Bulgaria launches campaign to step up quality in production

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Managers in communist Bulgaria's factories are taking lessons from an unlikely source these days: Rolls-Royce. A video film explaining how the luxury car company achieves quality in its production is a regular feature in state-sponsored seminars on quality. The Bulgarians have also imported ideas from quality experts in Japan, the United States, and West Germany.

''Our minds are very flexible,'' said Dimitar Dikov, head of the Central Cabinet of Quality, the educational arm of the Bulgarian Union of Industrial Engineers. ''We can stomach anything. The rules of production are valid anywhere.''

The seminars are just one part of a massive campaign that was formulated by the Bulgarian Communist Party at a special national party conference on quality in Sofia last March. It was attended by 2,500 delegates from all over the country.

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The aim of the campaign is to insert quality into Bulgarian production and end a slide toward shoddy goods that has hurt Bulgaria's business with Comecon, the East-bloc trading community.

Although no clear guidelines for the quality drive were produced, the message was clear. Income is to be tied to quality as well as quantity of production for plants as well as individual workers. The campaign, which is to reach every factory in the country, is intended to breathe new life into the Bulgarian concept of the ''new economic mechanism,'' introduced in 1982. The plan was designed to reduce rigid centralization and state subsidies by emphasizing enterprise profitability and tying workers' pay to profits.

Communist Party leader Todor Zhivkov touched off the quality campaign a year ago, telling a national conference in Varna the issue was ''crucial.'' He ticked off a list that included ''lost markets'' - Bulgarian goods that get 20 to 40 percent less than competitors' on the foreign market, and a 68 percent increase in claims made by foreign customers because of poor quality.

Since then, newspaper columns have been devoted to consumer complaints ranging from light bulbs that burn out the first time they are turned on to shirts with sleeves that are too long.

Huge billboards throughout the country carry the word katchestvo, or quality, saying that is the only road to building socialism.

Prof. Dobri Bradistilov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences said new factories will be constructed only if they meet the highest level of technology and can prove there is a long-term, reliable market for their goods. The 30 percent of capital investment that went toward new buildings will now be reduced to 17 to 18 percent, he said, and the difference will go toward updating current factories. He said that technology will be systematically renewed every three to seven years, and that bonuses will be more closely tied to the quality of production.

So far, it is hard to tell what effect the program might have, or even if it will actually be implemented.

One diplomat pointed out the futility of stressing quality when there were still problems in meeting quantity quotas. Spot shortages still exist, though they are more frequent outside of Sofia.

The people themselves seem untouched as yet by the campaign. It may be another matter if salaries are cut or employees are replaced by more qualified people.

A current joke has a Bulgarian ask his wife what he should do. ''I don't want to go to work because the quality of my work is poor,'' he says. ''But, at the same time, I cannot violate discipline and be absent.'' His wife counsels him, ''Go to work but don't do anything while you're there.''

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