back to work, and if she’s busy she’ll work until 7 or 8pm. When she gets home, her 12 year old son (who she affectionately refers to as ‘xiao ba’ or Little Pa) cooks a simple dinner for the family.
“It’s very good to have a job like this, because having a job means that you have energy.” Mrs. Lin’s two kids are ages 6 and 12, and she feels like her job is healthy for them too. Since she is so busy, the children contribute to the household, and when they study for school, they are self-motivated. “My life is so fulfilling!”
If I can work hard and get as much done as Mrs. Lin, I think I’ll find my life very fulfilling too.
Special thanks to Kevin, from Aqua Design Innovations for facilitating the interview, Yolanda from the factory for help translating some of our questions, my mom Bonnie for more translation help from Chinese to English, and finally Mrs. Lin herself, an incredible woman.