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Recalling Recalls -- Improving Your Quality Control

By Amanda Earing, News Editor, When times are tough, manufacturers need to stay diligent to their quality control process – especially during a recession, when quality can slide as focus shifts elsewhere in the company.

From cribs to beef to vehicles, what do they all have in common?

Recalls. Recent large-scale recalls by Toyota, Nissan and two major cribmakers in the midst of a recession will likely put a damper on their fiscal earnings. Could it have all been avoided?

When times get tough, manufacturers need to remember to stay diligent to their quality control process. But even the most diligent manufacturers can still see quality slide -- especially during a severe recession -- as focus shifts elsewhere in the company.

Ron Atkinson, past president of the American Society for Quality, says quality issues aren’t necessarily due to workers not doing their jobs; instead it’s often the result of significant changes in the workforce.

“Typically during a recession mass layoffs occur, and it takes time to train people in their new roles and in some cases the knowledge of what has gone wrong in the past has been lost at companies,” says Atkinson.

To help minimize these types of problems, manufacturers should have clear, thorough standardized work procedures in place that will help workers understand their roles better.

But even with every precaution in place, quality control issues can happen anywhere in the manufacturing process -- from product design to the sales pitch.

“If consumers do not get adequate warning on how to use a product -- whether in documents or by sales people, this can result in a recall,” says Atkinson.

As a result, manufacturers need to be as proactive as possible when it comes to quality.

“You need to be extremely diligent and communicate extensively with your supply chain, your workers and your sales force. In all stages of design, it is important to have communication with all parties involved,” Atkinson advises.

The product may have been designed properly, but if it is used in a way it wasn’t designed for, manufacturers should still issue a recall.

“It’s a moral responsibility to make sure no one else gets hurt doing that same type of thing,” says Atkinson. “In the design criteria, you really need to understand how the consumer is going to use these products and anticipate what could happen,” he notes.

This is where the sales force can provide important feedback from customers to improve quality control. If sales people communicate with their customers and report back on how the product was used, or what instructions might have been skipped that could cause injury -- this can help determine design flaws to fix in current and future products. Consumers may have a different set of criteria and shed new light on using the product in a certain way.

It is also becoming more and more critical with a global economy to communicate with your suppliers. The more suppliers you start using from other places around the global, the more you have to interact with them.

“Global suppliers don’t intentionally do something to cause you problems because it affects them also. However, communication and education are key -- if they don’t know what to be aware of suppliers can inadvertently do something that could result in a recall,” says Atkinson.

For instance, Atkinson points out that a lot of regulations we take for granted, such as lead limits in paint, may not be an issue in other countries. Studies over the last 30 years show lead is bad for you, but without education and communication, some global manufacturers may not even know about it. So while it may not be a significant factor for global suppliers, for North American manufacturers there are regulations they must follow. Atkinson advises manufacturers to thoroughly communicate with their suppliers to make sure quality criteria and regulations are met.

“The way we do things in North America isn’t going to be the same as the rest of the world. You have to make sure that whichever global manufacturer makes your product understands exactly how the product should be made,” Atkinson adds.

To help maintain a high level of quality, Atkinson also recommends minimizing the number of suppliers used and focus more on a developing partnerships whenever possible.

Lastly, Atkinson suggests when a major recall does occur, the obvious immediate first step -- if possible -- is to fix the product already produced to protect the consumer. But to prevent issues from happening again, manufacturers should take the time to develop a problem-solving initiative to determine what changes need to be put in place to modify future products as well.

Ron Atkinson, past president of ASQ, is a Six Sigma Black Belt and holds certifications as a quality engineer, auditor, manager, and quality improvement associated. For more information, visit ASQ at