E-business Commentary -- Quality Is Still Job One

Recent recalls show manufacturers can't be complacent.

In the 1980s, when U.S. manufacturing had slipped a notch vis--vis the rest of the world, we heard the mantra of quality everywhere -- on airplanes, in offices, and over dinner. Everybody had a TQM (total quality management) program. By the time the 1990s rolled around, manufacturing had made great strides in improving products. But companies were ready to move on. The Next Big Things -- business reengineering, supply-chain management, and e-commerce -- squeezed quality off the agenda in corporate boardrooms. By the late 1990s it was common for consultants and even some in manufacturing to say things like, "Oh, quality is a given -- you have to have quality, or you can't compete." The attitude was, since we've achieved quality in manufacturing, nobody has to worry about it anymore. Don't believe it. Look around you. Products break, don't function properly, fail prematurely, or don't work from the get-go. The fact is, quality is coming back to haunt manufacturers like a hastily slapped together monster in a low-budget 1950s horror film. Want proof? Just take a look at a partial list of manufacturers that have stumbled recently over quality problems: Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., Intel Corp., Toshiba Corp., Palm Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. High-tech seems particularly vulnerable. Last May Intel announced a recall of certain motherboards that were shipped with its 820 chipset; they could cause a computer to intermittently reboot or hang up. Something called a memory translator hub contained the glitch, the company reported. Still, this recall pales when compared with the infamous Pentium bug in 1994 that affected millions of PCs containing the chip. Often the problem is caused not by the OEM but by a supplier's assembly or unit, even though both companies suffer. Patriot Computer Corp. had to halt production when it learned that a power-supply unit built in China was malfunctioning. As a result, the Markham, Ont., firm couldn't meet customer orders over the last holiday season, ultimately leading to the company being fined $200,000 by the FTC for violating the federal Mail and Telephone Order Rule. Toshiba recently settled a lawsuit over defects in its personal computers for $2.1 billion. Even so, Toshiba denied liability for the problem, which plaintiffs attributed to a defect in the microcontroller chips for floppy disk drives that can corrupt a user's data. In addition to the settlement, Toshiba offered customers cash rebates, free merchandise, and software to fix the problem. In May, Palm Inc., the leading manufacturer of personal digital assistants, revealed that its first model with a color screen has a tendency to crack. Palm, which introduced the IIIc model with the color screen last February for $449, offered customers free replacements for cracked units. That same month Hewlett-Packard admitted that its $499 color-screen Jornada 540 Series Pocket PC, a Palm competitor, displays only a fraction of the hues customers expected. HP said the problem lay with a less-powerful 12-bit chip that was used inside the device instead of a 16-bit chip. HP has since trimmed its claims for the product. One of the most damaging examples of a quality debacle came to light in August when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.4 million SUV tires predominantly used on Ford Explorers. Since March the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating several dozen deaths and hundreds of injury accidents linked to a certain size and make of Firestone tires that can shred at highway speeds, causing vehicles to go out of control and sometimes roll over. Despite the recall and the government inquiry, Firestone continues to insist that its ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires, of which some 16 million were manufactured over the past decade, are safe. What's the solution? Some companies have adopted process testing, that is, ensuring from the start that the process itself is checked at every step along the way. That way, you don't build a million, or even 10,000, defective units. Ultimately, though, the real answer to the issue of manufacturing quality-or lack thereof-lies in changing our all-too-complacent attitudes. Regardless of what the consultants say, quality is still job one. Douglas Bartholomew is an IndustryWeek senior editor based in San Francisco.

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