What’s up with product quality lately? While analyzing the results of our 21st annual State of the Profession survey, some interesting data jumped out at me.

More than two-thirds (69 percent) of respondents said they are currently dealing with issues related to quality. In addition, more than one-half (55 percent) of assemblers claim that product quality will be the biggest challenge to their companies’ success during the next 12 months. Both of those percentages have increased over the last few years.

After decades of various efforts to address quality (ISO 9000, poka yoke and Six Sigma are just a few popular practices that come to mind), why is this something that continues to plague so many manufacturers?

According to the American Society for Quality (ASQ), more organizations are transitioning their quality function from a “compliance activity to a strategic asset and competitive differentiator.” And, ASQ claims that more companies are also relying on quality departments “to drive profitability through innovation, new product development and a focus on customer experience.”

Unfortunately, many organizations fail to measure the financial impact of quality.

Beth Cudney, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, says the intangible aspects of this, such as lost market share or company reputation due to poor quality, are difficult to measure.

“Capturing (the cost of those intangibles) and truly putting a financial number to that is still difficult, and no one’s doing that well,” notes Cudney. “There needs to be more work in that area to find a better way to capture that number so companies have a good estimate.”

Until then, customers will continue to complain about quality. After all, it's a key part of the user experience (UX), which is a hot buzzword these days.

My own UX with several products recently has not been positive. In the last few months alone, I’ve encountered problems with a few different types of products. Alarmingly, these glitches involved several brands that most people associate with top-notch quality.

Like millions of other consumers, I was affected by the Takata-Toyota airbag recall earlier this year.

Shortly after that, I purchased a new battery backup surge protector for my home computer. Guess what? After I plugged in all the cords and turned on the device, nothing happened.

The customer service person at CyberPower Inc. nonchalantly told me over the phone to “return it to where you bought it and exchange it for another device.” He never apologized for the inconvenience and gave me the impression that this was something that happens on a routine basis. When I returned to the store, I picked up another device that was manufactured by one of CyberPower’s competitors.

I’ve also had a bad experience with my Maytag kitchen stove, which is just a few years old. The paint on the grates chipped off after normal use. I purchased replacement grates and assumed that the problem was just a fluke. But, the paint quality on the new grates is even worse!

And, speaking of appliances, there seems to be some type of problem with paint in that industry. My two-year-old General Electric microwave has a large patch of paint peeling off on the inside of it.

My latest quality-related issue involves my four-year-old Toro lawnmower. I’ve encountered numerous problems starting the machine, which is equipped with a Kohler gas engine.

Are all these encounters mere coincidences or are they the result of a widespread lapse in product quality? Who or what is to blame for this?

Perhaps I should chalk it up to the proliferation of high-mix, high-volume assembly lines. Or, does it have something to do with today’s data-centric manufacturing practices that focus too much on numbers and metrics, but not enough on old-fashioned error proofing, test and inspection?