A Lack of (Quality) Control

A record number of recalls is likely in the US this year, suggesting a worrisome trend. What are the causes and solutions? 

Trucks and electric vehicles. Sippy cups and fleece pajamas. Ground beef and pork sausages. Refrigerators and air fryers.

It’s a wide-ranging list, but these are among the more than one billion products that have already been recalled in the US this year. At that pace, the US will easily break the record for the most recalls of individual items in a single year. No industry appears to be immune, either—not consumer products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, automobiles, food and beverage, or many others. Specific products recalled so far this year include everything from clothing to heating pads and shampoo.

Only twice before has the billion-recall figure been passed—in 2018 and 2021. This year’s increase is a worrisome trend for business leaders struggling to carry out quality assurance and other safety protocols, says Justin Ripley, a senior client partner in the Global Industrial practice at Korn Ferry. “Quality is a function of the supply chain, and there’s been a lot of stress in the system since the pandemic,” he says. 

Bradford Frank, a senior client partner in the Global Technology practice at Korn Ferry, has managed manufacturing operations for several tech companies in the past. He says disruptions in the supply chain forced companies to move too fast to diversify suppliers and clear order backlogs, and that the result has been decreased quality and compliance. “Things are getting overlooked because of the velocity needed to move products out the door,” says Frank. 

To some degree, government oversight, much of which started during the pandemic, has also contributed to the decline in quality and compliance. The labor shortage has been a factor, says Torrey Foster, Jr., managing partner of North American consumer markets: employee turnover, the inability to fill vacant positions, and now hiring freezes “are inevitably going to add up to issues with quality,” he says.

Interestingly, the transition to artificial intelligence and machine learning hasn’t helped. Theoretically, AI should be able to more quickly identify issues and hit the stop button on the lines before products get shipped. The fact that faulty products are getting out into stores, says Foster, means that more work needs to be done in skills, training, and development to promote the effective use of these technologies. 

Experts say increased training can help slow the onslaught of mishaps. But Ripley also says firms need to place quality higher up on the corporate ladder. At most companies, those functions typically report to the head of manufacturing operations, which is an inherent conflict of interest—the manufacturing leader’s job is to move product, not hold it up. “Quality and compliance need to be untethered from functional areas to have appropriate influence,” says Ripley.

In the meantime, experts say it’s important for firms to learn how to best communicate and manage recall messaging. While product recalls are relatively common, maintaining brand reputation and trust is critical, says Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in the Global Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations practice at Korn Ferry. “Not all recalls are created equally,” he says. An automaker recalling cars with faulty airbags is a major safety concern for consumers as well as a potential financial issue for the company. A software update to fix a disabled taillight, not so much. 

McDermott advises going beyond explaining the issue and what needs to be done to fix it, which is the extent of most recall communications strategies. Include specific steps that will be taken, such as product testing, changing suppliers, or substituting materials. Most importantly, says McDermott, “acknowledge and be empathetic to the impact the recall has on people’s lives.”