Skip to comments.Quality Fade in China
Posted on 08/02/2007 8:52:22 AM PDT by Justmay
Dealing With China's 'Quality Fade' Paul Midler 07.26.07, 11:11 AM ET Recent media reports detailing a series of quality problems with Chinese-made exports--pet food tainted with prohibited chemicals, toys covered with lead paint and tires that fall apart at high speed--have understandably alarmed the American public and resulted in a number of international product recalls.
But supply chain professionals not directly affected by these recalls remain unusually calm. "Everything will be all right," said one U.S. importer on a buying mission to China. "As the country continues to develop, the quality of its products will naturally rise."
It's the sort of comment that sounds logical, but is not necessarily true. Quality does not always rise over time, as China's own history shows. At the end of the 19th century, the West rushed to buy China's beautiful silk products. Demand quickly expanded, and new players moved into the market. As competition intensified, manufacturers began to cut corners on quality, and silk products out of China soon gained a reputation as inferior goods.
By the beginning of the 20th century, traders were already looking elsewhere, and Japan, which had been building a reputation for delivering a more consistently high-quality product, became an attractive alternative. By 1930, Japan was exporting twice as much silk as China.
One of the problems facing China is that manufacturers continue to engage in a practice I call "quality fade." This is the deliberate and secret habit of widening profit margins through a reduction in the quality of materials. Importers usually never notice what's happening; downward changes are subtle but progressive. The initial production sample is fine, but with each successive production run, a bit more of the necessary inputs are missing.
What is maddening to importers is that quality fade often occurs in the last place an importer thinks to check. One American company had been importing a line of health and beauty care products for over a year when the cardboard boxes that held its product suddenly started collapsing under their own weight. There was no logical explanation for the collapse except quality fade, and the supplier in this case blamed subsuppliers for replacing an acceptable cardboard box with ones that were inferior.
The Case Of The Missing Aluminum
Some quality issues are not all that serious, but others are downright frightening. One of the most disturbing examples I have encountered while working in China involved the manufacture and importation of aluminum systems used to construct high-rise commercial buildings. These are the systems that support tons of concrete as it is being poured, and their general stability is critical.
The American company that designed and patented the system engineered all key components. It knew exactly how much each part was supposed to weigh, and yet the level of engineering sophistication did not stop the supplier from making a unilateral decision to reduce the specifications. When the "production error" was caught, one aluminum part was found to be weighing less than 90% of its intended weight.
Where did the missing aluminum go? Into the factory owner's pocket as a cost saving. The only thing passed on to the customer was an increase in product risk. Quality fade is like the straw that broke the camel's back--only in reverse. Suppliers push the limit by taking more and more out of the equation until they are caught, or until disaster strikes.
Even when importers catch suppliers in a quality fade, they frequently don't do much about it. Many quality problems are seen as too minor relative to the difficulties involved in rectifying them. Customers may not notice a product flaw, but they most certainly notice when a product is not delivered on time. The chance of a product failure is usually remote, but the penalty for late delivery is an almost certain loss of business.
Some importers bravely attempt to fight back against quality fade by insisting a supplier replace substandard goods at the factory's expense. A savvy supplier--and most are extremely savvy--can respond to such demands by threatening to terminate the supplier relationship. Or the supplier can respond by raising prices. Importers might then say they will switch suppliers, but the factory owner knows this is an empty threat as finding and cultivating a new supplier can take a long time. And anyway, there is no guarantee that the next supplier won't engage in the same willful behavior as the first.
The factory owner who practices quality fade knows exactly where he stands with his customer in these cat-and-mouse games. He has virtually nothing to lose and only margin to gain--and, having gotten away with it once, no one should be surprised when he goes for it again. When the factory owner offers his most sincere apologies and promises that it won't happen a second time, importers simply close their eyes and hope for the best.
If Adam Smith were around today, he would have had to write a separate chapter on global outsourcing. Because it takes importers a long time to find suppliers and to get them up to speed, importers keep their suppliers a secret. The last thing that an importer wants to do is let his competitors know the source of any supply chain advantage he may have. Even when it is in their collective interest to share information, importers keep to themselves.
As a result, factories pay little, if any, reputational cost for production shenanigans. The invisible hand doesn't work well when the manufacturers themselves are unseen.
This lack of accountability also has legal implications. When a product is recalled in the U.S., the importer pays the cost of that recall. It remains next to impossible to take legal action in China, and only in the rarest case can an importer successfully sue the supplier responsible for a product failure.
Since most suppliers are paid in full well before goods leave the factory, the importer doesn't even enjoy the leverage that comes with owing payment to the supplier. The average importer has far less leverage than imagined.
Outwitting Third-Party Testers
In the wake of quality problems, many are looking to third-party testing as a solution. In theory, testing works well. Prior to exporting a product, the supplier takes a sample and sends it off to a reputable and international testing laboratory, which then checks to make sure the product is safe. Unfortunately, testing doesn't work well when a supplier sets out to circumvent the system.
I recently worked with one supplier that was encountering difficulties making a quality liquid soap for export to the U.S. To get around problems the supplier was having with laboratory results, the supplier created 10 random samples and sent them to the same lab for testing.
Nine of these samples failed, but one passed. The supplier took the one test result marked "passed" and sent it off to the customer. The U.S. company never knew about the failed results, and a purchase order was promptly issued.
Third-party testing is far from fail-safe. Consider one study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2001. In a review of nearly 200 recalled electrical products from China, the CPSC found that more than 25% had had prior approval by an international third-party testing agency such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Intertek Testing Services (ETL) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).
Both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have suggested that the solution to China's quality problems lies in greater vigilance on the part of importers, but the question remains: If professional third-party testing agencies are failing to catch product failures, how is the average importer expected to do so? After all, third-party testing agencies have far better resources, and their people are much better trained.
Private quality assurance programs may also be put in place, but suppliers can circumvent such controls as well. In one case, after a load of plywood was rejected at one factory, the supplier simply mixed a portion of it with product that was perfectly good in later shipments. Working the bad into the good is a common way for a factory to reduce loss.
A supplier can bury substandard product knowing full well that warehouse workers in the U.S. do not have the time to examine each piece that comes in. And detailed contracts cannot succeed in bridging any moral gap. In order for supplier relationships to work successfully, there must be a basic level of trust.
Get Rich Quick
In an effort to reduce risk, American companies are also looking to suppliers that are larger and seem more capable. The unfortunate fact about China's larger factories, however, is they charge more for product than smaller factories do. It is as if economies of scale do not apply in China. There are several reasons why China suffers from such a problem, and one has to do with the role government plays in manufacturing.
Where a small factory may have been funded entirely by the government, future expansions are more often privately financed. Making the matter worse are extremely short payback periods on private investment. Many factories hope to pay off investments in as few as three years. One of the worst things an importer can hear is, "We want to show you our most recent expansion." The more a supplier invests, the quicker it raises prices.
There is a sense of urgency in China, the feeling that one must work fast before the window of opportunity closes. For factories, that means taking shortcuts on quality. Many factory owners can't see beyond the next purchase order.
One reason for the short-sightedness may have to do with China's political environment. The one-party government does what it wants, when it wants. And while there may be some advantages to a government that can operate without restraint or controversy, such a system limits predictability and leaves the business sector keenly aware that it is subject to the evanescent whims of officials who may or may not know which policy is best.
The U.S. administration has recently been applying pressure on China to revalue its currency in order to close the growing trade gap between the two countries. To appease the U.S., China has responded by reducing the tax rebates it offers to manufacturers.
For some suppliers, the tax rebates have constituted a major portion of their bottom line. Massive and sudden changes such as these only confirm the factory owner's paranoid suspicions that the manufacturing opportunity could disappear at any moment. No one in China is sure how long anything will last--a situation that keeps many focused on the immediate present.
Chinese manufacturers that engage in quality fade unfortunately subscribe to the view that business is about increasing one's share of the pie rather than growing the pie over time. They often focus on extracting profit through short-term maneuvers that inevitably militate against long-term development. This approach, it should be noted, contrasts sharply with the success strategies of such economies as Japan and Korea, which focus on building market share and developing strategic relationships.
Playing It Short
Some blame quality problems and product recalls on the relentless pursuit of lower prices. Importers most often go to the cheapest supplier, so the supplier who quotes low and quietly cuts corners on quality is the one who wins. Honest suppliers who prefer to quote higher and offer a better quality product lose out. The supplier who obfuscates catches orders first--and most often.
Chinese suppliers are excellent at playing the short game. When an importer discovers a quality problem late, the factory turns around and suggests, "But you signed off on the original production sample yourselves." When goods arrive damaged in the U.S., the factory claims that the importer has been making up the story in order to lower import costs. Arguments like these work in the short term. Over the longer term, however, importers get wise, and alternative markets start to look increasingly attractive.
China's quality situation is by no means hopeless. Japan was known decades ago for making inferior products, but that changed. The key to turning the situation around is to incorporate a habit of quality into the culture. China, however, has not shown that it has any interest in doing so.
Recent accusations of unreliability in Chinese products are now being met with tit-for-tat claims that U.S. products are faulty. This is an unfortunate strategy for China, and it means that we will continue to see quality problems. China will not be able to succeed so long as manufacturers are competing in a race to the bottom.
Paul Midler is the founder and president of China Advantage, a services firm that provides outsourcing and supply chain management to U.S. and European companies. He has been involved with China for more than 15 years, and in the course of his manufacturing career, has had dealings with thousands of Chinese factories.
I firmly believe that we are accepting all this stuff from China so that we can borrow money from them. Our politicians have sold our country and the Chinese could care less. Cut off the borrowing, pass a balanced budget and cut our taxes to bare minimum so we have some control over our politicians. Money is power to them. But....we have to cut off the borrowing of money. We don’t need their money or their products.
Going to have to boycott products made in China. Sometimes a little hard to do..Example... every damn toothbrush it seems is made in China... ridiculous.
What better way to eliminate your “enemy” than to sell them substandard or toxic products??
The Chinese have not been around for over 5,000 years for nothing!!!
Bush should NEVER have supported their entry in the WTO, IMO.
Yet another reason not to outsource to China.
Yesterday I bought a pair of reading glasses at wallyworld and when I got home I sarcastically said to my wife and daughter, that I’d better wash the chinese blinding chemical off these glasses before putting them on. Reply: Oh Dad!
Only one candidate is addressing China in a firm straighforward manner. Duncan Hunter.
Quality Fade in China
Those two words don’t even belong in the same sentence together.
Everything from China has always been poorly crafted junk.
Cheap, toss away junk. Nothing new here.
And detailed contracts cannot succeed in bridging any moral gap. In order for supplier relationships to work successfully, there must be a basic level of trust.
Very true. This was easier to develop with a factory owner who you could meet and maintain a relationship with.
The problem also lies with US buyers insisting on price over quality. We own a supply business and people will most times shop only price. Oftentimes we lose many bids because we will only sell products we know are of solid quality. It is a hard climate in which to do business.
Excellent article, worth reading in full. One solution on the national level would be to view the quality fade as an externality and apply a tarriff to counter-act it.
I’ve noticed ‘quality fade’ in alot of products. I’ve often called it ‘spending down brand equity’ where a company builds up a reputation of quality products and then increases margin by selling increasingly inferior products. It takes the market time to notice the inflection point. Meanwhile a large expanded volume of goods are sold based on an earlier reputation build on an small startup volume of product. Eventually the product becomes a cheap commodity and/or the brand becomes defunct. Another ‘new’ company builds up a reputation of quality products and then...
Its not just about China, its about opening “free trade” with any 3rd world country. You don’t simply open your trade wide open to corrupt and poor 3rd world countries... particularly ones that are so corrupt and poor that they cannot feed their own people!
Corruption and fraud are ALWAYS the end result. But I guess it’ll take a politicians kid to die before anyone will stop turning a blind eye to the complete fraud of “free trade”.
I think you just told the story of General Motors.
I think you are right to say you don’t open to free trade with corrupt countries. Simple, common sense.
Clinton sold them military secrets and DC pols in the back pockets of corporate greedsters.... now we not only worry about junk made in China but that they are building a huge military with USA transferred wealth. Our politicians are PIGS of greed and sold us down the river. And Hilary Clinton is the Dem candidate for Pres? We are a nation of lugnuts sad to say.
The Spanish and Taiwanese products were consistently good quality, although more expensive than what could be gotten elsewhere.
Then the CEO of the company found a factory in India that could produce the parts for a lower price, thus increasing the company margin.
Only one lot in 3 ever, and I do mean ever, passed the rather strict QC requirements. The solution?
The QC department was told to keep parts from the lots which passed and have them tested in place of random samples from incoming lots.
The passing test results were then forwarded to the customer as if the parts had actually come from the lots we shipped them.
What were these parts you ask?
Lug nuts for semi trucks and trailers...
I left the company when I found out what was going on. I also took the liberty of sending a few purchasing agents a nice, succinct letter.
Then I set up my own company representing reputable American manufacturers of the same parts.
Last I heard my old boss was being investigated for fraud.
It’s good that the pet food scandal brought all this out into the open, but I’m afraid the government will try to bury the whole thing ASAP.
Meanwhile, they are now trying to open chicken imports from China, and various other foods as well. Great.
It’s difficult or impossible for a consumer to boycott Chinese goods, because often there is no indication on the label, or in many cases there is now no other reasonable choice. It’s not like boycotting French cheese or wine.
There have been times where that fits. While writing that though I had a few tool and appliance manufacturers in mind. Can also think of a few packaged food products this would apply to.
The good news is that in a society devoid of ethics and morals, and the only measure of success is what you can get away with, the mentality that led the manufacturers to cut corners on quality to make larger profits on the defective products they try to sell us will also led to defective military equipment for their own armed forces.
That’s the irony about evil, it always ends up being its own worst enemy.
That's great. Maybe next debate, he calls for Americans to boycott ChiComm crap? He's gotta do something quick to get headlines, his joke writer isn't as good as Mike Huckabee's.
Very insightful article.
I think Huck does his own comedy. He’s pretty talented too. :o)
Hunter has even run ads on China and it is one of the pillars of his campaign. The bad trade deal with them, and their arming to the teeth. He even has legislation pending.
Good post and a timely article. A few comments on “quality fade”: IMO, this is the same thing that happens when any product purchaser (say, Wal-Mart or GM) insists on year-over-year cost reduction from suppliers so the result is the supplier looks for ways to take cost out of the product, resulting in “quality fade”. In some circles, this is called “value engineering” (I experienced it in the construction industry) where they want alternative proposals to reduce cost while retaining performance or aesthetics. In the end, the supplier ends up being beat over the head with the specification and being held to the lower price.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, poisoning Americans is a secondary effect. The Chinese have so polluted their own water and air, they are reportedly dying by the hundreds of thousands. The Chinese are wallowing in all the toxins and poisons before they end up incorporated into products sold in America.
Kick back, relax. Don’t worry the government will take care of everything. Just keep buying whatever so they can continue to have the available revenue to do everything we have come to expect.
If my experience with Motorola phones is common I think Motorola is in the process of spending down brand equity as well. They have kept a defective connector for charging their phones for years. “Defective” in the sense that it is too delicate for the constant use and goes bad.
Such things have always been a problem in dealing with suppliers across the world.
Allowing the supplier to provide the samples for independent testing is always a foolish idea.
If you want to deal with suppliers that don't have a strong and well supported reputation for continued quality, you need to constantly test and verify that you are getting what you are paying for.
This has been true for as long as people have been trading with others.
These are private companies that are importing these goods, not our government. I don't see the connection to the Chinese government buying treasury bills.
This article might be focused on China, but we have not had such disastarous results coming out of other countries.
You’re right. It’s always been crap. The big issue is, why does our government do business with them?
We haven't had the volume of problems with products from other countries. Of course we also don't do such large volume of trade with other countries.
This is hardly the first time we have had product recalls, or the FDA has banned certain imports from other countries.
As for quality declines, it's really not any different that bars trying to water down the alcohol in the bottles. Deception such as that has been a problem since trade began.
Ads are fine, but with his limited budget (the only Presidential ads I've seen were from Romney), that's not going to get him above one percent. He NEEDS to be the lead story from the next debate, and calling for Congress and the President to go medieval on the ChiComms, and for ordinary Americans to boycott their goods might just do it.
Hunter's running out of time, he really should have come out on this China thing with both guns blazing during the last debate. It would have helped him immensely to have been a frequent guest on the Sunday morning talk shows, he needs to be controversial enough that they'd want to have him on to discuss what they might regard as fairly radical views.
There had been so many articles portraying China’s economy, educaitonal system, and society in such glowing, promising terms. And now we learn about this, their growing gender imbalance, and massive pollution.
The real question is why is all of this coming out now? And why is the liberal MSM pushing the anti-Chinese story? Is some rich liberal currency trader shorting China? Or is that tinfoil hat stuff? Inquiring minds and all...
They are suffering from Irrational Exuberance of China Bonanza.
However, the reality is quite different. As with any Irrational Exuberance, a rude awakening is due.
Keep at it, people are coming to see the benefit of quality over price. A quality US made product is not afraid to offer a lifetime guarantee as opposed to a cheap piece of junk that will break after its third usage.