News, Insights and Best Practices for Manufacturing in Mexico

Top 10 Lessons Learned by an American When Manufacturing in Mexico

07 Dec 2011

Category: Manufacturing in Mexico

Rogan Owens

Engineering Manager

(former plant manager of EE Tech’s Mexico facility)

EE Technologies, Inc., Reno, Nevada

Receiving an offer to be a Mexico Plant Manager invoked many feelings including anticipation, excitement, and curiosity. The invitation for me came 2 ½ years ago. Reflecting on this brings to mind many lessons learned as an American running an electronics manufacturing services plant in Mexico. Whether you are an U.S. citizen or not, a plant manager or not, please read on, if you are open to acquiring some valuable lessons.  I urge you to challenge yourself, and to apply them to heighten your manufacturing in Mexico experience beginning today, or tomorrow, should you be preparing to embark on a Mexico manufacturing career move.

Top 10 Mexico Manufacturing Lessons Learned Include:

10. Adapt to “Mexico Time

No matter what time zone you find yourself in, learn “Mexico time”. Coming from the United States to manage an electronics manufacturing plant in Mexico can be a difficult transition. It requires, to a degree, a change of mindset. The United States is characteristically home to a fast paced environment.  It's generally on a schedule with exact dates/times and, on many occasions, there is an expectation of instantaneous results. Typically, for  many North Americans stress is generated when things do not go according to the developed plan. Similar expectations may create large amounts of stress for you in Mexico. For example, you may receive an invitation to attend an event at that is scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. and expect to be the only person that will be late, until, at 8:00PM, the majority of the other invitees filter in.

Once you experience this rythym several times, you'll realize Mexico time is more fluid. This realization allows you to then focus more on enjoying the event than hitting the posted schedule. The take away here is that relationships forged at the event are more important than the time at which it actually gets underway. On a positive note, this gives you more time to get you ready for your social and business engagements. Also most events do not have an end time – the event is done in the time it takes to get the event done. At first this can be challenging, as well as complete paradigm shift. Once accepted, this pace and the related benefits that it produces of the relationships, socialization and laughter that ensue can be palpable, significant and very enjoyable. In a professional setting, developed plans must be flexible, and include  subsequent contingency plans to ensure success in meeting time lines for corporate projects. These plans must be executed earlier than normal to account for the delays that are sometimes prevalent in Mexico, every minute counts.

9. Make the Effort to Gain Some Historical Perspective

To better understand current thinking and realities south of the border, study some of Mexico’s recent history. It is worth the time and effort to prepare yourself by acquiring and reading books on recent Mexico history. Read them with your audience in mind. The more perspective you have of what your employees, suppliers, and associates have experienced – the better you will communicate with them to build meaningful and productive relationships. Political history and cultural events shape people. Having a background knowledge of why things are the way they are will help you to understand cultural differences in shorter time frame. Much has happened in last 100 years in Mexico, and it is very interesting to learn about this. Not only will you have a better understanding, and a firm lay of the land, but, also, your Mexican friends and business associates will appreciate the fact that you have taken the time and effort to educate yourself about their circumstances, their country, their people and their culture.

8. Use non-working time well

Your choices regarding what to do outside of the time you spend manufacturing in Mexico are important.  I found that outside of my duties as a manager of an EMS service provider that living in another country, and absorbing its culture was an enjoyable full-time experience. Many find it easier to be in their comfort zone and spend time with expatriates. However, complete immersion into your  surroundings will help you to see not only the working side of Mexican life, but also its day-to-day to day cultural and social realities. Activities such as going to the laundry mat, getting to know people in the community, attending events and getting involved in other ways will heighten your Mexico experience. At first you may struggle with Spanish, but after a while you will find that your language skills will improve. As a result, you will have fun participating in Mexican life. Expect to be able to read most emails and follow most conversations after 6 months. After 1 ½ years, your Spanish will most likely be functional, but not fluent (word order and tense are the most difficult aspects). You will be able to read Spanish. Your oral comprehension may lag, however, as Spanish is sometimes spoken faster than your ear may be able to keep pace with.

7. Be Adventurous with Food

You will quickly find that Mexican the food is fabulous, fresh and delicious! Try everything. My guess is that you'll enjoy it all. Be adventurous and try whole octopus, camarones (shrimp), agua chile, menudo (tripe stew), fish tacos, and more. Adopt the attitude that “if someone asks me to try a food, I will go for it fearlessly!” More important than the enjoyment of trying the food you'll experience, you'll also find that the people of Mexico will respect your attitude, sense of culinary adventure and your willingness to step outside of your comfort zone. You are honoring them, when you share the same food experiences.

6. Engage in the Culture

Be proactive in getting to know and understand the culture of Mexico. As is the case with working in any country foreign to your own, there are unique cultural experiences to experience and to understand. Your command this knowledge will help you to command the respect of those that form your work team. Holidays are a good example. Mother’s Day (always May 10th) is significantly more important in Mexico than in the United States. Participating by singing traditional Mother's Day songs with your Mexico manufacturing team to honor the women of in plant and all mothers in Mexico is something you'll enjoy doing. After the first holiday festivities that you fully and actively participate in, you may notice a marked change in the team’s willingness and initiative to cooperate with your initiatives and to put forth extra effort. In my experience, things that were previously a problem, were absolutely no problem after the first holiday celebration. Cultural acceptance has a big impact on morale and team spirit, plus you'll end up having a good time for yourself.

5. Know your Team

Getting to know your team is important in any organization, and in any country. However, it really matters in Mexico, because relationships and people are at the top of the list of priorities and interests in the country's culture. Introduce yourself to your Mexican manufacturing staff immediately. Make the effort to know the names of your team members. Learn details about their family and interests. Showing personal interest in the individual motivates people worldwide. The people of Mexico appreciate any effort made to do this immensely. It goes a long way to motivate Mexico manufacturing teams to work harder to support you, and the company goals that you are responsible to accomplish. You will find that when you ask an individual by name to handle a task, or responsibility, that individual will go the extra mile for you to get the task at hand done correctly.

4. Work hard

Be prepared to work hard. Most Mexico manufacturing workers are committed to working hard. When looking to leadership, they want to see those same qualities, and a strong work ethic. Make sure that you lead the way by setting a good example. The standard work week is 48 hours (generally over 6 days). Accept that you will be working a longer week right alongside your team.

3. Plan well

It is critical to plan well, and to do so in advance. You will also want to assess risk, and have contingency plans in place, as well as contingency plans for your contingency plans. Unforeseen circumstances will undoubtedly pop up. Consider the differences in running a plant in Mexico, when compared to your home country, and, taking them into account, determine what will need to happen to accomplish goals within the time frame that has been established.

2. Be Patient

Understand that things operate differently in Mexico than in the United States. It's on the same continent, but, remember, it is a different country. The facts of life in Mexico include occasional transportation and infrastructure related delays. The unforeseen will happen on a from time to time. Demonstrate patience your people. Follow your plans, and your contingency plans when necessary.

1. Know “how” to ask questions

You will learn quickly how to ask questions by learning how not to ask questions. Everybody is extremely helpful, and desires to contribute to the solution. They also want to please you, and will do everything they can to help you. So asking questions with a yes or no answer will almost certainly result in a response of "yes." How you ask a question becomes extremely important. Ask for information rather than asking a question that requires a yes or no response (this is critical). For example, if you ask someone if they could build a rocket ship that will fly to the moon, the answer, most likely, will be "yes." If you ask your team if they can build a million units today, the answer, most likely, will be "yes," as well. A better approach is to ask “What is your expected production today?” This will result in a more realistic response and provide you with the information you need to make decisions and to take actions.

Working as  U.S. citizen running an electronics manufacturing plant in Mexico taught me a tremendous amount about people, leadership, priorities, and communication. It is a significant responsibility that presents many cultural and mental challenges that would cause many inflexible Americans much stress. Flexibility and an open mind to differences is required to succeed. Over time you will learn to work hard while at work, and to rest hard when not at work. (A little fun mixed in is highly recommended too). Being a Mexico plant manager could be the most stressful time of your life. However, by applying the lessons learned described above, you just may well find yourself overcome by energy and vitality you never imagine you possessed. You will come to work each day recharged and ready to give 110%. Finding balance, and learning to relax, will result in your being ready and able to meet the challenges that you face ahead.

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