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Departments: First Word

In Pursuit of Mediocrity

Fast cycle times and globalization discourage higher quality.


by Paul Differding

Mediocrity reigns supreme. Not because quality isn’t progressing, but because our consumerist society is driving quality there. Mediocrity is today’s quality.

So much effort is expended to make every product immediately affordable that everything is now disposable. My old video camera needs work--$250 for basic repairs. A new camera costs $250 and does a whole lot more. I wanted to upgrade my computer. The cost of a new hard drive plus the cost of a new Windows operating system was the same as a new computer. Fix my old car? Ever try to find a good mechanic? It’s so expensive to fix older cars that it’s easier to swap your lease, or trade in your old car for a new one and get plenty back on the trade-in.

What pushes these prices? We’ve all heard about the Wal-Mart effect: driving prices as low as possible and then squeezing out a few more cents every few months. This is true even with our airlines. I travel a lot for work. How do I shop for tickets? First, which airline flies to the location? Second, which is the cheapest? Rarely do I pick one airline over the other based on quality. To reduce prices, they’ve all eliminated the services that differentiate one from another, so I can barely tell the difference. Southwest is easily as good as United.

As a consumer, this situation doesn’t please me, but then I am the problem. It’s important to remember that quality only matters if I don’t think I’ll discard an item after a few years and buy a new one.

All this cost pressure comes down to producers and their suppliers trying to squeeze out every penny. The technology used to create a product, or the technology that is the product, have been forced to improve by leaps and bounds. Our disposable society moves it in this direction. It’s not just technical items that push the concept. My living room couch, which I inherited, was built during the 1950s. Solid as a rock. A new couch is actually built to be more comfortable, but the joints loosen after five years.

Product life cycles keep getting shorter. Why spend time perfecting a life cycle? I can whip out a mediocre product and worry about improvement with the next version. In this way, the consumer believes that he or she is seeing great strides in quality improvement with each product life cycle. My father has a 1985 Mercedes, I have one from 1996, and a friend has a new one. The technological differences are astounding. I’m disappointed driving the 1985 model, and in turn disappointed with my 1996 after riding in the latest model. This rapid churn of product life cycles brings the mediocre to market today, so that we can tout the improvements made to the next version tomorrow.

Globalization contributes to this situation. To squeeze out more pennies and keep up with this rapid product cycle, we turn to the quick fix--in other words, make it somewhere else cheaper. We’re not yet all on an even playing field in terms of cost. The small company that tries to produce a high-quality item can’t compete if someone else wants to sell it and can find a supplier somewhere in the world that will produce it cheaper. For instance, a recent National Public Radio story on socks reported that all producers pay about the same for materials and to have the sock bodies sewn on by automatic machines. The real expense is in sewing the toe. In the United States it costs 22 cents to sew the toe closed. In Honduras it costs 15 cents. On a billion socks, that adds up. Recently, the U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements threatened Honduras with a tariff to help bring sock manufacturing back to the United States.

This is when my background becomes helpful. I’m a quality professional working for a multinational company. Consumerism is affecting everything. I’ve watched as contract after contract is negotiated solely on price. I’ve even been there to hear a customer tell us, “You need to differentiate yourselves from your competitors, but your price has to be really close to theirs (read: the same), and we expect you to differentiate yourselves because you’re bigger than they are.” So to compete solely on price, it’s easier to embrace mediocrity… along with our competitors. The larger the corporation, the more purchasing moves away from, “What am I getting for the money?” toward, “Which is the cheapest because I don’t know anything about what I’m purchasing?”

This degradation toward mediocrity will continue until globalization is complete. Then the new corporations of the world will spend “quality engineering” time differentiating their products from the others, instead of just trying to contend with better pricing without losing their current quality.

The last I heard, Toyota was having quality problems (albeit minor compared to U.S. companies), and the Japanese work ethic was changing to a consumerist ethic. Will they focus on quality engineering? It seems you can now find enough people, somewhere in the world, to buy anything--no matter how bad it is.

About the author
Paul Differding is a quality manager with a large inspection and testing company. He has performed analysis, safety, software design and management, and quality management roles in laboratory environments for more than 20 years. He is also a member of several ASTM subcommittees developing standards for analysis and quality management.