Japan is having a meltdown about quality "problems." The New York Times reported that in the wake of recent, large-scale recalls of defective products made by Toyota and Sony, Japanese experts, manufacturers and even the trade minister are calling for a serious evaluation of manufacturing quality.

The Japanese response to this "problem" has been misguided. Experts have theorized that juvenile delinquency, rising crime rates, a drop in engineering students and even the end of guaranteed lifetime employment as reasons for the "decline." As part of the response, Japan's trade minister has sent letters to the executives at Sony demanding they report on quality improvements. Elementary schools in Kyoto are timing students to see how quickly they can recite multiplication tables.

The New York Times contrasts the Japanese response with the lack of response in the United States because, as they put it, "product recalls occur so frequently [in the U.S.] that most are barely noticed."

The Times and the Japanese are missing the real reasons for the current quality "problems," described nearly 20 years ago by David Garvin of Harvard University. In his paper, "Quality Problems, Policies and Attitudes in the United States and Japan: An Exploratory Study," published in the Academy of Management Journal, Garvin points out that while many studies are done that outline the steps needed to correct quality problems, few analyze the root causes of the problems. Garvin identifies poor product designs, defective materials, shoddy workmanship, and poorly or outdated equipment as causes. Before rushing to the previously mentioned extreme measures, the Times and Japanese officials and executives would do well to first study these issues.

Many U.S. companies went through such a review when the "quality problem" first beset them, and contrary to the Times' misinformation, U.S. manufacturing ships less defective products than ever before. Quality Magazine has measured this statistic the past few years, as part of our annual Quality Leadership 100 survey, and it has remained consistently low.

Japan's "quality problem" also is part of competition. As Japan's manufacturing base matures, younger manufacturing countries inevitably catch up. According to John Sutton of the London School of Economics, a typical market leader stays in place for about 20 years. Japan's quality problem may not be a problem, but rather the natural market forces Sutton describes.

As one Japanese university economics professor put it, "The biggest change may not be that Japan has dropped in quality, but that the rest of Asia is catching up."

Japan would do well to evaluate its product designs and manufacturing processes, and put its resources in the areas where it can add manufacturing value, instead of trying to compete as it is accustomed. That will go a long way to solving its "quality problems." This strategy worked for the United States when it faced its "quality problem" brought on by Japan's manufacturing push more than 20 years ago.

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