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Discussions without Limitations Are Vital

Hexin Wang has been working for ZEISS for over 20 years and has been part of the Management team at the Shanghai Innovation Center for over six years. “ZEISS can use its German roots to its advantage in China, and draw on its connections in both countries,” says Wang. However, that doesn’t mean that the employees in Germany can’t get a few tips from their friends over in China.

ZEISS Stories: Mr. Wang, you helped establish the Innovation Center for ZEISS in Shanghai back in 2011. Why does the company need such an offshoot in China?

Wang: ZEISS is a global company. That’s why we can’t just be successful in Germany – we have to be proactive in other markets, too. This is what makes us so successful. We started out in 2011 with six members of staff. They were joined by five Chinese employees from Production in Suzhou. Today, there are over 80 of us.

ZEISS Stories: Do these employees also come from Germany and China?

Wang: Only Chinese employees work at our site now. Sometimes, staff from Germany and other locations like the US and India visit us, too, and occasionally students from Germany stop by. I believe it’s important to promote young talent – I benefitted from this myself in the past. It also forces our employees to practice their English.

ZEISS Stories: Is Chinese the lingua franca at the company?

Wang: Yes. Initially we made a point of encouraging our employees to speak English. But while many of our applicants are top candidates, their English skills leave a lot to be desired. We’d only put them off if we asked too much of them. That said, emails and reports are normally compiled in English.

ZEISS Stories: So there are no problems when it comes to talking to colleagues working abroad?

Wang: No, the Chinese employees make a real effort to speak English. But even when our CEO Maximilian Foerst took part in our annual kick-off meeting, we conducted the session in Chinese and I was his interpreter. This demonstrates how much we trust our Chinese colleagues.

ZEISS Stories: Are you trying to be a German company in China, or run a Chinese company with a German parent?

Wang: Definitely the first one. German companies and the quality they deliver are highly valued in China. ZEISS is well known in Asia, and our values are real assets.

Hexin Wang: At 15, Hexin Wang was one of the first people to be allowed to study at university after China’s Cultural Revolution. After he graduated he worked in China for three years and in 1988 he emigrated to Germany, where he wrote his PhD dissertation until 1992. He spent the next four years working at the National Institute of Metrology in Brunswick, Germany, before joining ZEISS in 1996. He is a German citizen.

ZEISS Stories: Does the cafeteria serve any typical German dishes?

Wang: That’s a great idea (smiles). But no, we only have Chinese food. However, we do have jiaozi, which are the Chinese equivalent of German Maultaschen (dumplings).

ZEISS Stories: How do you promote German culture at a site where the entire workforce is Chinese?

Wang: We rely on contact with our colleagues in Germany to do this. Two Microscopy experts just paid us a visit. They showed the Chinese employees how to clean a microscope. Many employees had no idea how much work goes into cleaning a microscope. This wow effect is something we need to ensure across ZEISS sites all over the world.

ZEISS Stories: The colleagues could have sent printed instructions.

Wang: True, but it’s much easier to understand how something is done once you’ve seen it with your own eyes. We have to find a way to share our knowledge with our colleagues. If we had to reinvent the wheel at every site, we’d waste so much time and money. That’s why it’s so important to network and discuss topics with our colleagues in Germany, and vice versa.

ZEISS Stories: So you all get on, despite the language barrier and cultural differences?

Wang: It all works very well. We took our German colleagues on a trip to another city. They were really happy and said that something like that would never happen in Germany. By that I mean inviting colleagues to spend time together just because. This experience brought the employees closer together.

Hexin Wang

“Getting to know one another is the only way to overcome obstacles to communication.”

ZEISS Stories: So you’re saying regular Skype calls aren’t enough?

Wang: No, there’s nothing like face-to-face chats with your colleagues. In the beginning, communication between Germany and China went via the six international employees who set up the Center. We had close links to Germany. Now it’s run by Chinese employees, who have been here since the beginning and have now taken on a leadership role. This also works well. Even so, we have to make sure that we keep communication channels with Germany open.

ZEISS Stories: An Innovation Center in China. People used to say that China and innovation don’t go together.

Wang: I went to school at a time when we had to learn everything by heart. I had to practice drawing the same Chinese character over and over again, and that’s why Chinese people believe practice makes perfect. Things are different now. Many Chinese people study abroad and know what it means to be innovative. A lot has changed in the digital arena. China has become a veritable global pioneer in mobile solutions, Fintech and artificial intelligence. Just like any other company, we’re under a lot of pressure. Chinese people are very open to new technologies – we’d do well if some of this openness and curiosity rubbed off on us here in Germany.

Openness and curiosity: all part of work at the Shanghai Innovation Center

ZEISS Stories: In China, decisions are often made from the top down. Is it even possible to be creative?

Wang: That’s why we’ve been focusing on a matrix structure for a while now: we’ve combined two leadership systems with program and project managers, some of whom work in different countries and time zones, and coordinate employees and projects across the globe. While this does work well, it’s quite a challenge.

ZEISS Stories: So is it difficult for Germans, who are very direct, to communicate with Chinese people, who tend to be much less so?

Wang: It’s true that Chinese people are more reserved. In our first few meetings, it was difficult to get the Chinese colleagues to join in. When our German colleagues asked if there were any questions, the Chinese employees fell silent. It was unclear if they’d understood everything.

ZEISS Stories: In China, the smartphone is the key to communication. Do your employees sometimes send you a text?

Wang: Our employees discuss everything via WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp. We use WeChat groups to organize the trips I mentioned, and we have ones for the individual departments. We communicate almost exclusively via the app. Our German colleagues who visited us also downloaded it. Even my boss in Germany installed it during his last visit. You can even use the app to send small gifts of money wrapped in digital red envelopes. This is a Chinese tradition for New Year and other special occasions. My boss also received one (smiles).

ZEISS Stories: You’ve worked for ZEISS in Germany for 15 years. What’s the biggest difference between the sites in China and Germany?

Wang: Definitely the number of female employees. Only women work in our back-office sales team, and the number of female employees is much higher than in Germany. Almost 24 percent of the employees at the Innovation Center are women. In China we have a saying: women carry half of heaven on their shoulders. This is a good attitude. Just like in Germany, families need two salaries to make ends meet. But in China, grandparents help out with the kids once maternity leave is over. This is a huge help, and means there’s not so much pressure.

ZEISS Stories: So who do you think works harder?

Wang: Oh (grins). Chinese employees are tremendously flexible. In China, people have no problem working overtime or on the weekend. It’s normal to work on Saturdays, too. This isn’t just due to different laws, but because the culture and people’s views are different. We recently launched a product in just 16 months – that’s a record for us!

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