Soviet factories meet a new word: quality. World market, Soviet consumers want better products
From automobiles to television sets and from furniture to shoes, products stamped ``made in USSR'' are getting an increasingly critical scrutiny from Soviet shoppers. But while the public is more and more dissatisfied with shoddy or unfashionable products, Soviet government efforts to increase the quality of goods are not producing tangible results, according to Western experts who follow Soviet domestic policy.Skip to next paragraph
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``There has been a sea change in social and economic development in the Soviet Union,'' says Armand Feigenbaum, a soft-spoken man who has gained recognition as one of the world's top experts in industrial quality control. ``Soviet consumers have less time and tolerance for responding to failure, and the same thing is true in Soviet companies - and the groundswell from the bottom is growing.''
This pressure has made Soviet leaders more receptive than ever before to Western ideas about competition and business management, the experts say. Upgrading the quality of products has become crucially important, not just to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's political success and his ambitious economic restructuring plan known as perestroika - but for the survival of the Soviet Union as a major world power, they say.
``The Soviets have fallen behind even South Korea in many respects,'' says Jerry Hough, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank. ``You cannot practice total protectionism, as the Soviets have for 60 years, and still remain a great country.'' To remain strong economically, he says, ``requires quality products and a strong export strategy.''
Mr. Feigenbaum also holds that improving the quality of goods and services is essential to the future of the Soviet Union. He plans to deliver a pointed keynote speech tomorrow in Moscow at an international conference on industrial quality.
``My message is that unless the Soviet Union can fundamentally improve its quality posture, the opportunity for any kind of opening to the West [in terms of exports], or of implementation of some of the Gorbachev initiatives, is unlikely.''
Feigenbaum should know. He has traveled to the Soviet Union several times. His book, ``Total Quality Control,'' which has been translated into several languages, including Russian, has long been the Japanese bible for quality control. Feigenbaum is president of the General Systems Company of Pittsfield, Mass., which specializes in teaching corporations around the world how to control quality.
His advice comes just two weeks before an important Communist Party conference, June 28, where Mr. Gorbachev will endeavor to entrench and deepen his reform program. The Soviet leader might even report on the changes he has put in place to increase the quality of Soviet goods - but there would not be much to tell, experts say.
One reason is that the country's industrial history runs against the tide of Soviet efforts to make better products. Feigenbaum says Soviet factories, industrial theory, and work processes are at the same place that Europe and Japan were in the 1920s and '30s. Product quality has actually been dropping in the Soviet Union, he says, and it will take a major effort simply to halt the decline.
If the Soviet Union is to compete in the world-export market, its products must be better designed and hold together, says Mr. Hough. Consumer product exports from the Soviet Union are few. Some Lada automobiles have found their way into European countries. But major exports are still raw materials - oil, natural gas, and gold. That will not be enough to carry the Soviet economy forward, he says.
Hough thinks there is a ``natural market'' for inexpensive (but well-made) Soviet products in the third world, and even in the United States. ``If South Korea can do it, why can't the Soviets? They are a natural exporter to us of low-priced goods.''