Eraser Man seemed like a harmless gimmick to promote lean manufacturing throughout the global operations of Columbia, Md.-based W.R. Grace & Co. The pink eraser mascot was supposed to convey a simple message: eradicate or “erase” waste. But when the $2.8 billion specialty chemicals manufacturer introduced Eraser Man during a focus-group session in China, the company’s Asian staff was perplexed and perhaps a little miffed. That’s because in China, erase actually means invisible.
“They said, ‘Do you really want this program to be invisible?'” recalls Michael Piergrossi, W.R. Grace’s vice president of human resources. “Of course, the answer is, ‘no.'”
Also at issue was the color pink. “Pink is just not an acceptable color in China; it’s feminine. No self-respecting man would want to be associated with a program that’s marked by the color pink,” Piergrossi explains.
Grace’s cultural gaffe wasn’t unique. In fact, it’s becoming all too common for manufacturers as they go global. Fortunately for Grace, the mistake was easily corrected (Eraser Man is now tan instead of pink and employees in China are asked to “simplify” or “reduce” rather than erase). But other manufacturers worldwide can face much more serious consequences when they don’t prepare for the varying customs and workplace practices of their foreign operations. The potential fallout includes trust issues between employees at home and abroad, along with safety and quality standards that don’t quite match up with those within domestic operations.
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