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Published: March 1, 2005

 
 

Beware the Product Death Cycle

The quality wars were allegedly won in the 1980s. Why, then, are we again overwhelmed by junk?

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Back in November 1980, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara Tuchman asserted in the New York Times Magazine that the quality of civilization was going downhill. Mass production, she wrote, had rendered the devices and luxuries of the good life — furniture, watches, clothes, toys — more plentiful than ever. But these products were not as durable, as reliable, or as pleasing as their handmade preindustrial counterparts. Her article, titled “The Decline of Quality” and published as a cover story in the magazine, was fiercely passionate. Society was filling up with junk, and it was up to all of us to rescue it, she declared.

Ms. Tuchman probably didn’t know it, but manufacturers were starting to agree with her. Spurred by the threat of Japanese competition and suffering their own painful loss of market share, a number of American and European corporations adopted a set of process management ideas in the early 1980s known generally as “total quality management,” or TQM. Incorporating in-depth statistical production analysis and some pioneering approaches to participative management, TQM later spun off a host of popular management concepts, including Six Sigma. (See “Winning Hearts and Minds at Home Depot,” page 60.) Maestros of quality-oriented management such as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran demonstrated to American business audiences that they could bring the spirit of elite craftsmanship into mass production without adding cost.

Quality improvement might have required up-front investment, but it ultimately reduced costs by cutting waste and eliminating rework and repairs. By the early 1990s, after a decade of quality practice, there was an almost utopian sense in the air that consumer goods, from toaster ovens to high-tech computer devices, would never stop improving, and the quality of life would get better and better.

Those were the days. For the past few years, it has appeared that U.S. corporations are once again employing strategies that emphasize short-term gains from the production of cheaply made, junky products. Kitchen appliances, power tools, cell phones, computer printers, DVD players, toys, and many other consumer goods are increasingly conceived and sold as disposable commodities. Although these products have more features and capabilities every year, their durability and longevity are rapidly dwindling.

As in the 1970s, this strategy poses serious dangers — from the erosion of well-established brands to the ultimate financial failure of companies. But it may be harder now to reverse the tide, because several trends in manufacturing and marketing subtly reinforce one another. Instead of facing competition from high-quality Japanese manufacturers, companies in industrialized countries face tough competition from low-wage countries and high price-cutting pressure from global retailers. Even when producers do promote quality, far fewer consumers seem to care. In this environment, many firms now seem to perceive the production of shoddy products as an effective bottom-line strategy. But giving in to this increasingly irresistible temptation can put a company’s future market share and profits at risk.

Anecdotes and Evidence
Has product quality really declined that much since the early 1990s? Admittedly, much of the evidence is anecdotal. But its sources are diverse: repair shop technicians, weblog gripes, current and former TQM consultants, and myriad acquaintances with stories of annoyance. Lamp housings crack; videocassette recorders rewind slowly and haltingly; cell phone batteries fall out; shirt buttons crumble; washing machines falter; televisions render flesh tones in rainbow hues.

Overall automobile performance is better, but many vehicle components are still maddeningly fragile. For instance, the dashboard “idiot light” on many cars signals a mysterious computer-detected malfunction somewhere in the engine (often in the sensors tied to the catalytic converter). It typically requires a repair shop visit to diagnose and shut off the light. But then, a day or two after the ostensible repair, the light reactivates itself, like a movie monster that cannot be killed. Our European-make family auto was thus afflicted, and after bringing it in four times to my local dealer, I finally exploded in frustration. “Only four times?” the repair shop manager asked. “Some people come back 10 times with this problem!” He advised me to ignore the warning light. “Just don’t tell anyone I said that.”

 
 
 
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