Is improving the quality and the working conditions the same thing?

Fish processing unit.

Fish processing unit.

While meeting brands representatives, we are often asked a recurrent question, especially when we talk with quality managers. Why don’t you apply the same method to improve working conditions than the one we use to improve quality?

It makes sense to work directly with the factory by giving advice as it is often done to improve/manage the quality level of the goods. [We stress here the difference with the “request of result only” approach, which we don’t talk about here]. However, we have found that almost never works, and only if the ties between the factory and the brand are very strong.

It seems important to figure out the reason to find the best improvement approaches. We tried to understand what were the key differences between social topics and quality of the goods. The first obvious difference is that a brand buys a good while it buys to a factory. As a consumer, we know we can ask for a coffee more or less sweet, but not for the bartender to change its working time. Why should it be considered as normal in a brand/factory relationship?

The second important difference is related to the sensitivity of the topics. Improving the quality of the goods is a permanent goal which actually doesn’t cast doubt on the manager abilities. On the contrary, when we talk of social topics, we are pointing out topics directly related to the manager. Carrying our metaphor on, while asking a sweeter coffee, we are asking an adaptation of the product to our needs. That doesn’t cast any doubt on the bartender. But, if we ask for a change in his wages, it is no more an adaptation to our needs, but we challenge the decisions taken by the owner.

Some are saying they have an industrial experience that could be replicated and the factory could benefit from this shared experience. That’s right, but the organization of the social topics in a factory is a sensitive matter. We are very soon talking about the bottom line repartition between workers and shareholders, or even the business model. Moreover, the free choice of the manager is disputed, as we then suggest changing things at the core of the company.

How is it possible, there are consultants working on management then? Especially as some are achieving real results and they too are involved in the core of the company and the choices of the manager. Actually it’s simple. The final decision remains the one of the manager, and there is no challenge on that. The manager has selected the consultant, and then the relationship with the consultant is very clear. The consultant can give advice and only that. But when a brand tries to help a factory, it also gives advice. However, as it is also a customer, these advices take a “mandatory color.” It tempers with the freedom of choice of the manager on some very sensitive topics.

So, as soon as the improvement actions are more than some simple safety requirements, the advice can be efficient only if they are coming from a previous request from the factory. Informing the management of the existence of solutions and consultants that could help them with some difficult points of the company management is the only really possible. It’s only once the factory is asking for advice that they could be given. Thus, unfortunately, the common approach to improve quality can’t be used to solve problems related to social situation.

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