This 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 today.

Countless industries had worked for decades to create once awe-inspiring excellence. But faster cycle times and globalization have been able to replace that standard of excellence with a much lower quality and performance level.

Mediocrity now seems to reign supreme. Not because quality isn’t progressing, but because our consumerist society is driving quality there.

Much effort is expended to make products immediately affordable that they become disposable. The new laptop I purchased a few months ago had 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.

Automakers resurged to enjoy record sales but it’s definitely not because the purchase prices have lowered or that people have more disposal income. Have you tried to fix an older car? The time that we could do our own repair work is essentially over. It’s so expensive to fix older cars that it’s easier, but 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 from suppliers every few months. However, these reduced prices don’t show up in the pockets of associates or customers. 

As a consumer and a quality professional, this situation doesn’t please me, but then we are 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.

Our disposal society moves it in this direction. Our living room sofa is 40 years old and still in excellent condition. The sofa in the family room was five years old and the joints loosened to the point it had to be replaced.

Product life cycles keep getting shorter with some of that 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.

One of the big contributors to this issue is globalization. To squeeze out more cost and keep up with this rapid product cycle, we turn to the quick fix which is to make it cheaper somewhere else. We’re not yet all on an even playing field in terms of cost. The small company trying to produce a quality product can’t compete when another supplier, somewhere else in the world, is willing to produce a similar product for less.

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 Management warned 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 must be close to their competitors (which means the same or lower). In many cases the only way to do this is to cut corners. Therefore, to compete solely on price, it’s easier to embrace mediocrity…along with their competitors. The larger the company, the more the purchasing organization 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 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 that were considered the quality gold standard have experienced severe quality problems, likely caused by the intense desire to globalize. For instance, the Japanese, which were long thought to be bulletproof have proven to be vulnerable. It seems you can find enough people, anyplace in the world, to buy anything—no matter how poor the quality as long as the price is right.