Record Recalls: COVID’s Final Legacy?

Product recalls that might stem from post-pandemic supply-chain changes are on the rise. What can leaders do to curtail quality issues?

Bicycles whose frames fall apart in mid-ride. Cosmetics contaminated with allergens. Soda that sends drinkers to the hospital. Airplane parts that fall off in flight. Amid a spate of recent high-profile defects, executives in food manufacturing, vehicle production, and nearly every other manufacturing industry are questioning how to maintain quality control in their factories.

To be sure, the true cause of recalls can vary. But experts say many of the quality issues may be the result of organizations restructuring production and upending supply chains in the wake of COVID-19. Either way, the race is on to shore up the problem, be it with artificial intelligence or improved staffing. “It’s a culture and mindset issue, and you need a vision from the top,” says Erik Olson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner advising industrial-manufacturing clients.

Last year was a record year for consumer product recalls in the United States. The government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission issued 312 recalls in its fiscal 2023 (which ended in October), an all-time high and a 10% jump from a year earlier. Government watchdogs overseeing food and pharmaceuticals both in the US and Europe have issued recalls at or near a record pace.

The problems continue into 2024. In March alone, US companies have issued recalls for a wide range of defective consumer goods: bicycles, mattresses, snowmobiles, children’s booster seats, power adapters, off-road vehicles, bracelets, smoke alarms, air fryers, gas-fired boilers, and even pants.

Experts say organizations haven’t stopped caring about quality. Indeed, firms spent decades successfully embedding quality-management systems such as Six Sigma, the Toyota Production System, and ISO 9000 into their production processes. “Minimizing product waste and defects is simply good business,” says John Long, Korn Ferry’s sector leader in its North America Retail practice. It’s also become even more critical in an era where sustainability has become a key stakeholder demand.

Those long-run processes were upended when COVID-19 came around, however. Companies with manufacturing operations based in locked-down countries, for instance, suddenly couldn’t get goods produced. To protect against a future recurrence, organizations completely remodeled their supply chains, spreading production across countries and continents.

Experts say it’s perhaps not surprising that there have been some problems along the way. Some complex mechanical products contain thousands of components that need final assembly. Even goods that are seemingly simpler to produce, such as packaged food, may be using different farms and factories than they were pre-pandemic. “The notion that you can stop producing things here one day and start it the next day somewhere else without missing a beat is not feasible,” Olson says.

Some manufacturers are incorporating artificial intelligence or additional sensors into assembly lines to catch problems. Others are automating tasks once done by humans. The market for quality-control software could be worth nearly $19 billion by the end of the decade, up from about $10 billion in 2022, according to market-research firm ReportLinker.

But tech solutions have to be backed with systems that incentivize humans to improve quality, Olson says. Talent programs, performance management, and a culture of accountability “are essential,” he says.   


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