“Here to Improve Lives”: An Interview with Associate Professor David Robb

David Robb with his family, taken on Christmas Day in New Zealand


It is David Robb’s habit to arrive 20 minutes early for his “Operations Management” classes starting at 9:50am each Monday and Tuesday.


He likes to be available to meet students before class. In a Chinese business school, both domestic students and foreign faculty members need to overcome language and other barriers in order to carry out effective communication. For David, remembering Chinese students’ names and faces are a challenge. He has made students’ photos into a booklet, which he reviews on the subway.


David, a New Zealander, taught in China in 1997 and 2001 before he obtained a regular position on SEM’s faculty team in 2007. In total, he has taught in China for five years.


“I Didn’t Come Here to Make Money”


David and his Canadian wife developed their fascination towards China through meeting wonderful Chinese people and reading books about the country. Like many foreigners, they came here in part to know more about China and its people.


Like many others in metropolitan Beijing, foreigners like David have many life difficulties in China. As a researcher, he finds it harder to collect data here; he sometimes has to use Google language tools to understand work emails in Chinese. Additionally, among all the hustle and bustle of an expensive giant city, the luxury of a peaceful life is not an option. Viewing his family as a first priority, David and his wife live with all their six children. In his first visit to Tsinghua in 1997 the family squeezed into a 45 square metre apartment. Today they live off campus with more space, but it comes at the expense of two hours’ commuting time each day for David.


Speaking calmly, David has no complaint about the difficulties. “I didn’t come here to make money,” he said several times during the interview. David used to take consulting tasks from businesses, but now, he prefers to save the time making extra money and devote his attention to his family and the job at SEM.


What China has rewarded him with is not economic luxury, but enjoyment. He appreciates the paradoxical aesthetics of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy. He enjoys watching Chinese playing ping pong (and plays a bit himself). He likes the close work relationship at the school. What he likes the most is seeing students’ development, especially to see international students acquainting themselves with the new environment in China. “Some of them already work in China, but most of them are newly discovering China. I think Chinese people might enjoy this as well: when you see somebody coming to terms with new things. It’s a joy watching that.” Once, there were 30 students from 22 countries in his Operations Strategy class. “I don’t think you can find that high diversity anywhere in the world,” David said. For him, high diversity among students is one “benefit” of teaching here.


Meanwhile, David has found rich potential for research on Chinese business operations, which he claims have been poorly understood in the past. “The dynamic environment still remains a mystery to many westerners. My research involves not just modeling, which can be done anywhere in the world, but it’s also empirical. I seek to explore Chinese companies: why they do well; why they do poorly. Professionally there are lots of opportunities here.”


One thing that concerns David at the moment is that his oldest children can no longer stay on their parents’ visa in China after turning 18. For him, it is important that family members stay together. However, with children growing up and most foreigners sending children back home for college, it seems increasingly hard to continue keeping everyone around.


Chinese Industries Should be More Customer Centered


Scholars see China with their own judgments. As a specialist in operations management, David thinks that in general “Chinese companies are lacking on the service side.” It does not only apply to the service sector, but also the service units in manufacturing and other industries.


“Some Chinese consumers are not so bothered by it, but it’s changing very very fast, so I think Chinese companies should try to catch up…I think you should adapt to the market when the market is changing.” According to David, the long queues in supermarkets and lengthy waiting time in banks all demonstrate huge potentials for improvement. The need to improve services exists in banking, healthcare, housing, education, the non-profit sector and many other areas.


David believes one thing that can help boost the service quality of companies is technological innovation, which includes both “hard” technologies (such as IT) and “soft” technologies (such as management). For example, the development of online purchasing and delivery will help reduce waiting time at the supermarket counters.


Another way to improve the service unit is to solicit more feedback from customers, trying to find out what customers really need and providing solutions accordingly. This is what David calls a “solution mentality.” “A customer comes into a grocery store, he might be looking for a particular product, but he also may want to know how to use the product, he may want to know where the product is if it’s not there, when it’s coming in or whether he can buy it elsewhere,” said David. Generally speaking, Chinese industries need to develop a mindset that is able to cultivate more comments from customers or clients and care more about their problems and wants.


Stressing the service side seems quite “western” point of view. However, David said he is very much against the idea that China should be like the west. There are traditions and culture, according to David, that Chinese people should be proud of, such as the high savings rate in China and the tradition of having a large number of engineers.


“I’m Here to Improve Lives”


“I’m here to improve lives,” said David. He doesn’t simply plan to improve students’ lives, but also that of the potential employers of his students.


David believes “business schools should also be customer centered.” As a professor at Tsinghua SEM, he always tries to offer the best for his students. He distributes questionnaires in the second or third session of his course to elicit feedback. Questions asked cover a range of issues, from lecturer’s speed of talking to the course workload. After a careful calculation of votes and answers, he explains the results to students in the next session.


David enriches his courses carefully with various domestic cases that he collects in his reading and research: Quanjude, Little Sheep, Wahaha, Suning…An international MBA student at SEM said:”I find this course is very rewarding with all the cases. Most people in my class don’t have a lot of work experience, therefore having little understanding of operations management. However, we understand operations easily through David’s cases. Now we are becoming more and more interested…David is a responsible teacher. His lectures have rich and solid content.” On top of in-class teaching, he also organizes plant visits that take students into workshops of domestic and international brands such as ABB, Aigo, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Schneider Electric, Yanjing Beer, and Yingli Solar.


David also insists that customers of business schools also include future employers of students, or even the recipient schools of students going on for further study. For these potential customers, educating students with academic excellence is not enough. “We don’t want to graduate students who’re only good at operations. It is far more important that they have integrity. Last week I was talking with my students about Sanlu. There’s a huge problem there that causes deaths and illness...In fact almost the same thing could happen here. Plagiarism for example…People cut corners to save money or time. (Tolerating such behaviors) is akin to putting products in the marketplace with impurities in them. I believe that integrity begins in the business school.” For him, graduating students with high morals is more important than cultivating business talents.


David also brings the “customer centered” belief into his own family. His children have been educated mostly at home. “That’s working very well,” said David, “I think if China wants to leap frog and compete with U.S. and other Western countries in innovation, one of the ways would be to…have more customization, to tailor to the passion, joys and likes of people…If you look over the history of innovation of science…in the last several hundred years. Many of the innovations have come from people who have not gone through the classical type of approach.”


Integrity by Example


David raised the word “Integrity” repeatedly in the interview.


When asked about how to cultivate integrity among students, he replied without hesitation: “The very first place to teach ethics is by example. I think the professors need to show by example.” The Chinese tradition of teachers in all subjects instructing ethics can be revived, said David. He believes that professors should guide students by showing them how to deal with conflicts, how to control the quality of work, how to supervise students, etc.


Instructing by example is important for David. He seeks to stick to the principle of being true and a person of integrity. Since he took his professorship, there have been people asking him endorsing proposals or signing on papers. He declines the requests if the proposal is not truthful or he did not participate in writing the paper. “They might find that puzzling. They might think I’m being stupid, or not appreciating what they are trying to do. But again, for me, integrity is more important than publication...You really can’t be an influence for good if you lose your integrity.”


“Justice” is another word that David likes to mention. He believes private companies with less restriction should base their employee selection on “meritocracy,” which means judging people solely by their abilities, instead of race, gender, “guanxi” and other factors. He tries to pay equal attention to every student. For example, one reason he may avoid assigning marks to in-class participation is to encourage non-native speakers to participate in English-based discussions without concern. “When I’m grading exams, I open it from the back, or when I open the pages I close my eyes because I don’t want to see their names. I don’t want to know they are Chinese or not. I want to do it without bias. In a way it’s odd, because Chinese generally have neater printing than Westerners,” said David, smiling, “…You know…the picture of justice has a blindfold on…I think we should be blind.”


Ethics and morality, of course, means more than integrity and justice. Another thing that concerns David at SEM is about students’ aspiration for the future. “I think there’s a big change here. When I first came here in 1997, in the first class I would ask students what they wanted to do when they graduate. Many students would write they want to study in the U.S. and then return to the motherland…But few would say that now. Most students say they want to work in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, or somewhere else. Nobody wants to go working in Wuhan, Chongqing, Xinjiang…Before people had the desire to improve the lives of others, but now they are satisfied with a doubling of their salary. My view is that: many of my students…their goals are not high enough.” The materialism, he said, in a way comes from the West, and it’s a pain to see how Chinese emulate the West, in this regard giving away good things of the past. “One of the roles of professors should be to build people’s aspirations,” said David, calmly.


A student recently wrote on the back of a picture sent to David: “Dear David: You are the most respected person in my life. Thanks for guiding me the life attitude.” The first time he read the note, David almost cried. In times like this, he does not look like a teacher, but rather a caring father: he treats students with fairness and devotion, guiding them by example, and, like all parents, feels proud and relieved to see their development.  (By Qiuzao Zhang)