Friday, 19 March 2010

To recall or not to recall ?


"To recall , or not to recall; that is the question". With due apologies to Shakespeare, this could very well be the modern day conundrum for businesses. The travails of Toyota , with its recalls, are very well known. What prompted this post is the news of recall of 1.2 million high chairs (the sort you strap your child to), because they could pose a fall hazard to children.

Readers of this blog know well that this writer is an opinionated individual, prone to verbal excesses and assumes a god given right to hold a point of view on any subject under the sun. The less he knows about a topic, the more strident is his opinion ! For a change, here is a topic on which he confesses to not being sure about; hence both sides of the coin in this post.

The case in question is about high chairs produced by a certain manufacturer in the US. Apparently the risk is that "screws holding the front legs of the high chair can loosen and fall out" and cracking plastic brackets can cause the high chair to "tip over unexpectedly." No less an august body than the The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued this opinion. The company is complying. A million plus high chairs are being recalled.

In today’s world, at the slightest hint of a product risk, companies have to run like Usain Bolt and announce a global product recall. Otherwise they will be accused of negligence and delay in recalling and get sued. They will hauled in front of US Congress / British Parliament / Lesotho’s Politburo and bullied by the revered elected representatives.

The case for – There can be no compromises on product safety. Period. A dangerous product has to be removed from the market, before it can do more harm. It is because this requirement is so stringent that product safety features have gone up a thousand fold. Consumers can now trust and buy a product knowing that it won’t be unsafe or do them physical harm. It is better to be safe than to be sorry; so at the first whiff of a problem, get it out of the market. Speed is essential – else companies and regulatory authorities can spend months or years debating about the issue and the risk continues. How many injuries should happen, or lives lost, before the action is taken ??

The case against – There is no such thing as a risk free world. It is the inherent nature of screws that they can loosen. In this case there have been 24 reports of scratches, bumps and bruises. Does that justify 1 million chairs to be recalled. There will always be the odd circumstance in any product where potentially something unsafe could happen. Does it mean that at the first whiff, you first recall and argue later. Recalls are incredibly expensive – at the end the consumer pays for all this as there is no free lunch. If there is a genuine and widespread safety fear, the product must be recalled. But not at the first scent of scaremongering.

Which is right ? I don’t know. Would you like to throw some light ?

17 comments:

  1. I would say, it all depends on how and what you define as "danger"
    It also depends on the mindsets of US consumers. Claiming all this to be dangerous and doing a product recall seems too exaggerated for me!

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  2. kiwibloke19/3/10

    welcome to the world of the cotton wooled, molly coddled generation. In the good ol' days, kids used to run around(no we did not get runover), play in the dirt (bruises and cuts? what's that?), play cops & robbers (guns and wrong influence on kids, how appalling!), have fights (no threat of parents suing eachother),dig for worms and eat road food (e.coli, do'nt even know what it is). Today we have a protected generation, content to play with their gameboys, nintendos and PSPs. The product of this soft decadent living is a risk averse generation which believes in de-risking life. Add to this the conundrum of suing for any thing and every thing, this is what you get. too bad, we are a product of our times and hence will have to live with this ludicrous situation of recalling chairs, cars and all kinds of things based on real or perceived risks.
    PS: Reminds me of the lyrics from Pink Floyd's "Time" from the Dark Side of the Moon album. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" Perhaps applies to all manufacturers today!

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  3. It is a conundrum indeed. Where do you (or can you) draw a line? How many actually come for a fix? How do you figure out that the product wasn't misused? That figure of 24 incidents in 1.2 million seems to be close to Six Sigma quality. All this misuse hungama has led to some really humorous and downright silly warnings on equipment. I concur with the aspect of mollycoddling what kiwibloke talks about. In all their (western gen) fetish for cleanliness, the kids of the previous/current generation have already lost body resistance. Where was this "peanut allergy", 50 years ago? Now it seems to be an epidemic.

    Maybe as the tamil saying goes, 'arandavanukku irundadhellam pei' (for one who is scared, anything dark is certainly a ghost), the threat of a class-action lawsuit is enough for the manufacturers to scramble and recall at the hint of a potential issue even before a complete due-diligence has been completed.

    In the middle of all this, I don't recollect any of the Indian consumer safety bodies (do they exist?) recall anything? :-( (Stopping further sale isn't a recall anyway)

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  4. BABA pada dialog thaan nyabgam varuthu.."kathiya nee edutha sandai..naan edutha samathaanam" mathiri..if they recall..they are concerned car makers worried abt public safety. Law suitla sikki seerazhinji forced recall pona aprum pudunga aaniye irukathu. Vera vazhi ila. before someone blows the whistle blow ur own trumpet policy thaan.

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  5. @zeno - Right on zeno

    @kiwi - I can see which side of the argument you lean on, but when would you consider recalls OK ?

    @RamMmm - Yeah, tough one. In India, I know of a lot of recall of specific batches - if there's a quality problem with a specific batch, its recalled from stockists, warehouses, etc and sometimes even from retailers. But a general recall - no much rarer.

    @gils - gilsu - oru business padam produce pannungalen thalaivare ...

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  6. padam produce panrathay business thana thalaivaray..thania business padam? apo athuku neenga than story screenplay direction elam..low angle shotsku light boya athivasi :D :D censor boardku ajcl..parental guidance movieyanu avanga verify paninaprum international audienceku release panidlam..padatha paathu review podra velai enaku. Athuku ticket vaangara porupu rammmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm ku :D

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  7. 1.Every mail i recieve from baby center tells about millions of recalled cribs,high chairs,stuffed toys and so on,i think its all bcoz of paranoid parents imagination,if this continues there can be a point tommorrow claiming that high chair color used is very offending to infant/toddler eyes,it can do a deep damage to both eyes n brain.

    2.We are Indians and we are used to adjustment of quality(unless otherwise it is potentially dangerous),they Americans think selling such a high chair is unamerican.

    3.When a complaint like this (screws,plastics)is said,its not practically possible to locate certain batch or a certain retailer,global recallcould be better option other than its expensive.

    4.Atleast to me its not convincing to buy a once recalled brand,so always free lunch for me.

    On a light note,recall or not to recall is their call,lets take a call about gils upcoming Business movie(Shld not be the one in "Indhiya tholai kaatchigalil mudhal murai" types.)

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  8. I think it depends on the consumer expectations and perception of risk associated with the product. When I buy a toy that says "made in China" (sorry Ramesh, nothing personal here :)) I am more worried about the paint and expect the plastic to be of cheap quality and break or the wheels to fall of and therefore it affects the types of toys that I will buy. Whereas if it says for example "made in Germany", I expect to be of better quality and so I dont obsess over whether it is safe or not. Such a preference may not have any factual justification but it is still my perception. I would therefore have very different expectations of appropriate recall behavior by the two sets of companies and would expect the German guys to recall promptly even for relatively minor problems.

    Another issue is: what is the worst case scenario when the screw up happens - if there is a chance of serious injury then even if the probability is low, the company has to recall. Sorry that's the risk of doing business in such a product. But if there is a higher probability of failure but the damage caused can never be too great then I wouldn't care about the recall. Maybe you can put down my comments as the ravings of an over-protective (euphemism for smothering) mom.

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  9. @gils - Nice division of works. But I will review. You produce, direct, be the hero, etc etc. See ambulisamma has joined the chorus to get you to make the movie - Common gils, your movie career is being launched !

    @ambulisamma - Yes it can be a very personal decision whether to buy a brand that has been "tainted". But then unless there's a very serious safety danger, it does seem excessive to me

    @J - Interesting point about origin of product. Maybe another dimension could also be brand - I presume Johnson's baby products would be implicitly trusted whereas another brand may not. As you also say, the severity of the danger may also be a factor. Right now, I think in the US, the pendulum has swung too far down the extreme of recall at the firstb whiff of a problem, however trivial it may be.

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  10. Durga20/3/10

    @ Gils - As much as I love reading Ramesh's blog, I love reading your comments too! Kalakkareenga!!! :-D

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  11. Apt post for the "recall" season that we are in....there is no consumer product division that I think has missed a recall.Why ? Because law suits cost much more.Alas !!

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  12. There was this travel operator who was operating for this place and i was given the responsibility of driving some cost effectiveness (this was in my very initial days in the corporate world). so the smart cookie in me thought that if invite alternate quotes, i would probably, get some good pricing and indeed i found one. the new operator came up with a very effective quote. and somehow i managed to get him into operation.

    but then when they went through an audit, it was realized that the cars did not have effective seat belts which was a no compromise and so we told him to fit seat belts in all his cars which he promptly did. then a compliant came from one of the users that externally fitted seat belts could have the danger of screws get lose and hence he was told to only use cars with company fitted seat belts. somehow (i dont know how) the travel operator managed to get cars with company fitted seat belts. and so on and so forth, we kept on raising the standards. after some months of operation, the new travel operator came back with a price increase proposal almost equal to the earlier operator.

    there is nothing which comes free in this world. we pay for where we draw the line.

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  13. @Durga - Absolutely true. Gils, take a bow !

    @Blogueur - It is all about law suits. Seriously, I think tort reform is one of the most important things to do in the US - the system has gone crazy.

    @Sandhya - Yes, there is no free lunch, but its such a difficult concept for people to grasp.

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  14. Risk perception may differ from individual to individual. To a spoon-fed consumer, any sort of mishandling/ negligence in usage may also seem as a defect in the underlying product and can lead to the "huge cry".

    If there are genuine defects in the product that lead to physical harm or are unsafe, the recall may be necessary to safeguard company's survival in the long run. Having said that, every product carries an inherent risk during various stage of its usage and each and every inherent risk must not be projected as a manufacturing defect.

    Considering this particular instance and some recent examples, I definitely think that the pendulum has swung too far down as pointed by you.

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  15. @Vishal - Very true - risk perceptions vary. What would be an obvious recall in the US may not even warrant a second look in India.

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  16. Do you remember the plaster that I had for 3 months on my leg? I had to wear an ankle binder for a year. No dancing for a year and no high heels! All that for falling off a chair! :D So if that goddamn chair is dangerous, it better be recalled! Just kidding, it wasn't the chair's fault in my falling off it. :D

    I think some consumer intelligence is needed. In India we have these Neelakamal garden chairs (moulded plastic). And everytime a fat aunty/ uncle discounts her/his weight and sits on it, it breaks. None of the chairs comes with a sticker of what weight it can take.

    I think all products should have a warning sign. "Unsafe for people with less than average commonsense".

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  17. @Deepa - Ha Ha . Loved your advice for the weight challenged and the warning sign . Lol.

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