Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is quality a losing strategy?

Everything breaks. It's just a matter of time. It has always been that way.

The only real question is how much time.

To misuse a term that has been misused often, it should be considered entropy (a gradual increase in disorder) simply fulfilling its purpose. So how much time is appropriate? If one were to construct a highly ordered system such as a stone pyramid, and then have the system reduced to completely random rubble in one year, I think that would be considered an inappropriately short time. Conversely, and at the opposite extreme, if I created something like a pastry, returned to it in a million years, and then found it to be exactly as I created it, that time duration would be excessively long. One always has certain expectations of how long lasting any object will be.

So have our expectations changed?

What brought this on was my steam iron. I don't do much ironing, but I do have to iron my gig clothes on occasion. I bought an expensive "best in class" iron made in Germany with all the bells and whistles. This was something you'd expect to last a long time, especially with the intermittent duty cycles to which I would be subjecting it.

It broke. The thermal cut-off switch failed, causing it to stop producing heat, even when at normal operating temperature. An expensive paperweight (and a few wrinkly clothing items to serve as the "paper" for now) with a non serviceable failed cheap internal part.

So I think to myself, how should I go about replacing it? Buy another highly-priced so-called high-quality item to take a chance on? Should I spend money on a product that will last? Didn't I already do this and have the plan backfire on me with a product that lasted only a few years and then fail, losing me a large sum of money. Why not just buy a cheap model with the expectation that it will fail within a few years? That way I won't be out too much money and the only problems would be increased landfill use and possibly a substandard ironing job.

(I'm not liking where this is going)

Come to think of it, I had been paying top dollar for a certain brand name of tubular tires. They had just come out with a "new improved" (more expensive) version. Every single "new improved" tubular that I had purchased had been rendered useless within a few months of installation by flats (which seemed to shred the rubber) or sidewall failure. It may be coincidental, but I did not have the same problems with the "old" version.

I decided to never buy another. I also decided to never buy another product from the expensive fancy German iron company either.

Hey, this is sounding familiar. I have a lot of tools in my woodshop. Many of them are old. Some of them are newer boutique tools, made by small companies. A few of them are mass-produced well-known items that have TV commercials and are sold in home centers and hardware stores.

Care to guess as to which of these three types are the ones most likely to fail?

I've even been told as much by people selling tools or refrigerators or water softeners or whatever. They don't make them like they used to.

So, we all have heard that axiom before, but is there an underlying purpose to it?

If I am certain that an appliance will fail, then why bother buying quality? Wouldn't I be more likely to be angry and not buy anything from that company again since I spent so much money and felt like I was cheated? Damn right I would!

So I decide to go and buy the cheapest iron I can find that will do the job, and expect it to last a year or two.



Multiply that by a few million and you get the math. That many people, whether they are consciously thinking it or not, are making the same decision every day. They've all been through this time and time again, with products that just seem to stop working far far before their expected time to live has expired. It has become part and parcel of our culture. We even have come to change the way we think about stuff like cars. I have heard that the average car buyer gets a new vehicle every three years or some such duration. Very little impetus to build a lasting product when the consumer is trained to expect that nothing will last, and the best way to deal with stuff breaking is to simply throw it away and buy another.

And the companies know it too. They know where their profits are coming from.

What is the eventual result of all of this? What happens when projected to its extreme conclusion? How will we be after one hundred more years of this trend? Will we laugh at anyone who labors to construct something good? A waste of time? Not fiscally sound?

Consider the fiscal viability of a Beethoven symphony.

Will such a thing ever be possible to create again?

I have my doubts.

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