There is a whole lot of panic in North America surrounding the reopening of the historic trade agreement NAFTA between Canada, the United States and Mexico. While the discussions swirl around tariffs and protectionism, completely absent from the NAFTA discussion is the subject of product quality. Product quality as in the design of a product, and its consistent quality during manufacturing. If we make lousy products, nobody will buy them. And evidence has it that we have a long way to go.
We are involved with hundreds of products being manufactured around the world, and at times I am appalled by product quality coming of North America. Admittedly poor quality products can come from anywhere, but North America is our backyard so we need to talk about it. Not to say we can’t and don’t make some excellent products. But in the sectors we work in, far too often my phone rings and I hear about high rates of defects, cost overruns and enormous delays. It’s inexcusable and life-threatening for what remains of our manufacturing base. The number of countries competing for product design and manufacturing around the world is staggering. I sure didn’t see it coming but South Korea has become a world leader in cosmetics and beauty care products. With a population of only about 50 million, they are not that much bigger than Canada, but have found a way to innovate and lead in automotive, electronics, medical devices and more industries than I can keep track of.
It is been more than 30 years since American professor Edwards Deming was discovered in North America after teaching his statistically based quality control philosophy to the Japanese. Car companies embraced him, as did many other industries. His basic philosophy was to stop inspecting defects out, and design better processes to reduce the chance of making defective products. Since then, all manner of quality control systems have flourished. We have black belts, ISO standards, Good Manufacturing Practices for drugs and HACCP for food and beverage. So with all of these tools, what’s going wrong?
In every case of poor quality that we see, the issues boil down to two major problems. The first is culture. Unless the people at the top really understand what it takes to design and manufacture a quality product, the business is doomed. The second is hiring and training. We see far too many people in charge of quality who have neither the aptitude for or training that would match the world’s best.
So I would tell this to our governments. Fight as you must over the rules of trade. But unless we single-mindedly improve our quality mindset in product design and manufacturing, we’ll get nowhere, regardless of our trade agreements. Instead of bickering over barriers, we should be focusing on education from an early age. This is one of Korea’s huge strengths. The subjects of product design and quality control have fascinating cultural, mathematical, scientific and geopolitical aspects that could be woven through many parts of our education system is. Watching my kids go through school, they were force-fed medieval history and Shakespeare. Their education in math and science was woefully inadequate, and completely absent of the concepts of quality, innovation and competitive advantage. If the NAFTA does collapse, Canada will need to negotiate new trade agreements quickly. And those would need to be built on our ability to design and manufacture world class goods and educate our students about the vital importance of quality.