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European-American Topics - Editorial - Quality: The American Perspective

America must do better

By DW Hamilton

Americans pride themselves on being a “can-do” nation.  We are willing to tackle any job, and gosh darn if a little elbow grease and bailing wire can’t pull it together.  Unfortunately, we are so immersed in our own self-perceptions that when the results of corner-cutting, shoddy materials, poor design and bad engineering decisions come back to haunt us with disastrous results, the light bulb never goes on as to what allowed it to happen in the first place.   I don’t blame this on the American worker, who really has little say in the overall quality of their product, but on shortsighted, profit-driven management. 

It is actually embarrassing.  With the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, and now the flooding in New Orleans due the failure of the levies, we in the USA have to pause and ask our American engineers, “Whatever happened to rugged, dependable and built to last forever?”  They will in turn point to stingy taxpayers who nevertheless have high hopes for ridiculously under-funded projects; budget decisions made by accountants, not engineers; “teams” and “panels” of experts who never get to maintain complete control of their projects from top-to-bottom or beginning-to-end; and unreasonable timelines imposed for political reasons.  Like a reading circle for Engineering for Dummies we stand around pointing to one another, saying, “Gosh, I wonder why it turned out so bad.” 

“Can-do” has become “make-do.”  “Nothing but the best” has long been replaced by “It’s better than nothing.”  Rather than patiently wait for the best long-term solution in our product design, all to often we cater to the low side of the mass market – people who buy what they can afford, only to end up spending more over the long run as they must replace it two or three times.  Worldwide, America is credited with coining the phrase “built-in obsolescence.”

Of course, with any blanket statement, there are exceptions.  Boeing, for instance, considering the grueling and constant use of its airplanes, has an enviable position on safety and quality.  Say what you will about Microsoft, their products form the backbone and nervous system of our information economy day in, day out.  And certainly, Starbucks is conscious of quality from tip-to-stern. But what of the news that Ford just issued the fourth largest automotive recall in history, over some cheap little part which can cause an SUV to burst into flame hours after the engine has shut off?  Chances are that the part wasn’t even made in America, but since Ford is perceived as an American company, our national reputation for quality takes a hit. 

As Governor Gregoire noted after returning from her trade mission to Europe, we need to invest in churning out top-notch scientists, mathematicians and engineers from our school systems, or we will fall further behind economically as the global marketplace turns its nose up at our products in favor of better crafted ones. 

Taking a look at our crumbling 52-year-old elevated highway in Seattle (ironically named after the thousands of years-old Roman viaduct) it is easy to see why we need to do better now, not later.  It is time to pull our heads out, and realize that if we want something good, it is worth paying more.  We need to do it for our safety, our pride, and in order to compete in a global market that thinks “Brand America” means cheap and short-term, while “Brand Europe” means top quality materials, design and craftsmanship. “Brand America” should mean top-notch innovation.  Let’s collectively make that our standards and values, or suffer the long-term consequences.


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