How Are Your Contractors Doing With Human Quality Control?

One of the more intriguing concepts for understanding a production or development cycle is the “Quality Triangle.” Picture a triangle with its sides labeled “fast,” “good,” and “cheap.” The rule that has applied for so many years is that you could have any two of the three. If you wanted something fast and good, it wouldn't be cheap. If you want something fast and cheap, it wouldn't be good.

Lately, I have been rethinking this rule as it applies to accelerated production cycles, where technology has increasingly automated processes at fixed costs while sacrificing jobs formerly carried out manually.

For companies that have shifted their manufacturing to foreign countries, labor costs seem to be so low that quality and supply demands can now be met in a way that the Quality Triangle axiom no longer holds. It appears that we can get products fast, good, and cheap. I thought of the term “quality” with regards to “quality of life,” and I thought that maybe, for volume production operations, this triangle has morphed into a rectangle with a fourth side labeled “humane.”

With employees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, {complink 2125|Foxconn Electronics Inc.}, the world's largest contract manufacturer, has been in the news lately. There have been allegations that its workers are poorly compensated. Demoralizing working conditions and the dangers they present to employees' physical and mental health have come under scrutiny and generated calls for immediate improvements.

With advanced automation technologies, it seems we can have products that are produced quickly, cheaply, and at high quality, but possibly at the expense of decent treatment for the people in the trenches building the products.

Machines have a fixed operating cost. That means the optimal cost of operating and maintaining the equipment has already been achieved. High-volume materials have the lowest cost possible, because of the competitive nature of the supply chain. Once a supplier has hit close to the mark where it is selling at the lowest margins allowable to capture the volume business, it just can't go any lower and stay in business. That leaves labor as the last bastion of cost cutting.

The philosophy of turning people into automatons or robots, so they can be “costed out” like any other CNC (computer numerical control) machine or assembly equipment, is the product of a mass mind mentality. When that philosophy is foundational not just to a company, but to an entire political or belief system, then wholesale change should not be expected anytime soon. In literary terms, this is Big Brother. In Star Trek terms, this is the Borg collective. In human terms, this is a nightmare.

So I propose the “Quality Rectangle” axiom. You can have something fast, cheap, and good, but that will mean inhumane treatment of the factory workers. You can have it fast, good, and not so cheap, but the workers will be treated more humanely. Now the question is whether consumers are prepared to pay a bit more, and whether an OEM and its shareholders will be willing to accept a lower sales margin, to help guarantee better treatment of the workers.

I don't think we can ever go back to the traditional triangle. We have to consider the rectangle as our new geometric pattern for quality. Maybe the long sides of the rectangle, representing the more important emphases, would get the “good” and “humane” labels. This is not to minimize cost and speed, but it puts the value of the human being on par with the quality of the product.

I envision {complink 379|Apple Inc} as the company in the white hat that sets the stellar example and stretches my rectangle into a trapezoid, with the longest edge being humane treatment for all its supply chain workers. It has enough economic clout to say to its foreign factories, “We would like to have an Apple Quality Team present in all of your facilities where our work is being performed.” Every contract manager that I ever engaged for volume production has invited and welcomed a team from my company to “live” at the contractor's facility to oversee line operations.

I propose that we add “working conditions” as a checkbox on our Supplier Quality Audits. Before we do business with any contract manufacturer, we should examine how it treats its employees — in particular, the line workers. If all US and international companies incorporated this quality check before doing business with any foreign factory, we would create a new expectation for our suppliers and a better life for their workers. Apple can't do it alone, but it can get things off to a running start.

If you can't get behind this, then “you will be assimilated.”

12 comments on “How Are Your Contractors Doing With Human Quality Control?

  1. Nemos
    March 26, 2012

    The Quality Triangle can be applied also at the service procedure as well. However, still I don't think you can have quality if you have bad working conditions even if you have a super automated environment. Bad working conditions effects indirect the quality of the product.

  2. Cryptoman
    March 26, 2012


    I definitely agree that the “humane” side should be included in the modern quality polygon. I also feel that a fifth side called “Environmentally Friendly” may also need to be added transforming the quality polygon into a pentagon.

    To be honest, the number of sides of the quality polygon will depend on the currently socially sensitive areas. Over the years, we have become more sensitive to areas such as human rights, working conditions and fair earnings and hence the “humane” side. We have also become environmentally more aware and hence the “environmentally friendly” side. Therefore, the quality polygon should be perceived as a dynamic entity that evolves and transforms with the changing level of social responsibility and awareness in the world.

    Obviously, the interpretation of the quality polygon will not be as straightforward as the original triangle model due to the increasing sophistication added by each new side. Isn't accurate quality assessment getting more sophisticated anyways?


  3. tioluwa
    March 27, 2012

    I agree totally, “Human  Quality Control” is getting very important, as we learn that there is more to making making profit than just making profit.

    We have to be more responsible to each other as humans.

    I'm thinking the “good” in the triangle is interpreted solely as the quality of the product, but i believe it can also involve the quality of the entire production process leading up to the final product, which therefore covers the quality of life of the workers.

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 27, 2012

    Doesn't automation mean you can have cheap, fast and humane? The more you replace people with automation, the less you have to worry about how people are treated. True, you are not offering people employment opportunities this way, but I'm not sure if that qualifies as inhumane. Or maybe I am missing the point?

  5. JennaK
    March 27, 2012

    At its core “human quality control” brings up deeper questions about workers and human rights.  America started reforming its labor laws over 200 years ago.  We all know working conditions in Asia would be considered unethical and are unlawful here.  Why is it okay to export these conditions overseas?  It isn't ethical just because a foreign government doesn't intrude.  These are multinational corporations that are bringing foreign investment that has grown their economies exponentially.  So who is morally responsible?

    I highly recommend the NYTimes series called “The iEconomy” that addresses these issues more thoroughly.  

  6. Houngbo_Hospice
    March 27, 2012


    “Bad   working   conditions   effects   indirect   the   quality   of   the  product.”

    Unfortunatly employees from many manufacturing plants are forced to deliver good quality work no matter the bad conditions their employers are putting them into. We all know that Apple's products are premium products, but many of this products “come out of” employees' harship.

  7. Nemos
    March 27, 2012

    “are forced to deliver good quality work no matter the bad conditions their employers are putting them into.” In most of the cases that I know the “bad working conditions” has to do also with the time delivery of the product for instance as fast as you can. These two facts are very closely connected so how you can have quality if you have bad working conditions ?

  8. Nemos
    March 27, 2012

    Well said Jennak, how it is possible that to happens, something that we don't accept when we see to happening in our countries, and we close our eyes and ignore it when it is happening in other countries. In addition we give our agreement when we are buying products from companies that violate the working conditions.

  9. bolaji ojo
    March 27, 2012

    Hi Douglas, The decision on how much a company should focus on the “human element” is decided more or less by the amount of money involved. If the company can be clear on this question then the investment would be made promptly.

  10. Adeniji Kayode
    March 28, 2012


    Automation may not necessarily mean inhumane,but that is a blame that cannot be apportioned to anybody but level of civillization, development and technology.

  11. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 28, 2012

    I guess my point was you really can't be accused of treating machines “inhumanely.” While companies may get heat for replacing humans with machines, at least the machines won't complain about a 24/7 schedule and low wages. It's a Catch-22 for companies: one way or the other, somebody complians.

  12. dalexander
    March 28, 2012


    I don't think we will ever see the robots and machines take every human job, but when there are only humans to target for cost cutting, then the humans will have to accept the fact that their treatment and respect from the employer is always going to be a function of the cost of their replacement. By that I mean, if the company can hire cheaper labor and not have to consider issues of human rights and general courteous treatment, then they won't.

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