Due to the gradual collapse of industry in the country, a person venturing into business without any work experience has become the norm rather than the exception. In countries with better performing economies, good business practices usually trickle from the bigger companies down to the upstarts despite all the talk by the latter of “disrupting” the former out of existence.

In Zimbabwe, this lack of traditional industrial experience in both the management and employees of smaller companies has severely affected the quality of the output from these. To begin with, very few entrepreneurs realise that in business “quality” and “quality management” are more than just words that one can look up in a dictionary; quality and its management is an extensively studied subject with sheaves of accompanying literature.

Today I will share some of the basic quality management ideologies which small local manufacturers can use—extracted from the pages of some of the aforementioned literature on the subject. These should be useful for manufacturers of all sizes, from the young person cooking soap in her backyard to her counterpart producing protective clothing for miners in the small factory across town.

How important is quality?

For almost two decades, local industries have been fighting a losing battle against cheaper, lower quality imports—mainly from China. The long supposed superior quality of local goods (in those sectors where the technology to manufacture such is within our reach) has repeatedly failed to stay the tide of imports. Without enough information, many budding industrialists and some entrepreneurial members of the public have hastily concluded that poor quality is the one and the only reason that Chinese manufacturers can keep their production costs and prices so low. This has resulted in the dismantling of the age-old and carefully cultivated positive attitudes towards quality by local industries, both formal and informal, during the last decade or so.

The truth is that these foreign companies hardly keep costs low through lower quality alone, so a low-quality local product is just that—it will still be difficult for it to compete on price with even a similarly mediocre import. It then becomes important that our aspiring industrialists receive a re-education on the importance of quality, something which was taken for granted only a generation or two ago.

Poor quality is costly

For most people, this is understandably a counterintuitive statement. How can putting in the least amount of effort in ensuring the quality of your product, possibly cost you more? The answer is a bit roundabout but it should hold for all businesses which have any hope of lasting beyond a few months. Let us begin by comparing the cost that comes with making good quality products vs. that of poor quality ones.

The costs of achieving good quality

This cost can be divided into two, namely that of prevention and that of an appraisal. The former includes all the activities performed before manufacture to ensure that the final product is of good quality. These include designing a quality product or manufacturing processes. Yes, as anyone who has ever sought the services of an architect knows, design costs money.

Appraisal costs should be more familiar and are more in line with what most people think quality management is. These include observing, testing and assessing the quality of your products and production processes. Such activities slow down production, demand manpower and, depending on how strict the tests are, can lead to the rejection of a lot of already manufactured products. Therefore achieving good quality is costly (as a lot of unscrupulous manufacturers already know). Now let us discuss how poor quality can itself be costly.

The cost of poor quality

Everyone acknowledges that poor quality is costly but only to the final consumer. So can poor quality cost the producer of the goods? The answer is a definite yes and proponents of quality management (sometimes called quality gurus) are adamant that this cost can exceed that of achieving good quality i.e. a poor quality product costs the manufacture more to produce that an excellent one. Like before, we can again divide these costs into two categories, this time the internal and the external.

Recognizing internal costs is acknowledging that poor quality can cost you even before the products leave the factory. Such internal costs include raw material being unnecessarily lost as scrap due to poor quality production processes or poor design. Poor workmanship can also lead to faulty products being reworked which cost the business time and money. Here the radical idea (for Q.M novices) that quality management extends even to the design of products and organisational processes is emphasized. This means that even if you produce excellent quality products, your business can still be a victim of poor quality just because of the processes through which those products are produced.

External costs of poor quality are more familiar. Attending to customer complaints, handling returns and warranty claims can all cost your business a fortune in both potentials and already received revenue. Some businesses are notorious for protecting themselves in such cases using a combination of unfriendly non-return clauses, warranties with rigid conditions and similar other tactics. In such cases, these businesses usually lose the majority of potential customers even before they get to their doors because of the poor brand image that is the result of these strategies.