The Principle of 'Two Legs to Walk'

(Shuang Jiao Zou Lu)

By Bill Quarless
March 2007

{Note: This column appears in the March 2007 issue of Response Magazine. Click here to read it on the Response Web site.}

Manufacturing DRTV products in China is exciting and challenging, and it's always full of new learning, even for those with years of experience. Some of these lessons come easy, but many come at great expense in time and money.

The following personal anecdote will help illustrate what I mean. It is the first in a series I am writing called, "Lessons Learned in China." These stories are my way of sharing what I have learned the hard way, so those who read them can learn the easy way. As far as I know, there is no manual of "do's and don'ts" for our industry that covers manufacturing in China. Perhaps my experiences can help fill the void.

My first story is about my first independent project in China. It concerned a small quantity of floating candles. The order was only a few thousand pieces, but I was very excited because the order came from QVC and was my first significant piece of business with this major industry player. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time researching and working all my Chinese contacts to find the perfect factory.

The factory I found was right outside Beijing, and it specialized in scented candles. I flew up there several times to make sure everything was perfect, paying careful attention the shape, smell and burn time of their candles, as well as the chemical tests they had performed. It was exhausting work, but I made sure everything was perfect.

When I was done, I felt elated. I had double-checked everything, and things were running smoothly. This was going to be a great start for my new China manufacturing and production management business. Success was mine.

Then, two weeks before my ship date, the factory burned to the ground. 

As you might expect, I was completely devastated. But on that day I also learned a valuable lesson, and came to understand a Chinese business principle known as "shuang jiao zou lu." Simply translated it means, "two legs to walk."

Rising from the ashes of my candle factory, I have always used at least two suppliers - or "two legs to walk" - for every major project. Some American clients have questioned this strategy, believing that 100% loyalty will win them extra favor with their Chinese "partner."  But my experience has taught me that this is a serious error in judgment: You stand to gain very little from exclusivity, and you lose quite a lot. I have never had a supplier refuse my business because the relationship wasn't exclusive. But having two factories has paid off for me too many times to number. 

Just a few months ago, the strategy saved us again. We were shipping several containers of hair towels per month when suddenly our factory was raided by local officials. This is not uncommon in China, but it causes production to come to a halt. All the factory needed to do was produce some paperwork, but that simple process shut the factory down for a full week. We were powerless - but only with regard to that one factory. So we simply shifted production to our second factory. In the end, our client received the goods on time and never knew there was a problem. That's the power of the "two legs to walk" principle.

Many common problems companies experience when manufacturing in China can be eliminated or minimized by applying this principle. Take production and shipping delays. Many are caused by power failures in the summer months. After planning a TV campaign or retail rollout based on six full days of production, there is nothing more frustrating than hearing your factory must close for two days a week because the local power grid is overloaded. Typhoons and floods are the next most common problems that any company buying product from China has faced at one point or another.

To protect ourselves from these inevitable delays, we've taken the "two legs to walk" strategy a step further. No only do we use multiple factories for major projects, but we also separate them by province. We will use at least one factory in southern China (usually Guang Dong province) and a second factory in the north (Zhejiang province, for example). 

By understanding the principle of "two legs to walk" and applying it religiously, you too can ensure you meet your TV and retail commitments every time.