What I learned from watching “American Factory”​

Note: I originally posted this article on LinkedIn.

I recently watched the excellent documentary (and Academy Award-winner) American Factory on Netflix and it gave me more than a 2-hour weekend entertainment. Having started my career on the floors of a General Motors warehouse in Michigan, the movie brought back a lot of memories. While I now work in FinTech, the movie made me draw parallels in this increasingly cross-cultural and global world.

If you haven’t watched the movie, it documents the journey of Fuyao, a Chinese automotive glass company, in opening and operating a manufacturing plant in Ohio. There are obvious economic benefits for Fuyao to have a plant near its American customers. Larger than the business objectives, however, Fuyao’s Chairman also envisions the plant to be an ambassador of China and a model of Chinese manufacturing capability.

Like any other significant endeavors, Fuyao’s journey is a marathon and not a sprint. Fuyao started with a plan when the plant opened in 2015, but it had to be adjusted and changed when the “rubber hit the road”. The movie documents many challenges such as different cultures between the Chinese leadership and American workers, different standards between the 2 countries in worker health & safety, and the threat of workers forming a union. Fuyao tackled these challenges while sticking to their initial vision until the plant itself became profitable after 3 years of operations.

One decision I found interesting is when Fuyao replaced the initial American head of the plant with a Chinese one. The plant was not performing at the time, so there was certainly reason for the change. It was also a brave decision in my view because the plant workers were in the middle of various culture clashes. Instead of loosening its grip, Fuyao decided to double-down on having Chinese leaders in the plant.

Another learning from the movie is the importance of adjusting your leadership style for the right context. The movie shows how workers in the Fuyao China plant perform their pre-shift meetings in a very orderly manner. The workers would line up “military-style” to report their attendance and shout out the team's slogan in unison. This style of pre-shift meeting left quite an impression on an American team leader and he tried to implement the same thing with the workers in Ohio. He failed comically — the American workers are confused (and visibly annoyed) by the expectation of a rigidly structured pre-shift meeting.

Of course, the two groups of workers couldn't be any more different. Demographically, the workers in China are twenty-somethings who are happy to get a job at a global company like Fuyao — far different from the forty-something American workers who used to get bigger pay at General Motors. The Chinese culture (perhaps East Asian culture in general) expects more compliance with the higher organization. There's a memorable scene in the movie about a Fuyao corporate event, where employees literally sing and dance to Fuyao-themed songs.

No matter what industry you’re in, I’m sure you will learn something from watching this documentary. I’m actually surprised that the movie ends on a happy note. It’s a good reminder that, no matter how bad your day gets at the office, if you follow through your plan and stick to the vision, you will find the light at the end of the tunnel.