Making Things to Last

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My mobile phone, which is a little over a year old, will not start. That’s the third time in the past one month. I would have sent it back to the manufacturer, and give them a piece of my mind – but, the warranty has conveniently just expired – so it would have been an exercise in futility.

In what must be the biggest conspiracy theory in modern business, major phone manufacturers are often suspected to have timed their products to fail right after their warranty wears off. Planned obsolescence is such a prevalent practice in the technology business, that it’s hard to believe these manufacturers didn’t plan for the products to fail.

Some would argue that planned obsolescence cuts short the replacement cycle, and therefore encourage consumer spending and ensure companies prosper and employees keep their jobs. However, many of us purists, people who were born during the era when a Mercedes was craved for its reliability and longevity rather than style, TVs were selected based on their reputation for durability rather than it’s dot-per-inch resolution or whatever the latest jargon is – would beg to disagree. Growing up in a family that treasure honesty and integrity more than anything else (which explains my, well, economically-challenged childhood, I’m afraid), I find it hard to digest the need to cut corners just so as to make more money.

Consider my pair of Dr Martens, which I bought over ten years ago. It’s still in almost pristine condition. Never had to send it to a cobbler. Same goes with my pair of Crocs shoes. The sole has worn off a little. But for a 7-year old pair of shoes, it’s as hardy as they come.

Contrast that to this very expensive, branded shirt I bought a couple of years back. It took all but three washes for the shirt to lose its shape and colour. Planned obsolescense? Unlikely with this one. It’s probably a simple case of poor quality that’s so prevalent in this time and age.

So why can’t or won’t manufacturers make things to last? The short answer to that is that consumers are so used to poorly made quality products these days, that building a product that last is just too much effort. The conventional thinking is that if you can get away with a product that’s 99% perfect, there’s really no point spending double the money to bridge that 1% difference.

The investment community is probably the biggest culprit to this culture of cutting corners. When companies are judged solely on the basis of their EBIT (earnings before interest and tax), patient capital is forced to take a back seat. Investments in R&D are only good if the investment community see results of these in less than 2 accounting cycles. The shocking truth of our time.

Make Perfection Your Winning Edge

It is in this economy of indifference that some of you out there – manufacturers and service providers – can make a real difference to your business and your industry by pursuing that often-forgotten 1%. Across the world, there is a silent movement towards perfection. While many of those who pursued fast money reaped their harvests fast and early, I can assure you that those who are out there for the long haul will win and win handsomely in the long run.

Think about all the things the internet behemoth Google is investing in. Many of these seem frivolous and even irrelevant. But as one of the largest tech companies in the world, Google can get away with these investments in the future that smaller companies will inevitably be criticised for. Fast forward to a mere decade from now, when all these pieces of the chess that Google is moving, fall in place, and you will have in place the world’s largest corporation.

Even as you read this, many of the world’s products are becoming commoditised. Brands that were great are not so great any more. The long tail of things is finally becoming real. In a future world where brands are less important, and consumer feedbacks are ubiquitous, quality will be the great equaliser. So invest in quality.

In the meantime, we will all just have to make do with poorly-built phones – until that one phone company that invests in making phones that last, emerge, and in the process make phone manufacturers that plan for obsolescence, obsolete.

That, would be sweeter than sending my phone back today to the manufacturer with a note of what I think.

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