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Does country of origin affect attitudes to product quality? .

Does country of origin affect attitudes to product quality?

In the world of quality, image is everything, and public perceptions take a long time to change.

Take the case of India. People in the West still tend to view the country as a low-cost producer of inferior and often unreliable products. The Indian information-technology sector, however, is home to some of the world’s most talented designers and engineers and India is producing some of the most innovative and reliable software on the planet. This has long been known among IT specialists and is now becoming known among the wider public, too.

Against this background, Elliott (Fortune; 29 Oct 2007) reports that Indian manufacturing is beginning to replicate the success of the country’s information-technology sector. The author identifies some of India’s leading manufacturing companies and describes how they are banishing the image of the country as a producer of low-quality products. Two factors, however, threaten this transformation: first, India’s skill shortage and secondly its poor infrastructure. Industry can solve neither problem alone. Both will require significant Government intervention.

While product quality is improving in India, the opposite seems to be taking place in China. Finstad (Far Eastern Economic Review; Nov 2007) reveals that, faced with the dual pressures of meeting worldwide demand for low-price products and managing rising wage and raw-material costs, many Chinese manufacturers have opted for reducing quality.

Finstad describes how contract manufacturing has become popular among foreign firms that buy goods from China, and explains how this dictates product quality. The author considers how changing the incentive structure may improve matters, draws attention to the importance of having written quality standards and highlights the need for procedures to deal with the shipment of sub-standard goods.

In both the USA and Britain, manufacturers’ reputation for quality was tarnished in the recent past, but both countries are working hard to put their quality problems behind them. An important factor has been importing Japanese post-war quality techniques to meet the challenge of international competition. The Toyota Production System – which combines the objectives of zero defects, on-demand supply, no waste and the provision of a safe working environment –were particularly influential in the USA. So, too, were the Baldrige criteria, the ISO 9000 series and the 1980 US white paper entitled ‘If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?’ In addition, the USA and Britain learned much from Japanese firms’ customer focus and use of highly skilled engineers in the production process.

Mitard (Quality Digest; Nov 2007) accepts that US industry, like that in Japan, cannot compete internationally on cost and must therefore compete on product features and quality. The author explains that virtually all of a product must be of US origin before the Federal Trade Commission will classify it as ‘Made in the US’ and urges Americans to purchase US goods for quality, cost, warranty, litigation, socio-economic and emotional reasons.

Such a campaign may come to mirror the ‘I’m Backing Britain’ movement in the UK in the late 1960s, which urged consumers, whenever possible, to purchase British products rather than those made abroad, and encouraged workers to put in a bit more effort for the sake of the country. It even included TV spots and a campaign song.

In the end, ‘I’m Backing Britain’ simply ran out of steam. It remains to be seen whether, against a background of greater globalization, a similar campaign urging US consumers to buy US products will have a longer-lasting effect.