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Quality Fade in China
Forbes ^ | July 25, 2007 | Paul Midler

Posted on 08/02/2007 8:52:22 AM PDT by Justmay

Dealing With China's 'Quality Fade' Paul Midler 07.26.07, 11:11 AM ET Recent media reports detailing a series of quality problems with Chinese-made exports--pet food tainted with prohibited chemicals, toys covered with lead paint and tires that fall apart at high speed--have understandably alarmed the American public and resulted in a number of international product recalls.

But supply chain professionals not directly affected by these recalls remain unusually calm. "Everything will be all right," said one U.S. importer on a buying mission to China. "As the country continues to develop, the quality of its products will naturally rise."

It's the sort of comment that sounds logical, but is not necessarily true. Quality does not always rise over time, as China's own history shows. At the end of the 19th century, the West rushed to buy China's beautiful silk products. Demand quickly expanded, and new players moved into the market. As competition intensified, manufacturers began to cut corners on quality, and silk products out of China soon gained a reputation as inferior goods.

By the beginning of the 20th century, traders were already looking elsewhere, and Japan, which had been building a reputation for delivering a more consistently high-quality product, became an attractive alternative. By 1930, Japan was exporting twice as much silk as China.

One of the problems facing China is that manufacturers continue to engage in a practice I call "quality fade." This is the deliberate and secret habit of widening profit margins through a reduction in the quality of materials. Importers usually never notice what's happening; downward changes are subtle but progressive. The initial production sample is fine, but with each successive production run, a bit more of the necessary inputs are missing.

What is maddening to importers is that quality fade often occurs in the last place an importer thinks to check. One American company had been importing a line of health and beauty care products for over a year when the cardboard boxes that held its product suddenly started collapsing under their own weight. There was no logical explanation for the collapse except quality fade, and the supplier in this case blamed subsuppliers for replacing an acceptable cardboard box with ones that were inferior.

The Case Of The Missing Aluminum

Some quality issues are not all that serious, but others are downright frightening. One of the most disturbing examples I have encountered while working in China involved the manufacture and importation of aluminum systems used to construct high-rise commercial buildings. These are the systems that support tons of concrete as it is being poured, and their general stability is critical.

The American company that designed and patented the system engineered all key components. It knew exactly how much each part was supposed to weigh, and yet the level of engineering sophistication did not stop the supplier from making a unilateral decision to reduce the specifications. When the "production error" was caught, one aluminum part was found to be weighing less than 90% of its intended weight.

Where did the missing aluminum go? Into the factory owner's pocket as a cost saving. The only thing passed on to the customer was an increase in product risk. Quality fade is like the straw that broke the camel's back--only in reverse. Suppliers push the limit by taking more and more out of the equation until they are caught, or until disaster strikes.

Even when importers catch suppliers in a quality fade, they frequently don't do much about it. Many quality problems are seen as too minor relative to the difficulties involved in rectifying them. Customers may not notice a product flaw, but they most certainly notice when a product is not delivered on time. The chance of a product failure is usually remote, but the penalty for late delivery is an almost certain loss of business.

Some importers bravely attempt to fight back against quality fade by insisting a supplier replace substandard goods at the factory's expense. A savvy supplier--and most are extremely savvy--can respond to such demands by threatening to terminate the supplier relationship. Or the supplier can respond by raising prices. Importers might then say they will switch suppliers, but the factory owner knows this is an empty threat as finding and cultivating a new supplier can take a long time. And anyway, there is no guarantee that the next supplier won't engage in the same willful behavior as the first.

The factory owner who practices quality fade knows exactly where he stands with his customer in these cat-and-mouse games. He has virtually nothing to lose and only margin to gain--and, having gotten away with it once, no one should be surprised when he goes for it again. When the factory owner offers his most sincere apologies and promises that it won't happen a second time, importers simply close their eyes and hope for the best.

If Adam Smith were around today, he would have had to write a separate chapter on global outsourcing. Because it takes importers a long time to find suppliers and to get them up to speed, importers keep their suppliers a secret. The last thing that an importer wants to do is let his competitors know the source of any supply chain advantage he may have. Even when it is in their collective interest to share information, importers keep to themselves.

As a result, factories pay little, if any, reputational cost for production shenanigans. The invisible hand doesn't work well when the manufacturers themselves are unseen.

This lack of accountability also has legal implications. When a product is recalled in the U.S., the importer pays the cost of that recall. It remains next to impossible to take legal action in China, and only in the rarest case can an importer successfully sue the supplier responsible for a product failure.

Since most suppliers are paid in full well before goods leave the factory, the importer doesn't even enjoy the leverage that comes with owing payment to the supplier. The average importer has far less leverage than imagined.

Outwitting Third-Party Testers

In the wake of quality problems, many are looking to third-party testing as a solution. In theory, testing works well. Prior to exporting a product, the supplier takes a sample and sends it off to a reputable and international testing laboratory, which then checks to make sure the product is safe. Unfortunately, testing doesn't work well when a supplier sets out to circumvent the system.

I recently worked with one supplier that was encountering difficulties making a quality liquid soap for export to the U.S. To get around problems the supplier was having with laboratory results, the supplier created 10 random samples and sent them to the same lab for testing.

Nine of these samples failed, but one passed. The supplier took the one test result marked "passed" and sent it off to the customer. The U.S. company never knew about the failed results, and a purchase order was promptly issued.

Third-party testing is far from fail-safe. Consider one study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2001. In a review of nearly 200 recalled electrical products from China, the CPSC found that more than 25% had had prior approval by an international third-party testing agency such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Intertek Testing Services (ETL) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

Both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have suggested that the solution to China's quality problems lies in greater vigilance on the part of importers, but the question remains: If professional third-party testing agencies are failing to catch product failures, how is the average importer expected to do so? After all, third-party testing agencies have far better resources, and their people are much better trained.

Private quality assurance programs may also be put in place, but suppliers can circumvent such controls as well. In one case, after a load of plywood was rejected at one factory, the supplier simply mixed a portion of it with product that was perfectly good in later shipments. Working the bad into the good is a common way for a factory to reduce loss.

A supplier can bury substandard product knowing full well that warehouse workers in the U.S. do not have the time to examine each piece that comes in. And detailed contracts cannot succeed in bridging any moral gap. In order for supplier relationships to work successfully, there must be a basic level of trust.

Get Rich Quick

In an effort to reduce risk, American companies are also looking to suppliers that are larger and seem more capable. The unfortunate fact about China's larger factories, however, is they charge more for product than smaller factories do. It is as if economies of scale do not apply in China. There are several reasons why China suffers from such a problem, and one has to do with the role government plays in manufacturing.

Where a small factory may have been funded entirely by the government, future expansions are more often privately financed. Making the matter worse are extremely short payback periods on private investment. Many factories hope to pay off investments in as few as three years. One of the worst things an importer can hear is, "We want to show you our most recent expansion." The more a supplier invests, the quicker it raises prices.

There is a sense of urgency in China, the feeling that one must work fast before the window of opportunity closes. For factories, that means taking shortcuts on quality. Many factory owners can't see beyond the next purchase order.

One reason for the short-sightedness may have to do with China's political environment. The one-party government does what it wants, when it wants. And while there may be some advantages to a government that can operate without restraint or controversy, such a system limits predictability and leaves the business sector keenly aware that it is subject to the evanescent whims of officials who may or may not know which policy is best.

The U.S. administration has recently been applying pressure on China to revalue its currency in order to close the growing trade gap between the two countries. To appease the U.S., China has responded by reducing the tax rebates it offers to manufacturers.

For some suppliers, the tax rebates have constituted a major portion of their bottom line. Massive and sudden changes such as these only confirm the factory owner's paranoid suspicions that the manufacturing opportunity could disappear at any moment. No one in China is sure how long anything will last--a situation that keeps many focused on the immediate present.

Chinese manufacturers that engage in quality fade unfortunately subscribe to the view that business is about increasing one's share of the pie rather than growing the pie over time. They often focus on extracting profit through short-term maneuvers that inevitably militate against long-term development. This approach, it should be noted, contrasts sharply with the success strategies of such economies as Japan and Korea, which focus on building market share and developing strategic relationships.

Playing It Short

Some blame quality problems and product recalls on the relentless pursuit of lower prices. Importers most often go to the cheapest supplier, so the supplier who quotes low and quietly cuts corners on quality is the one who wins. Honest suppliers who prefer to quote higher and offer a better quality product lose out. The supplier who obfuscates catches orders first--and most often.

Chinese suppliers are excellent at playing the short game. When an importer discovers a quality problem late, the factory turns around and suggests, "But you signed off on the original production sample yourselves." When goods arrive damaged in the U.S., the factory claims that the importer has been making up the story in order to lower import costs. Arguments like these work in the short term. Over the longer term, however, importers get wise, and alternative markets start to look increasingly attractive.

China's quality situation is by no means hopeless. Japan was known decades ago for making inferior products, but that changed. The key to turning the situation around is to incorporate a habit of quality into the culture. China, however, has not shown that it has any interest in doing so.

Recent accusations of unreliability in Chinese products are now being met with tit-for-tat claims that U.S. products are faulty. This is an unfortunate strategy for China, and it means that we will continue to see quality problems. China will not be able to succeed so long as manufacturers are competing in a race to the bottom.

Paul Midler is the founder and president of China Advantage, a services firm that provides outsourcing and supply chain management to U.S. and European companies. He has been involved with China for more than 15 years, and in the course of his manufacturing career, has had dealings with thousands of Chinese factories.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Editorial; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: china; foodsupply; madeinchina; product; quality; recalls; trade
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This is an excellent article about prduct recalls from China.
1 posted on 08/02/2007 8:52:24 AM PDT by Justmay
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To: Justmay

I firmly believe that we are accepting all this stuff from China so that we can borrow money from them. Our politicians have sold our country and the Chinese could care less. Cut off the borrowing, pass a balanced budget and cut our taxes to bare minimum so we have some control over our politicians. Money is power to them. But....we have to cut off the borrowing of money. We don’t need their money or their products.

2 posted on 08/02/2007 8:59:06 AM PDT by RC2
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To: Justmay

Going to have to boycott products made in China. Sometimes a little hard to do..Example... every damn toothbrush it seems is made in China... ridiculous.

3 posted on 08/02/2007 9:01:48 AM PDT by tflabo
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To: Justmay

What better way to eliminate your “enemy” than to sell them substandard or toxic products??

The Chinese have not been around for over 5,000 years for nothing!!!

Bush should NEVER have supported their entry in the WTO, IMO.

4 posted on 08/02/2007 9:08:18 AM PDT by DustyMoment (FloriDUH - proud inventors of pregnant/hanging chads and judicide!!)
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To: Justmay

Yet another reason not to outsource to China.

5 posted on 08/02/2007 9:08:19 AM PDT by Hydroshock (Duncan Hunter For President, checkout
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To: tflabo

Yesterday I bought a pair of reading glasses at wallyworld and when I got home I sarcastically said to my wife and daughter, that I’d better wash the chinese blinding chemical off these glasses before putting them on. Reply: Oh Dad!

6 posted on 08/02/2007 9:09:19 AM PDT by bicyclerepair (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida)
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To: RC2

Only one candidate is addressing China in a firm straighforward manner. Duncan Hunter.

7 posted on 08/02/2007 9:10:23 AM PDT by pissant (Duncan Hunter: Warrior, Statesman, Conservative)
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To: Justmay

Quality Fade in China

Those two words don’t even belong in the same sentence together.

Everything from China has always been poorly crafted junk.

Cheap, toss away junk. Nothing new here.

8 posted on 08/02/2007 9:10:44 AM PDT by bill1952 ("All that we do is done with an eye towards something else.")
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To: Justmay

And detailed contracts cannot succeed in bridging any moral gap. In order for supplier relationships to work successfully, there must be a basic level of trust.

Very true. This was easier to develop with a factory owner who you could meet and maintain a relationship with.

The problem also lies with US buyers insisting on price over quality. We own a supply business and people will most times shop only price. Oftentimes we lose many bids because we will only sell products we know are of solid quality. It is a hard climate in which to do business.

9 posted on 08/02/2007 9:11:33 AM PDT by keepitreal
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To: Justmay

Excellent article, worth reading in full. One solution on the national level would be to view the quality fade as an externality and apply a tarriff to counter-act it.

10 posted on 08/02/2007 9:12:13 AM PDT by Greg F (<><)
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To: Justmay

I’ve noticed ‘quality fade’ in alot of products. I’ve often called it ‘spending down brand equity’ where a company builds up a reputation of quality products and then increases margin by selling increasingly inferior products. It takes the market time to notice the inflection point. Meanwhile a large expanded volume of goods are sold based on an earlier reputation build on an small startup volume of product. Eventually the product becomes a cheap commodity and/or the brand becomes defunct. Another ‘new’ company builds up a reputation of quality products and then...

11 posted on 08/02/2007 9:16:10 AM PDT by posterchild (Isn't all gasoline organic?)
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To: Justmay

Its not just about China, its about opening “free trade” with any 3rd world country. You don’t simply open your trade wide open to corrupt and poor 3rd world countries... particularly ones that are so corrupt and poor that they cannot feed their own people!

Corruption and fraud are ALWAYS the end result. But I guess it’ll take a politicians kid to die before anyone will stop turning a blind eye to the complete fraud of “free trade”.

12 posted on 08/02/2007 9:21:39 AM PDT by HamiltonJay
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To: posterchild

I think you just told the story of General Motors.

13 posted on 08/02/2007 9:26:45 AM PDT by Greg F (<><)
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To: HamiltonJay

I think you are right to say you don’t open to free trade with corrupt countries. Simple, common sense.

14 posted on 08/02/2007 9:27:57 AM PDT by Greg F (<><)
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To: HamiltonJay

Clinton sold them military secrets and DC pols in the back pockets of corporate greedsters.... now we not only worry about junk made in China but that they are building a huge military with USA transferred wealth. Our politicians are PIGS of greed and sold us down the river. And Hilary Clinton is the Dem candidate for Pres? We are a nation of lugnuts sad to say.

15 posted on 08/02/2007 9:38:55 AM PDT by tflabo
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To: HamiltonJay
I used to work for an import company. We primarily imported from Taiwan and Spain.

The Spanish and Taiwanese products were consistently good quality, although more expensive than what could be gotten elsewhere.

Then the CEO of the company found a factory in India that could produce the parts for a lower price, thus increasing the company margin.

The problem?

Only one lot in 3 ever, and I do mean ever, passed the rather strict QC requirements. The solution?

The QC department was told to keep parts from the lots which passed and have them tested in place of random samples from incoming lots.

The passing test results were then forwarded to the customer as if the parts had actually come from the lots we shipped them.

What were these parts you ask?

Lug nuts for semi trucks and trailers...

I left the company when I found out what was going on. I also took the liberty of sending a few purchasing agents a nice, succinct letter.

Then I set up my own company representing reputable American manufacturers of the same parts.

Last I heard my old boss was being investigated for fraud.


16 posted on 08/02/2007 9:41:15 AM PDT by Lurker (Comparing moderate islam to extremist islam is like comparing small pox to ebola.)
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To: Justmay

It’s good that the pet food scandal brought all this out into the open, but I’m afraid the government will try to bury the whole thing ASAP.

Meanwhile, they are now trying to open chicken imports from China, and various other foods as well. Great.

It’s difficult or impossible for a consumer to boycott Chinese goods, because often there is no indication on the label, or in many cases there is now no other reasonable choice. It’s not like boycotting French cheese or wine.

17 posted on 08/02/2007 9:41:59 AM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: Greg F

There have been times where that fits. While writing that though I had a few tool and appliance manufacturers in mind. Can also think of a few packaged food products this would apply to.

18 posted on 08/02/2007 9:42:46 AM PDT by posterchild (If you don't look ahead nobody will, there's no time to kill - Clint Black)
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To: Justmay

19 posted on 08/02/2007 9:46:58 AM PDT by ReagansRaiders ("Fearsome" Fred Thompson '08)
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To: tflabo

The good news is that in a society devoid of ethics and morals, and the only measure of success is what you can get away with, the mentality that led the manufacturers to cut corners on quality to make larger profits on the defective products they try to sell us will also led to defective military equipment for their own armed forces.

That’s the irony about evil, it always ends up being its own worst enemy.

20 posted on 08/02/2007 9:48:37 AM PDT by Truthsearcher
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