In 1991 Zhang Ruimin, the CEO of Haier, announced a new technical innovation: the Qiming Torch.
‘This was announced by CEO Zhang himself, originally I did not dare to think about it, as I could not believe that an innovation would actually be named after me’, Li Qiming said. He was a senior employee at Haier, working mainly as a technician.
Around 1990, in order to improve production efficiency, Haier encouraged all employees to engage in work-related innovation. Problems could be raised immediately with the goal of finding a solution to them, innovators were rewarded, and everyone’s enthusiasm was very high. It was a difficult period of time for Haier, but the entire factory was full of energy from top to bottom.
As a workshop director, Li Qiming was working on the production line every single day, pondering how to solve some of the production bottleneck issues. ‘Welding was an important step in the process, as many parts on the refrigerator needed to be welded. If not handled properly, welding problems would directly affect the refrigerator’s cooling ability.’
Li Qiming recalls: ‘We were using the smallest welding torches in China, size three. The head was about 7–8cm, and the flame reached up to 15cm, with a welding temperature of 1500 °C. There were seven or eight conduits in the refrigerator, and welds had to be made around them, this was very inconvenient, not only affecting the quality of welding and production rhythm, but worse, the sides of the products were often burned and damaged. We had no choice but to add an asbestos block retaining plate to the welding station.’
Li Qiming thought that it would be better if the torch could be a size smaller. At that time domestic refrigerator industry production had just started, and there were no special welding torches. Li Qiming carefully studied the welding process used in the production of household refrigerators, and began to transform the torch. ‘After several tests, I changed the angle of the torch head from the original 120 degrees to 90 degrees, and shortened the length of the torch head by half; the torch head aperture was also reduced by 0.3mm. After this transformation, the flame of the new torch was shortened by 8cm, the temperature could be controlled at 800 °C –1000 °C, and the original problems were resolved.’
The Qiming Torch improved both the welding process and production efficiency. Subsequently, Haier created a wave of technological innovations with many workers even using their own time to perform some of the necessary research. During this period, a number of innovations named after employees emerged: the Xiaoling Wrench, the Yunyan Mirror, Shenqiang Hooks, among others. In 1998 alone, Haier employees made 37,000 rationalization proposals, and 19,000 were adopted, worth ¥113 million in economic returns.
Li Qiming repeatedly stresses that the most important factors for the invention of the Qiming torch were Haier’s relaxed environment for innovation, and employees being given the right guidance. ‘At that time, most of the employees had been at the company for a long time, and their education level was not high. After arriving at Haier, CEO Zhang promised to lead us out of the woods, and that he would introduce a four-star standard production line from West Germany. He had a lot of determination, so the employees saw hope, and they agreed to stay at the company.
‘In August 1988, we were sent to study in West Germany, and build a second refrigerator production line. CEO Zhang went to the train station to see us off, and he said to me, “Qiming, work hard”. I faithfully held those instructions in my heart, and whatever job I did later on, I maintained the attitude of innovation.’
This is an edited extract from Haier Purpose by Hu Yong and Hao Yazhou now available from Thinkers50 and Infinite ideas.