The focus of this particular column may not be popular and it may put some readers on the defensive. The focus isn’t entirely on America as it’s a global issue but it certainly seems rampant in today’s modern society.
We’ve spent years in pursuit of mediocrity. After decades of erasing a once awe-inspiring excellence, companies have been able to replace that standard of excellence with a much lower quality and performance level. Our modern society has perfected the art of mega-financing and mass-producing the humdrum, middle of the road, trivial and less than exhilarating products. The side effects of this decline have been unemployment, stagnation, insecurity, distrust, depression, and the financial decline of millions.
Mediocrity now reigns supreme. Not because quality isn’t progressing, but because our consumerist society is driving quality there.
So much effort is expended to make products immediately affordable that everything is now disposable. The new laptop I purchased three years ago (at a high price I might add) needed to be upgraded to fix a problem. However, the cost of a new hard drive plus the cost of a new operating system was now about the same as a new computer.
Have you tried to fix an older car lately? It’s so expensive to fix older cars that it’s easier, but still expensive, to either lease a newer one or trade in your old car for a new one.
What drives these prices? Partially to blame, as cited by several economists, is something that’s been called the Walmart Effect: driving prices as low as possible and then squeezing out a few more cents every few months. However, these reduced prices don’t show up in the pockets of associates or the customers.
As a consumer and a quality professional, this situation doesn’t please me, but then weare part of the problem! It’s important to remember that quality only matters if we don’t think we’ll discard an item after a few years and buy a new one.
This cost pressure comes down to producers and their suppliers who are trying to squeeze out every penny. The technology used to create a product has been forced to improve exponentially. Our disposal society moves it in this direction. Our living room sofa is 40 years old and still solid as a rock. The sofa in the family room was 10 years old and the joints loosened to the point it had to be replaced.
Product life cycles keep getting shorter with some of that being driven by regulation. But why spend time perfecting a life cycle? We can whip out a mediocre product to be first to market and worry about improvement with the next version.
To squeeze out more pennies and keep up with this rapid product cycle, we turn to the quick fix which is to make it cheaper somewhere else. The small company trying to produce a quality product can’t compete when another supplier, somewhere else in the world, can produce it cheaper.
Surprise, cheaper is not always better! In an unending quest to save pennies on a purchase price the results can be significant over the life of a product. Countless quality professionals watch as contract after contract is negotiated solely on price. Point 4 of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points for Managementwarned us not to award business on the basis of cost alone but to minimize total cost; however, companies are rushing to do this every day!
Potential suppliers are told repeatedly to differentiate themselves from their competitors, but their price has to be really close to their competitors (but this really means the same or lower). In many cases the only way to do this is to ‘cut corners.’ Therefore, to compete solely on prices, it’s easier to embrace mediocrity…along with their competitors. The larger the company, the more purchasing moves away from, ‘What am I getting for the money?’ toward, ‘Which is the cheapest because I don’t know anything about what I’m purchasing?’
The continual decline toward mediocrity will continue until globalization is complete. When that happens, the surviving organizations will spend ‘quality engineering’ time differentiating their products from their competitors, instead of trying to contend with better pricing without losing their current quality levels.
Companies like Toyota that were considered the quality ‘gold’ standard have experienced severe quality problems—likely caused by the intense desire to globalize their companies. The Japanese work ethic over the last three decades has been changing to a consumerist ethic. It seems you can find enough people, anyplace in the world, to buy anything—no matter how poor the quality might be as long as the price is right.