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Commentary: Bringing quality back home

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This week I was fortunate enough to attend the Riverside County Manufacturing Exporters Association cluster meeting in Murrieta. The event was well attended, hosted by the Murrieta Economic Development Department and focused on "re-shoring," which translates to mean bringing manufacturing back to the United States and to increase exports from here. The concept provides local jobs, and, to listen to the speakers, means improved product quality.

I worked for 25 years as an expatriate in a number of Asian countries and provided quality and operational expertise and training to a number of American electronics companies in their offshore facilities. Some of these manufacturing operations were in a start-up mode while others were in need of serious changes to become profitable or growing so rapidly they had outgrown their system's ability to keep up with demand. The teams I worked with were able to move all of these operations into much higher levels of success in terms of quality and output.

While on site at these operations I learned a great deal. One of the primary factors with regard to their problems was the inability of the home office (California, New Jersey, etc.) to manage them from afar. Some home offices would design a product and send the specifications offshore expecting good things to come out of the end of the process. Others sent teams of engineers to the manufacturing site to help set up the manufacturing lines, train people and let 'er rip. The idea that a new product introduction could succeed in relative high volume manufacturing without a lot of attention seemed to dominate the home office thinking with the result that the foreign facility became known as incompetent of producing the quality and volumes demanded by U.S. markets.

Wars between the home office and the offshore site ensued until people like me were sent to patiently beat both sides into cooperation and a new way of dealing with each other. Putting the product and process design people physically close to manufacturing always yielded success.

With our recent economic problems, "bringing manufacturing back home" has become a necessity if we want local job growth and a renewal of economic health. Some U.S. manufacturing has also experienced growth renewal in foreign markets because consumers in many developing countries could not buy the quality levels they feel they get from American products. All good.

In my experiences training and working with teams on both sides of the Pacific I learned a few other things. Many American companies have a difficult time accepting the type of inter-facility cooperation and control needed to achieve higher-than-competitor quality levels. There is often some kind of misconception that good quality costs too much or that more expensive equates to good quality. Neither is true. Both attitudes are a huge problem when it comes to getting quality out of a manufacturing line. Both are associated, at least in my mind, with a kind of "we know best", thinking that tends to undermine manufacturing wherever it is located.

On the other side of the ocean, employees seemed much more eager to learn and implement new concepts and practices. If they didn't they knew that manufacturing would move as it always does to the next cheap labor country. For the most part, needed changes were implemented quickly and with very little upper management resistance. Acceptance of many quality and manufacturing practices that eliminated batch processing and reliance on end-the line inspection was easy.

The companies that presented in the Murrieta session have successfully achieved their goals of re-shoring and improved quality. With re-shoring employees in product design, process design, first article qualification and manufacturing are all within yelling range of each other and forced to face up to and fix the problems that come from their own groups. I was proud to hear some of them say that they had large backlogs. First it means they are amassing orders and income, but apparently "making the monthly shipment" was not allowed to dominate over quality in pursuit of quantity, at least not if they want to protect their company's reputation.

There's a lesson in all this. Re-shoring means a lot more than transferring manufacturing from a foreign site to some U.S. location. Re-shoring offers an opportunity for manufacturers to overcome low wage, low burdened labor rate, foreign competition. Beating low wages may mean retooling, automation, and surely a renewed dedication to keeping employees. I heard about health care, sharing company profitability information with employees, and other issues near and dear to the hearts of employees who really want a good work environment.

All this adds up to a more critical issue than re-shoring.

It means bringing quality back home. And that was good to hear.

*****

Dr. John Ryan's quality experience includes work in the electronics, Internet and agriculture industries. He is a recent retiree from the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture where he was the administrator of the quality assurance division. He is currently focused on improving cold chain management in order to improve food and drug quality and safety during transportation processes. He is the board secretary for the Riverside County Manufacturers and Exporters Association. He can be reached at jryan@ryansystems.com

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