Safety is an aspect of quality. Quality can be defined as conformance to customer requirements, and safety is certainly a customer requirement. The EU says that as unsafe products hit a record high, China must do more. I think that there are several issues here.

  1. Do the data show that products made in China are less safe than products made elsewhere? If so, who is responsible?
  2. Are product safety issues increasing?
  3. What can be done to improve product safety?

Are Chinese Products Less Safe?

According to RAPEX, the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for dangerous consumer products, “It is clear … that Chinese products, and in particular, toys are overrepresented in the RAPEX statistics.

Chinese made toys, for example, account for about half of the toys sold in the EU, but they represent 80% of the RAPEX notifications. Regarding responsibility, the EU Consumer Commission assigns first responsibility to the manufacturers or their commercial representatives in the EU. I agree. Both the manufacturer in China and the organization acquiring and distributing these goods share responsibility for assuring the safety of their products.

Are Safety Issues Increasing?

While product safety issues are making more headlines, published data make it difficult to determine whether or not actual incidents are increasing. To determine this it would be best to have data in a form that could be displayed on a time-ordered chart, such as a control chart.

However, the best I could find were data such as the EU’s statement “While the overall trade flow between the EU and China has greatly increased over the 2003-2006 period, the overall number of RAPEX notifications of Chinese origin has remained stable, even going down to 46% in the first six months of 2007.” Based on this it would seem that safety issues are either stable or, perhaps, declining.

What Can Be Done to Improve Product Safety?

I’ve made numerous trips to China and visited many Chinese factories. I believe that China (and government agencies in Europe and US) is too focused on regulation and inspection. Advanced companies in the developed world abandoned this approach decades ago in favor of process control and continuous improvement.

To be sure, inspection is still used. But it is merely used to confirm that the process controls continue to be effective. It’s a case of focusing on root causes rather than focusing on outcomes. Safety failures are not acts of God. They are a predictable and preventable outcome with one or more causes. Modern quality and safety is assured by understanding the processes in detail and acting to control process suppliers, inputs and actions to assure a quality result.

Lean, Six Sigma and other methodologies are used to create excellent processes. Lean Six Sigma provides built-in process control using mistake-proofing, just-in-time production and delivery, visible factory displays, and a culture dedicated to product quality and safety.

When I go to my local fast food restaurant with my grandson, I want to know that the toys he receives are safe. I’d feel a lot more confident if I knew that the manufacturer had process control and improvement in place rather than an army of inspectors and government regulators.

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