What Ever Happened to Quality?

In his essay, “Quality”, written in 1911, the great writer, John Galsworthy, recounts the tale of two brothers. Shoemakers with their own shop somewhere near the end of the 19th century, they exemplify the issue of quality in Mr. Galsworthy’s mind. They knew each customer. They made patterns of the customers’ feet, cut the shoes to fit, had the customer try the shoes, and then adjusted the shoes as necessary to each customer’s satisfaction, offering to take the cost off the bill if the shoes or boots were not acceptable.

In time, faster, cheaper, and more efficient ways were found to make shoes and boots, and the little shopkeeper was, at the last, forced into barely being able to survive. Until the last, he insisted on making only the finest quality product, even as his customers deserted him for the cheaper product provided by the factories.

An interesting note is Galsworthy’s statement, “I ordered several pairs. It was very long before they came–but they were better than ever. One simply could not wear them out.”

My father was almost obsessive about quality. One of the first lessons I had was that most things should last a long time and serve you well. When he died in 1981, my mother gave me a pair of his boots that he had worn for several years. I wore them regularly and comfortably for several more years myself, and they did not give up the ghost until I had worn them for over 15 years. In the 1960’s, I bought a pair of pants at Ed White Clothiers in Pensacola, Florida. I gave them to charity in 1990 at the insistence of my wife. All my father’s tools are still in fine condition, at least the ones I have. His watch is fine, thank you, or should I say watches, as I have the pocket watch he carried since before I was born as well as his Seiko wrist watch. Of course, he was a watchmaker, so they don’t count.

While these may be extreme examples, they stand in contrast to the shirts I bought from Target two years ago, both of which had to be taken back because the buttons fell off within a few days of their purchase. Or the pants, also from Target, which rapidly became donations to a local charity because of the poor workmanship and overall lack of quality. Let’s not leave out the two rather expensive shirts purchased last year from Sears. They still fit reasonably well and are nice looking shirts…except for the sleeves which shrank and now miss my wrists by four or five inches. The leather belt I also purchased from Sears a few months ago is beginning to come apart. I have lost track of the number of watches I have discarded over the years because they simply did not last, but I am hard on watches, so maybe that doesn’t count.

Those are small potatoes, but a few years ago, my wife and I, who were experienced over-the-road drivers and truck driving instructors, purchased a Peterbilt truck for over $100,000. The name Peterbilt used to be synonymous with quality. In the first eleven months that we owned that truck, we were unable to drive for eight weeks because of repairs and mechanical problems. One of the most frustrating facts was that several times after the truck had been worked on by Peterbilt certified mechanics, we had to return to get something fixed that they had messed up! We eventually managed to force Peterbilt to buy back the truck under a Wisconsin lemon law, but not before we lost thousands of dollars and experienced months of frustration. Even more frustrating is the fact that, after talking to several other people who owned the same type of truck, we found that almost everything that was wrong with the one we had purchased was being experienced by other owners as well.

It is not in the interest of most manufacturers to condone quality. First of all, it is usually more expensive to build items of quality than to mass produce things that “will do”. If things last too long, many of these folks would go out of business. Watch carefully, and you will see that things change, often not for the better, but just so that we will be tempted to dispose of the old and purchase the new. The advertising media are always more than happy to earn their bread by reminding us that what we have that was new last year is now out of date and must be replaced.

After they have worked so hard to create a perceived need in the populace, is it any wonder that in order to maximize profits, these manufacturers have chosen to seek out cheaper labor and lower manufacturing costs?

And is it all their fault?

When we vote, and vote all of us do with our wallets (or debit and credit cards), do we cast our votes for quality products that we will be happy to use for years, perhaps even passing them on to another generation, or do we simply buy that which is the cheapest?

A small cautionary tale about buying cheap.

Years ago, I was a federal purchasing agent for the Texas Army National Guard. I, and the others in my office, were tasked with purchasing supplies for various military units in the Guard, many of which are now serving in Iraq. Part of our mission was to get the “best price possible”, and we were told to ignore issues of “name brands” which might be known for their quality. One day, the lady who worked at a nearby desk nearly jumped up in the air because she had just placed a large order for strapping tape at about one-half the expected price. She had saved the federal government, and the American taxpayers, a few hundred dollars.

A few days later, while working with one of the units, we had cause to use the tape she had purchased. It was worthless. It would not stick, even to itself, and shredded and fell apart. The tape was used to hold groups of field gear together in bunches for quick and efficient deployment of a combat unit. We wound up using about three times as much tape as we would have needed had a better (name) brand been purchased, and that does not take into account the rolls that became so snarled and shredded that they were simply thrown away as useless.

Things that last well often are worth the extra cost simply in the extra service they can provide over their lifetime…if we let them live that long.

Experience and Skills Being Undervalued At Work? What Can You Do?

Job hunting isn’t the only time to present your accomplishments. If you are someone who has spent a few years building your career, or even working at the same company, have you ever felt like your boss or your peers aren’t appreciating the value you bring? Do you ever think your skills and experience just aren’t getting recognition?

When I met Carol, she seemed to be at the peak of her frustration with her career. She had been overlooked, or outright denied, pay increases and promotions. She saw others with less experience, and fewer skills, moving up, having opportunities to work on the interesting projects, and getting the work she felt she had earned. She did not understand why her boss and peers didn’t credit her for her contribution to the organization. She was worried that she was experiencing discrimination, due to her age or gender. She felt victimized.

In my prior corporate career, there were times when I felt just like Carol. I assumed that because I worked for my boss, he should know what I did. Because I worked with my peers, they should know what I was capable of. Then I noticed that the people who got the interesting work did three things I was not doing. As Carol and I talked further, we discovered that she wasn’t doing them either. In fact, many people I speak with who have an established career or work history, often overlook these three (3) critical actions, and end up frustrated like Carol and me.

I wholeheartedly believe you are responsible for your career. If you want to thrive at your company, in your job, your career, in addition to doing a good job, you must be continually doing these three (3) critical actions.

1. Present your accomplishments.

Meet with your boss at least yearly or even quarterly to inform her about your accomplishments and contributions. I recommend you maintain a Master Accomplishments List** the list of projects you worked on, problems you solved, help you provided, and contributions you made. Keep a written record of your contributions to the company.

Present this list to your boss at least once year. If your company doesn’t do performance reviews, schedule your own with your boss. Send her a copy of your Master Accomplishments List** from the last 12 months. Then discuss the items with her. Make sure she knows what you’ve done. Remember, your boss is super busy with her own challenges and concerns. It is very likely she will be more focused on what problem she needs to solve this week, and will not always remember what you’ve done throughout the year. It’s up to you to make sure she knows.

2. Talk about your strengths and skills.

Many of you have heard me say that one of the most important keys to loving your job and thriving in your career is to use the strengths you enjoy using. So make sure you tell your boss and your peers what these strengths and skills are. Don’t assume they already know. Tell them what you are great at and what you love to do. Work this information into conversation at meetings, over lunch, or at the water cooler.

3. Tell them what you want.

Get clear about what you want to do, then tell your boss the kinds of projects you’d love to have an opportunity to work on. Ask him what you need to do to get those opportunities. I vividly remember the day one of my peers was promoted over me. I felt I was more qualified than this person was to do that job. I felt slighted and overlooked. When I told my boss how disappointed I was, he told me he didn’t know I wanted the promotion. It took me a whole week to go back and meet with my boss and ask, “How can I get promoted? What do I need to do?” From that moment on, he helped and supported me. One year later, I got promoted. It was a revelation to me that I all I needed to do was tell him what I wanted and ask for his help.

You can’t expect your experience and skills to speak for themselves. You must talk about them. You must present them. I learned that by consistently taking these three (3) critical actions, my skills were recognized and valued by my peers and my boss. Carol learned to do the same, and is now working on projects she enjoys and getting paid what she knows she’s worth. How about you? Are you taking these actions consistently? I encourage you to make plans to take these actions today.

** Master Accomplishments List