What Quality Revolution?

It was more of an insurrection, judging by one exec's experience installing advanced equipment

I couldn't wait to get to work the morning our new bagmaking machines were set to start running. My family's packaging company had plunked down more than $300,000 for the computer-controlled machines, and we hoped they'd boost productivity by 100% on some jobs. What's more, this was my first big capital-spending project: I had signed the contract and cut the check. I couldn't wait to see them hum.

But wait I did. The machines still weren't fully operational three days later. A series of blunders by the manufacturer, which had a reputation for building excellent equipment, kept production at a standstill. Several key parts simply didn't work. New parts had to be sent by overnight express twice. A drive that controlled the main conveyor system malfunctioned. Then the operator controls didn't work--the company had loaded the wrong software. By the weekend, a technician sent by the manufacturer managed to get the machines running. That didn't help my heartburn, though--the drive controlling the conveyor only worked thanks to a fix using a rubber band.

DASHED DREAMS. I had been working at Emerald Packaging for just about a year when this happened. So I chalked it up as an anomaly and went about helping to choose more equipment, from bagmaking machines to printing presses, for our modernization project--working only with the top machine suppliers in our industry. That meant spending more, but we figured we'd end up with equipment of the highest quality.

We never suspected how elusive a target high quality would be. Alas, the experience with the bagmaking machine turned out not to be an anomaly after all.

What the heck ever happened to quality? For several years as a correspondent in BUSINESS WEEK's Chicago bureau, I had covered the quality revolution as it swept through U.S. manufacturing. I wrote about Motorola's success in cutting defects, Harley-Davidson's assault on warranty costs, and Cummins Engine's bid to recapture market share by paying special attention to detail. All across the country, prodded by global competition and customer demands for zero defects, it seemed that American manufacturers had gotten their acts together and started producing goods that worked.

But as I watched the parade of products through my own loading dock, I decided the quality revolution hadn't gone far enough. The bag machines were followed by equipment that was supposed to help us slash by 50% the time needed to mount printing plates on cylinders (we print vegetable bags). But the company that made the device, again a well-known supplier, failed to provide an operating manual and essential parts. The machine sat idle for months. Even bigger snafus followed when we tried to install a computer-controlled system for rolling up printed plastic on one of our large presses.

Had the manufacturers apologized or offered some reimbursement, some of the sting might have been salved. To my amazement, this rarely happened. The bag-machine supplier tried to charge us for its technician's time. Only after screaming at the company's salesman--a man I genuinely like--did the supplier agree to split the cost. Likewise, the printing-press supplier tried to charge for extra time and expenses incurred by its technician. My protests were met with befuddled silence. If U.S. companies have a ways to go before quality becomes a way of life, the same holds true for customer service.

On the upside, the new machinery has worked fairly well once we struggled through the early problems. Still, I have learned not to trust that anything coming into our factory will actually work; in the future, we'll double the time scheduled for startup.

I've also been chastened about our own production. Our company has always had a good reputation for producing a quality product, but I now spend more time policing operations to make sure employees deliver the best possible product. Recently, I hovered over an operator as he did trial runs for a new customer. He thought his first effort was good enough; I sent him back to adjust the press and spruce up his inks. I don't want our customers to have the same ugly feeling I have had when a supplier delivers something you can't use.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.