Recovery is under way, and consumer confidence is returning. So is it OK to feel good about ''buying American'' again? That depends, say quality control experts from across the country.
The United States remains the best in the world in many product and service categories, these experts say. But they add that many other product categories remain problem-ridden. Even companies that have started to repair their tarnished images are a long way from recapturing former greatness, the experts say.
US industry, say quality consultants attending a national conference in Boston this week, falls between two extremes: a recognition that world leadership in many key manufacturing sectors is gone and a return to that leadership.
''I give it a 6 (on a scale of 1 to 10),'' says John Hromi, chairman of the board of the Milwaukee-based American Society for Quality Control. ''I think we're over the hump.''
''But we need a positive attitude,'' Dr. Hromi adds. ''I think it's about time that we say we Americans can do things well. We're going to stumble along the way. With each step forward, we may take a step back. But at least the net effect is forward movement.''
Waving a sheaf of recent newspaper stories about product recalls, nuclear power plant breakdowns, and other industrial shortcomings, however, internationally known quality-control consultant Chuck Carter of Richardson, Texas, maintains: ''We don't have a national commitment. We've got to go to Washington and train the President and Congress. We've got to have a national corrective action program. It's our only hope. Standing around and waiting for every manufacturer to commit (itself to producing quality products) isn't gonna hack it.''
Efforts to promote such a national effort, however, have met with little enthusiasm. The American Society for Quality Control tried to organize a White House conference on quality last spring, but settled for a meeting of lesser stature. Spokesmen for the President's Council on Productivity say quality is only one of several key issues bearing on international competitiveness. The council has scheduled a series of meetings across the US beginning next month, from which will come a series of policy recommendations.
The Japanese, Dr. Carter says, do not enter a market unless they know their product is more reliable and of higher quality than any of its competitors. The South Koreans, meanwhile, have adopted a national industrial policy: beat Japan. And the Dutch recently established their own version of the Deming Prize, the prestigious award that the Japanese government confers on companies that meet the most stringent national quality-assurance criteria.
In the US, Carter says, ''people are still being made chief in charge of quality and they can't hardly spell the word.''
Moreover, say those in quality control, end-of-the-assembly-line product inspections in industry are effective only 80 percent of the time - assuming a company is serious about them in the first place. Highly sophisticated automated inspection so far has been slow to catch on, except in the electronics industry.
W. Edwards Deming, architect of much of Japanese industrial recovery after World War II and still active as a management consultant, is much in demand because of his program of 14 ''obligations'' designed to make companies competitive. Not only is the program weighted heavily toward quality control, but, Dr. Deming argues, ''These obligations continue forever; none of them is ever completely fulfilled.''
That philosophy contrasts sharply with what consultants say has been the longstanding general attitude in American manufacturing: Ship the product as long as the customer takes it.
Some consultants contend flatly that 80 percent of quality-related problems are traceable to management attitudes. And as much as 40 percent of the cost of manufacturing in the US is associated with not making products right the first time, they argue.
Concedes one auto-industry source: ''I design systems knowing that mistakes are going to be made.'' And, he admits, ''We still use big old two-by-fours to make the doors fit.''
Still, the source says, because US automakers are in a race with the Japanese for their very survival, these are ''exciting times'' in Detroit for those in the quality assurance field.
Hromi says manufacturers must resist the temptation to post quick profits at the expense of quality. But he sees a major and encouraging change taking place in US industry. For a long time, he says, large companies resisted making needed capital improvements because ''the idea was, 'we've got to amortize that expensive equipment.' The time to change, though, is not necessarily when equipment is amortized but when the benefits of making changes exceed the cost. And that kind of thinking is fresh in the minds of many corporate executives.''