Avoiding Quality Fade

Every manufacture or buyer will, at some point, have to deal with quality fade of some type.But there are two types of quality fade.And while each result in the same end result, bad quality products, one is significantly more nefarious than the other.

The first type, as detailed by Paul Midler in Forbs Magazine in July (link here: http://www.forbes.com/entrepreneurs/2007/07/26/china-manufacturing-quality-ent-manage-cx_kw_0726whartonchina.html), is purposeful and willfully dishonest.This type of quality fade is consciously and deceptively crafted to give the suppler more profit at the buyer's expense.And the costs to the buyer can be huge, just ask Mattel.

It's too simple, and rather racist, to just say: "You can't trust the Chinese."There are more structural problems at work here.Besides historical insecurity, especially recently, I think that the basic problem here is both that China has yet to develop a culture of trust and the resulting legal system to support it but that, as James McGregor says, Westerners come to China with way to much trust.Because of the structural problems and history of political instability the Chinese don't trust other unknown Chinese-so why do we?Why do you think that Guanxi is such a big deal?!

Now, I'm not saying that all Chinese are dishonest and the West is the bastion of moral goodness.But in a culture of shame (it's only wrong when you get caught) like China's the relative morality is different that what most of us would expect.If you don't consciously allow for the fact that you will most likely be taken advantage of in the name of business.

Further more, many newbies in China are often overwhelmed by China's sheer size and the initial hospitality of our hosts.We are enamored by the opportunity, the masses of people, the incredible rate of development and growth, the huge factories and the cheap labor prices.And in our China dream we, more often than we'd like to admit, forget our good senses at the door and trust complete strangers from a country and culture we often no nothing about.Many China hands will scoff at the simplicity of this comment, but I stand by it.How many engineers or QA or Production Managers from the West have after rounds and rounds of just-barely sub standard products and under duress from the home office to meet a deadline have approved something that was previously unacceptable?I've seen this more often than not with projects that we've been asked to fix; and that's when there's a Western manager involved.

The China apologists typically chime in about now and say something smart like: "they probably learned how to do quality fade techniques in the West." Or "all countries have this problem.Why pick on China?"I'll grant both points-yes, they may have learned it elsewhere and yes, it happens every else.But identifying the source of the concept and defending China's practices doesn't solve the problem.The problem is China is the World's Factory and so quality fade as an endemic problem across a massive production base is global, immediate and potentially mortal concern.

One of the common solutions of this type of quality fade is to hire third party inspectors. More often than not will solve the problem.But there are times when testing will only help you achieve lowest acceptable standard-hardly a standard you want to advertise.Other solutions range from partially investing in or completely owning/building your own production facility to simply buying product from a vender that is then responsible for the quality of the product.

The bottom line is, at some point, you have to have a degree of trust with your supplier.You can test all you want.You can personally watch the entire production run.But you can't watch the production of all the rare materials nor can you monitor each individual line worker's performance.You must eventually test a sample percentage, trust and work out responsibility agreements with suppliers in the chance that there are future problems.

While it's nice to see the current rash of articles on this issue I've not read any that list out what to do once you've found out that your product quality is fading.And brings us to the second type of quality fade.

This second type is much easier to (emotionally) deal with than the first.You don't have to confront someone on the ethics of doing business.But it requires that you schedule regular updates and are equally as diligent in what, when and how you test.

  1. Establish standards and live by them at all times and in all discussions.If you can't/won't or don't follow your contract you cannot expect you supplier to.
  2. Record every change on each production run and why you agreed to any changes.It's not enough to just record that a change has taken place, you must record why and what the solutions, options, costs and times were.You will be able to not only use these again in future discussions, but you will be able to determine what changes affect product quality and why-and what can be done (or undone) for the future orders.
  3. Annually renew the sample standard.Everything fades or loses quality over time (even the standard for the kilogram is shrinking!) and you must update what your standards are too keep pace with this incremental fade.
  4. Annually renew your measurement tools (if necessary).If you are using a digital caliper, Pantone books, or other scales or tools, get them checked or replaced annually to make sure that you are indeed accurately testing.Pantones are notoriously prone to fading and can cost you an entire order of otherwise acceptable product if you've approved the "wrong" colors.On a related note, if you plan on using you own Pantone books again, don't ever let a factory use them.
  5. Seal, bag, laminate, vacuum pack-do whatever it takes to preserve your sample's quality.If you've ever sent a sample to a Chinese factory and then asked for it back or asked to use it for QC you know what condition it'll be returned-unrecognizable.Ink, oil, grease, cuts, tears, missing parts, etc.Once you send a sample to a factory, do expect to ever use or even recognize it again.So, send the factory a sample and then seal away another one for you to use for QC later.
  6. Keep and additional standard sample in a separate location from production-tell your supplier that the "off-site" samples is the final standard if there are any questions.If the standard is in your possession you will never have to have ask the question: "Are you sure this is the sample we gave you?"
  7. Check molds, frames and all product equipment for degradation and replace if necessary.Along with testing equipment, you need to check you hardware on a regular basis-and it should be before you have a new production deadline because at that point it's too late.Molds wear down and even break as they are moved in and out of machinery.Confirm before starting and after completing each order that your molds et al are in good condition.
  8. If you're moving to a new factory-do the entire start up process over again.Don't assume that because you've been through the process and this new factory is "better" than the last one that you don't have do all the same tedious start-up procedures again.YOU DO.
  9. If you are outsourcing part of the product-require QC before the parts are shipped to the assembly location.Even if the sub-contractor is miles or even countries away, take the time to research a local QA firm to help you.The few hundred dollars it will cost you (most likely less than shipping) will save you thousands of dollars and weeks of time if you can catch problems before you ship.Even simple things like bags for packaging can delay you a week or more.It's just better to be safe than sorry.
  10. Develop and follow a detailed QC checklist.Like you contract, go over this list with your supplier and their (and your) QC personnel before you start the project.When you and the QC department all understand the standards that you'll be using for QC there will be no surprises down the road (other than your supplier saying: "You're serious, you really are going to be that strict with quality?!").Having the list is not nearly as important, though, as is sticking to it no matter what.Like you contract, if you deviate, they will too.Never never accept "chabuduo" (almost) as good enough.Good enough for you will be stretch into a huge disparity with multiple QC with multiple agendas checking your product.Don't change you standards, no matter the temptation.If you do, they will and then you'll have no leg to stand on if you call them on it.
  11. Use your own personnel and (not or) a reputable third party to constantly do random QA.Not a fail safe, but usually very effective.Of course you've got to train and communicate your standards to them just like you would if you were communicating with the factory directly.Third parties get paid by the hour/project and so have incentive to do the job as quickly as possible-know this is their bias up front and take the necessary precautions (book full days and require a time report along with product reports).

There are obviously product specific details for everything under the sun.This is just a general list of procedural items.

David Dayton the owner of Silk Road International and currently lives full-time in Shenzhen China.He speaks English, Thai and Mandarin and has worked in Asia for more than 15 years.You can contact him at david@silkroadintl.net or at www.silkroadintl.net.

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