As an Industrial System Engineer with about 35 years of experience, I have noticed a trend over the last dozen years or so: Many of the products and services that we use in our projects, from companies both large and small, seem to have much less quality and support than in years past. The problem has gotten so bad recently that it not only adds significant unexpected increases in project costs and time lost, but it also frequently puts the entire project success in significant jeopardy.
It’s just like when I visit my local big-box store. I have seen the tools there go from a rugged design that were built to last a lifetime, to a greater use of inferior materials that are lucky to last one day of hard work on the job. No doubt, many of these products have been re-engineered after an extended period of competition in the marketplace to increase “efficiency.” That has been frequently misinterpreted by the shortsighted as mostly a reduction in product quality and support purely to reduce costs.
At many of the companies where we purchase our system components, nearly across the board, not only are the products of lower quality, but frequently they are not completely developed. Instead, they are “tested in the marketplace.” The documentation is also low quality, inaccurate and incomplete. Companies used to team up product engineers and professional technical writers for extended periods of time to publish well-polished and informative product manuals and documentation. Those times are long since passed. I think that even the company lawyers have added their input and have advised that less said in the documentation equals less legal exposure.
This puts my reliance on the product support groups at a critical level. But here too, in the product support area (apparently to trim costs) the manufacturers have severed any direct connections between their users and whatever product engineers still remain. They have instead put in a layer of “Technical Representatives” who know little of the products or applications between us and the people who can actually help us. These technical representatives work as a filter and can only incompletely parrot the problem and questions to their second tier level of support. If I work hard at it for a very long time, after several weeks I might eventually get a response that might lead me to a workaround for my issue.
Another recent trend is for companies to replace their entire internal Product Support groups with “peer support online Internet forums.” In these online forums, users of the company’s product are supposed to help each other. Frequently, a majority of forum postings that are desperately seeking help with difficult technical issues can go for weeks and months without a single response. And often when a response is given, it is from a source that is uninformed and not helpful. When I question companies about the lack of official responses to the forum postings, their response is that “company representatives regularly moderate these online forums and are encouraged to participate but are not required to do so within any specific time frame”.
Currently, my most effective and reliable tool for product support is a Google search for someone that might mention a problem similar to mine and might have a thread that might lead me to a solution to my issue. This means that a problem can last weeks or months while someone is searching for a solution. Some problems lead to a very difficult decision about rejecting a product or component that has been in development for a significant period of time and replacing it with an alternate component that will come with its own different set of problems to be solved.
You can see how difficult it is for a project team to fight through all of the issues that appear with all of the products and components that we purchase and still through to a project completion within the estimated time frame and budget.
I think that many of these quality and support issues are the direct result, in a difficult economy, of a shortsighted effort to reduce costs for greater competitiveness. A few companies still have internal “Product Quality” programs, but frequently those programs are designed to achieve greater product consistency not product quality. These programs work mostly internally without any customer input. I believe that product quality is purely in the eyes of the customer. But, how can you have product quality without regular customer input into the process? And how can you be competitive if your products are of inferior quality and regularly disappoint your customers?
What happens to us when most of our society competes only on lowest cost? I think we end up with more problems similar to the ones the Chinese society has recently experienced: • piracy and counterfeit parts, • intentional contamination with inferior materials, • early part failure, • reduction in safety and reliability, • cover ups, • stolen intellectual policy, • resulting in more litigation (in the USA), • and increasing peer pressure to take unwise shortcuts and cheat the system.
Is this where the U.S.A. wants to end up? I don't think so, and I certainly hope not.
So what can engineers do to help reverse this undesirable trend in reduced product quality? How do you stabilize a system that is running out of control? Answer: You add corrective feedback to the system from an observer.
One possible solution is to find a way to publically acknowledge those companies and products that still show signs of good product quality in the hopes that the recognition will spread. This recognition can then be used as a competitive edge over those companies and products that provide less quality. If the Engineering Society, without managerial intervention, contributed their votes to recognize companies and products that they find to provide good quality, then this recommendation could be used as a buyer’s guide or Angie’s List of sorts to help select products and components that have been shown to provide more reliable quality and fewer problems. This, in and of itself, will help those companies and products to survive over their inferior competitors and help project teams make more informed product choices. Let’s help change a race to the bottom on quality into a race to the top, or at least upwards.
Very good your article. I took the "liberty" to translate it to portuguese to sahre it with other coleagues in Brazil that don't read well in english.
A long time I didn't see an objective article about the rising low-quality of products and services and the acceptance of ordinary people on it.
I think is in our hands to bring quality back.
Speaking from an inside software development perspective, I've seen the pressure to meet a nonsensical deadline. The result was a piece of software that had kludge, patch and fix upon yet more kludges and patches piled on until the product creaked to life. There was literally no time to investigate the design issues that we faced as the sales people over-ruled the engineers every time we wanted to correct a fundamental flaw in the design. The standard response was always, "Can you patch it?" This situation was by no means unique, as I've seen it in military contractors, aviation, communications and commercial products companies.
One company threatened our CEO by telling him that unless the problems were fixed, they would rip out our boxes and dump them into the nearest landfill. How's that for building the company's reputation for quality?
The software we were forced to deliver was highly coupled, badly designed, buggy and brittle. Requests by customers for even small changes were a nightmare to implement and get right. Of course when the product failed, as it often did we were chastised on the quality of our processes. Any attempt to bring realism to the discussion of schedules was met with the retort, "... but you agreed to the schedule in the first place." Of course the threat was always that if you can't do the job then we will get someone in who can.
If this sounds a tad cynical it was meant to be as I don't see anyone, save the Japanese companies, attempting to change the status quo.
It use to be common (I don't know if it still is) for design engineers to operate a resistor at know more than a certain percentage of its rated power. Other components were similarly derated. Practices such as these contributed to a robust design.
Jack made the remark that durability and ruggedness "do not equate to quality", but that being good enough to do the job was adequate quality. That sounds like the sales people who start to list features of a product when I mention my desire for quality. Even a paper towel must not fall apart until after it has completed the task of drying my hands. A quality tool is one that not only fits correctly the first time that I use it, but still fits (or functions) correctly after I use it a few hundred times. A quality refrigerator would last 40 years, and the first part to fail would be the door gasket. Of course, it would not even have an ice maker. The quality color TV sets in the sixties did give a decent picture on all the channels with an adequate signal. It was the junk sets that had the problems. The guilty parties know who I mean. So definitely, we can say that a high quality product gives us our money's worth, while a poor quality product does not.
Don, you ask where the Quality is and then go to a big box store to try and find it?
That's like going to Walmart when you want to buy a Cadillac. Even if Walmart sold cars, what kind of car do you think you would find?
Good story, and I'm sure a nice guy but give your head a shake.
Don is right on with his story. Lots of products -mostly modules- that engineers use are not even finished, or they have flaws. The key for succes -in my humble opinion- is to bring stuff on the market that really is doing the job suburb. There are brands (ON-semi, National, Analog devices) who do that. Then, doing so, your company will be a winner. Unfortunately this is overshadowed by extremely quick innovation. (It is a kind of paradox) Best is not to leave your principles behind and finish your product.
When you really really analyze the past it all started with the PC e.g. Micro$oft. No one knew anything about computers those days and no one would dare to admit that the software of these days actually was one piece of garbage. (We all paid for it... Hard to admit you threw your money in the bin, right? ;-) You asked your neighbor how he solved his PC problems. On the other hand, your car and even the car radio you expect that to work in 1 time. If not, you go back. My theory here is that Mr Billy Gates really F$#%^ed up our mindset about these things. He initialized this trend. It indeed started a few decades ago.... I would suggest to all of you readers: Give this a thought.