Probing the Limits: Didn't Anybody Test This?

July 1, 2006
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Consumers' experience with poor quality products often leads them to wrongly accuse manufacturing when quality problems arise.

As a manufacturing manager, I used to get angry and frustrated when customers experiencing problems would ask me, "Didn't anyone test this?" Now I'm starting to understand why this is a good question.

When working for a company that produced complex electro-mechanical devices, I sympathized with customers who experienced product problems. At the same time, though, it bothered me when they assumed that their failure occurred because the product was not tested in manufacturing when it actually had been tested.

What I knew, and most customers didn't understand, is that most failures in complex products go back to design defects. When software is involved, then a high percentage of field failures come from bugs in the code. Manufacturing tests are not designed to shake out code bugs. That's the job of engineering pre-release product verification testing.

What made the question, "Didn't anybody test this?" particularly frustrating was that often I had to take the fall for the failure. Customer confidence often was better maintained when they were left to believe their failure was because of a mistake on the manufacturing floor instead of the product design. As a manufacturing manager, I had a hard time with this.

I never fully understood why the sophisticated, technical users of our products nearly always assumed that failures had a manufacturing root cause instead of a design root cause. I think part of the reason is that few people understand that it is nearly impossible to do a complete design shakeout of complex technical products. Even simple pieces of software can have millions of branches to test to completely verify the code. Very few companies do a 100% verification of their software.

Much to my surprise, I'm seeing these same issues as I've transitioned from making complex, technical products to my own start-up company that makes art and creativity products for kids. This "Didn't anybody test this?" issue is alive and well in this relatively non-complex industry.

As we have worked during the last year to develop our new line of products, I've tried hundreds of art kits and art materials. Few of these projects work like they claim. The operator is left frustrated by the experience and the product is usually so inexpensive that it is not worth making the effort to get a refund. I estimate that around 70% of the products I try don't meet the expectations set by the advertising, and around 10% of the products barely work at all. I want to ask the manufacturers, "Didn't anybody test this?" In many cases, it is clear that they never tested the product, or they just simply didn't care if it worked. I'm now starting to understand that poor quality consumer products have taught us to ask this question.

With consumer products such as toys, few people ask the company for Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) data, or ask to do an evaluation before they buy such as when buying big high-tech products. About the only thing known about a consumer product comes from the advertising in the media or on the box. What I quickly learned is that with many consumer products, almost as much money is spent on the flashy box as the box contents. I find that sad. I'm now working on the marketing materials for our new products and I'm having a hard time dealing with the fact that flashy and funny graphics may be more important to the success of our company than the good products that we have worked so hard to develop.

We are trying to leverage the "Didn't anybody test this?" quality issue by making our highly tested products a major value-adding differentiator. We also hope that people will see beyond our inexpensive, black-and-white printed box and appreciate the high-quality, high-quantity contents inside.

Experienced business people understand that successful businesses focus on identifying needs and opportunities-then develop products to fill those needs. Whether it's complex high-tech products or simple toys, I think that leveraging quality methods to develop products where people won't ask, "Didn't anybody test this?" is a great business opportunity on which many successful businesses can be built.

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