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Scott M. Paton

Quality Apathy

Can quality survive in the face of globalization?

 


I've written extensively in the last year about the state of quality today. I've recounted my customer-service horror stories from Wal-Mart, Target, AT&T and others. Not surprisingly, I've received many letters and had numerous postings to my blog that question my motives. Readers complain that I'm too hard on a particular company or I don't understand a certain industry or tell me that I shouldn't let one isolated incident frame my perception of an organization. Although I acknowledge that I'm not an expert on many things, I am an expert on how I expect my quality requirements to be met. I may not always know how to define poor service or bad quality, but I sure know it when I experience it.

The letters defending the poor service that I received are indicative of a general quality apathy in this country (and most of the Western world). Consumers are either afraid to speak up when they receive poor service, defeated in their attempts to counter it or don't have an alternative. Unfortunately, this same apathy is shared by organizational leadership. Therefore, we expect poor quality, which is exactly what we receive.

This apathy is pushing us toward a tipping point that may strip us of our ability to effectively compete with the rest of the world. Thomas L. Friedman points out in his excellent book, The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), that technology, innovation, capital and free enterprise systems around the world are converging to make doing business in India as easy as it is in Indianapolis. (By the way, if you haven't already read The World Is Flat, buy it now. It should be required reading for anyone who works for a living.) We're losing not just manufacturing jobs to places like China and Mexico, but we're also beginning to lose the high-paying white-collar jobs that are the engine of economic growth. Jobs like tax preparation, software engineering, project management and administration can now be done in India for a fraction of the cost of doing them in the United States.

If you read my column regularly, you probably know that I'm a staunch advocate of free trade. I believe that free and open trade will benefit our country in the long run. However, we've got to start paying attention to what's going on in the rest of the world. There's no quality apathy in China. The Chinese government and people are passionately committed to quality. They know that a commitment to quality is vital to the success of their economy.

Unfortunately, I've received many letters from readers who believe that China is one big slave-labor camp. This is nonsense. I agree that the Chinese people don't have the same liberties and basic human rights that we do. However, the Chinese are desperate to catch up with the rest of the world, and they're doing it. The transformation of their nation is nothing short of miraculous. China is just one example. India, South Korea, Malaysia and others are following the same model.

Our country has always thrived in the face of adversity. Competition will make us stronger if we meet it head on. Some people believe that trade barriers are the only answer to save our industrial base. I believe that trade barriers only prolong the inevitable and make the consumer suffer with high prices and poor quality. The only solution is to improve the quality of the products and services that we deliver.

For corporate America the time has come to wake up and smell the coffee, perhaps literally. Take Starbucks, for example. What could be more mundane that selling a cup of coffee? Starbucks has raised it to an art form. It delivers a consistently good product with terrific service in a welcoming environment. And guess what? Starbucks is thriving in China--a U.S. company doing terrific business in China for the same reason it does well at home.

We've got to reverse the quality apathy, and it has to start at the top. Senior management has to be passionate about designing, building, delivering and servicing products that get people excited. Apple Computer's Steve Jobs is a perfect example. Apple dominates the portable- music-player market because it built a really cool product that works exceptionally well and is easy to use. Jobs' latest coup, a Macintosh that runs both the Mac OS and Windows, is another stroke of genius.

General Motors and Ford have to start designing and building vehicles that people actually prefer to Hondas and Toyotas. Chrysler has had some success with its PT Cruiser and the 300M, but it, too, has a long way to go. It's absolutely inexcusable that nearly 30 years after we rediscovered the works of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, the U.S. auto industry is still losing market share and building vehicles that can't compete with the Japanese, South Koreans, Germans and (soon) the Chinese. It's time for Detroit to stop obsessing over the latest quarter's financial results and to start focusing on quality.

What do you think? Is quality apathy rampant? How is the flattening world affecting your business? Post your comments to my blog at www.qualitycurmudgeon.blogspot.com.

About the author
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest's editor at large.