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.
``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.''
Feigenbaum and Hough believe the Soviet Union can turn its economic doldrums around by exporting to the third world - if it licks its quality problems. ``From an industrial point of view, there is nothing unique about the Soviet problems,'' Feigenbaum says. ``The same problems that we had seen in postwar Europe and Japan simply remain in Russia.''
The solution will involve letting go of outdated concepts, and putting in place quality processes that involve both management and technology. Feigenbaum points to a number of false concepts about quality and manufacturing that must be dissolved if the Soviets are to make better products and export them to the world. These include:
The belief that a team and the central-planning approach can come up with ``one best concept'' for a car, refrigerator, or television. Feigenbaum says this idea is an obstacle to letting the consumer decide what product best suits his needs. This would mean allowing competition between factories and imports.
The 1920s belief that specialized machinery, techniques, and processes produce high-quality goods. ``They do not,'' Feigenbaum says. He says this lesson was learned the hard way in the West and is still being learned. ``What automation has produced, without quality planning, is just more bad articles quicker than before.''
The belief that good quality in a product costs more than bad quality - the ``Tiffany complex.'' Quality products are cheaper to produce, Feigenbaum says, because they do not involve the heavy costs of repair and duplicated manufacturing effort.
Improving quality of goods has been high on Gorbachev's agenda from the start. Last year, he ordered the state to start policing industrial quality. Yet Gospriemka, a new state agency charged with quality control, has little to show for its efforts so far.
The Gospriemka effort, which has involved sending teams of as many as 12 to 15 quality inspectors into various Soviet factories, ``seems to have had some effect,'' says Patrick Cockburn, a former Moscow correspondent for the London-based Financial Times newspaper, who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. But ``they seem to have relaxed controls last summer, because a lot of the goods weren't getting out of the factory.''
Another observer, Boris Rumer, spent years in Soviet central planning. Now a research associate at Harvard's Russian Research Center, he says there have been ``zero achievements'' so far in the quality area, despite teams of inspectors being sent to factories.
``It was a pure administrative action that contradicts the economic reforms,'' Mr. Rumer says. ``It contradicted the independence of the enterprises, and their self-accountability.''
To begin the arduous task of reversing the Soviet ship of state and heading it toward quality will be difficult, observers say.
Feigenbaum would like to see the bureaucracy start by getting the agricultural machinery industry to make better tractors. Putting more bread in people's mouths would take some of the heat off Gorbachev and give him time to move industry toward the ability to export.
Working in the Soviets' favor is ``motivation,'' Feigenbaum says. The depth and breadth of national concern about the quality of industrial output shows that the ``quality issue'' has landed firmly on center stage in the Soviet Union.
``I think what we're going to see in the Soviet Union is unquestionably the kind of thing we have not seen in any of the socialist countries, and is rarely seen in the West - the quality notion as an explicit part of national policy. ...
``Quality does not travel under any single passport,'' he is fond of saying. ``Quality has no nationality.''