One of the major challenges for American industry can perhaps be symbolized by the casual remark made by a colleague of ours recently that he ''loved'' a certain Japanese-made product. By contrast, a competitive US product, he insisted, was ''a piece of tin.'' Now our friend's observation may be unique. But all the same the message seems clear; namely, that the consumer of the 1980s , given generally tight money and inflation, is going to consider quality as important a factor as price in buying a product.
For these reasons, it is good to find the calls for improved US quality control coming from American industry itself. Just this week, for example, participants at a Washington symposium urged US firms to stress again the need for excellence in the production process. As Armand Feigenbaum, president of General Systems Company, an engineering firm, put it,''Reigniting the explosion of quality and productivity growth in the United States means the restoration of productivity and quality to a primary role in American management from the secondary role it has fallen into in some companies.'' Another speaker, the director of quality control at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, argued that ''American industry has the capability to produce quality products, even the highest quality products.''
That the US still does produce quality goods, despite all the talk about the overall decline in its industrial base, is not in question. In such diverse fields as aircraft, computers, engineering and construction, pharmaceuticals, farm equipment, kitchen products, and refrigerators, American goods and service work must be reckoned first-rate. On the other hand, at far too many firms quality control has taken a back seat to shoddy production techniques, often out of a pursuit for short-term profits.
Back in the 1950s many US firms adopted ''zero defect'' programs aimed at eliminating not just most but all imperfections in a product line. We can just imagine what a salutary impact there would on sales if firms again devoted the same attention to production methods as they now do to advertising campaigns.
Meanwhile, industry and trade groups should also be encouraging quality programs. The Reagan administration might also wish to consider recent proposals to create an industrial counterpart of the Agricultural Extension Service that would work with US firms on a geographical basis and, among other things, provide up-to-date quality control information. The ultimate goal for industry is a satisfied (world) consumer who leans back, smiles, and gushes about ''loving'' his US-made product.