"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

A focus on quality is essential

Aug 21, 2005 Strategy, Sunday Nation

If you are a Kenyan consumer, you have almost certainly gone through some (or all) of the following:

Your telephone landline periodically goes dead, and stays dead for weeks (even months) even though you call the service operator every day to complain. When the line comes back, it has a nasty crackle in it. You don’t even bother to complain about that one – you just get used to the noise.

You have yet to find a consistently reliable mechanic for your car, after decades of trying out every spanner wielder in town. You are used to finding out that your car develops more problems after being seen to by these “specialists”, and that you are being fleeced shamelessly on parts and labour.

You are constantly suffering from minor food poisoning and digestive ailments. If you investigate the reason for this, you will probably discover that it’s because suppliers of meat, vegetables, dairy products etc do not take the necessary care in refrigeration, storage and handling, so that by the time the food reaches you it is teeming with nasty bugs.

The contractor you hired to complete that minor electrical/plumbing/carpentry job in your house: (a) Did not turn up on the agreed date when you had taken time off work to receive him; (b) Apologised profusely, citing the tragic death of a close relative; (c) Then did not appear for several days after, despite new promises; (d) Finally showed up to do a shoddy and clumsy job; (e) Charged you an absurdly large amount. You accepted all of this, because experience tells you that all Kenyan contractors are the same.

You keep hearing about the economic miracle of China, the manufacturing workshop of the world, where all the main global brand leaders locate their factories and plants. Yet all you seem to get here in Kenya with ‘Made in China’ stamped on them are cheap and trashy products that fall apart after a day’s use. Low expectations by consumers inevitably mean that we collect the world’s garbage in our shops.

You are very used two reading sentances like this one where-ever you go – on sineboards, in mazagines, even in writen marketting materials. Because now-one bothers with grammer and sintax anymore. And hyphens and comas and apo-strophyes don’t evan ask about those.

These are not isolated examples. This kind of frustration is part of our daily lives. If it’s not one occurrence of sloppy service or poor product quality that assails you, it’s another. The problem is not just in publicly provided goods and services – even many of our private producers, small and large, have set their benchmarks very low. In fact we’re so tired of complaining that most of us just end up accepting low standards – thereby reinforcing them.

Yet, if we want any meaningful economic growth to occur, we – consumers and producers – must not (cannot) accept this state of affairs. This is not just me being a little pedantic about quality – it imperils the basis for any meaningful economic advancement. How so?

We know that virtually every economy that has enjoyed rapid and consistent economic growth in recent times has done so by using the wider world’s spending power. The East Asian “Tigers”, China, India, Botswana – all have had an export orientation. Their economic strategies have taken them deep into the world’s markets. For the established nations of this type, typically half or more of their GDP is generated by exports. Export growth in turn boosts purchasing power in the home economy, and domestic demand also starts to gather its own momentum. But the initial engine is almost always the intelligent use of the already hefty wallets of the rich world.

The keys to export success are always quality and value. Japan was once a producer of nasty little products that were only sold in third-world countries. Today it is the home of Sony and Toyota. In turn, South Korea was once Japan’s poor neighbour, churning out odd-looking and odd-sounding (but very cheap) gizmos and trinkets. Today, LG plasma screen televisions represent the state of the art, and sell for several hundred thousand shillings each. India now provides call centres and IT services to virtually all the world’s top corporations. Leading US consumer-goods companies manufacture their products in China. All of these countries provide the world with a unique selling proposition: products of such unquestionable quality, at such world-beating prices, that buying them becomes a complete no-brainer.

We can see the limited effects of an outward orientation in our own home industries. Kenyan horticulture, supplying cut flowers and packed vegetables to European retailers, is an industry transformed. It once consisted of a rag-tag bunch of opportunists seeking short-term profits. But a bigger prize was available, and the top players saw it clearly. They cleaned up their business processes and supply chains, instituted stringent quality checks at all stages of production, and invested in technical experts from all over the world. Those that couldn’t meet the quality requirements were weeded out by the market. Today, some of our companies are exclusive suppliers to Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer. The highly discerning UK consumer is happily buying high-spec Kenyan products, and horticulture is consistently our best-performing sector. No surprises there.

Anyone playing for the big prize has no choice but to invest in quality – in raw materials, in processes, in equipment, and in relentlessly excellent customer service. The rest of the world got there a long time ago. All the world’s leading companies have a stringent quality framework. The Japanese initiated kaizen: small, numerous quality circles comprising supervisors and workers that analyse their own work and continually suggest improvements – a very powerful method of allowing workers to be involved in improving their own quality. Western companies have business processes highly focused on quality assurance. Customer needs (articulated through market research and focus groups) are put at the heart of these processes. Some of our leading businesses (big and small) are already there. But clearly, not enough are.

Quality is not an act of generosity by the business: it often yields immediate price premiums in relation to more slapdash competitors. And the long-term benefit of having a solid reputation for quality is immeasurable. Yet it doesn’t always demand massive investments in training, process redesign or automation.

Quality starts in the mind. A business – big or small – that wants to produce the best product or service in its industry will always find a way to do it. The key to quality is a mindset that wants continuous improvement. If you think being two hours late for an appointment, having three spelling mistakes on your business card, or occasionally putting out bad products because you received substandard raw materials is OK, then this article is no place for you. Soon, however, an increasingly competitive economy with a more discerning average consumer will also be no place for you.

Seek out those very particular, very obsessive nitpickers (whom we all know), who were put on the planet for that very purpose – to lead our drive to produce better things. Unleash them to do it for your business.

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