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Product Recalls: 5 Tips to Keep Your Company out of the Headlines

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kleen kanteenAs a parent of young children, product safety is always top of mind. So when two products I count on were recently recalled in what felt like short succession, it got me thinking. (While I did have a moment of panic when I realized that my babysitter drives my children around in a Toyota RAV4—not one of the model years included in the current gas pedal recall, it turns out—a car is not one of the two products.) Without spending a lot of time on the specifics, I’ll just say this: To Sigg, makers of aluminum water bottles that were once the first choice of parents who didn’t want their preschoolers ingesting Bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic water bottles—really? A non-leaching BPA liner is not the same as a BPA-free liner. You say you didn’t explicitly claim otherwise…but you also didn’t try to correct widely held assumptions about your product. To Maclaren, with a folding mechanism on ALL strollers from the last 10 years that causes severe injury to little fingers that get in its way—ouch. As one manufacturing veteran said to me, “When you’re designing products for kids—especially folding objects—you always test for pinch points.”

I knew my reaction as a customer, but to get a manufacturing perspective on product recalls, I turned to my favorite resource on such topics: Eric Larkin, the CTO of Arena and aforementioned manufacturing veteran who’s had first-hand experience with a product recall.

After hearing some matter-of-fact statements like “You can’t make products without making some defective products” and “Almost any product shipped in volume has injuries associated with it,” what I took away is that product recalls are a fact of life. But that doesn’t mean manufacturers are careless; in fact, most are quite conscientious. It’s simply that flaws are nearly impossible to avoid when you manufacture in production quantities. Given this ever-present risk, there are a number of concrete steps manufacturers should take to minimize the possibility of serious defects or major recalls:

1. Know the hazards of your domain.

Every product category has its potential hazards (for instance, pinch points in children’s products). Make sure your design team includes enough expertise to know what those perils are—and how to design a product that avoids them.

2. Avoid the design errors that can be avoided.

This may sound reflexive, but the key point to note is that some recalls are caused by issues that inadvertently get designed into the product. When schedules are tight, teams are dispersed and emails are flying, there are a lot of last-minute product changes and it’s easy to make a mistake. The product is then built as specified…but the specifications lead to unforeseen problems. Reduce your risk with a controlled yet fluid change process where the right people are involved, the necessary information is easy to review and you don’t move forward until everyone has signed off.

3. Consider every change from a safety perspective.

Design, engineering and manufacturing changes can be necessitated by many different factors, only one of which is safety. All those other times, when you’re reviewing a change order that’s trying to address aesthetics, cost, performance or manufacturability, make sure you also consider how the change would affect the product’s safety.

4. Keep your manufacturing partners in the loop.

You need to manage your partners; there’s no way around that. Audits, visits and first article inspections are just a few of the tactics you may employ; hopefully there’s a healthy dose of mutual trust and respect too. But either way, if you have a single location for your bills of materials (BOMs), approved change orders and other product data, you can avoid the kinds of issues where your manufacturing partners dutifully follow your directions—and build the wrong product anyway because you’ve given them outdated, incomplete or inaccurate information. (And yes, full disclosure, this is in fact what Arena provides: a single location for managing BOMs, changes and the information your suppliers need to build your products.)

5. Do the right thing.

Mistakes will happen. Some recalls stem from design or manufacturing issues, while others are the result of misguided perceptions or errors of omission. (BPA-free water bottles, anyone?) While it may sometimes seem easier not to rock the boat, try to play the situation all the way forward and evaluate the potential outcomes. As painful as it may seem at the time, being proactive and correcting misperceptions and mistakes early is often the best way to build loyalty. If you wait, and the truth comes out (which it almost always does), you risk losing the trust of your customers, who feel like you take their safety lightly. Trying to reclaim that trust is at best distracting and expensive, and at worst, futile.

What if you diligently follow this advice and find yourself in a recall situation anyway? Take responsibility. Maclaren is a good example of how to do this. Months after its recall announcement, its website still has prominent links to recall information, a CEO blog with posts addressing the situation and a homepage with statements of regret for pain caused and gratitude for trust maintained. Mattel is another. Just days into a massive toy recall in 2007, the company’s CEO sat in front of a camera with anyone who wanted an interview and discussed the bad news over and over again. (It’s too soon to know how Toyota will stack up, though pending lawsuits, a planned congressional investigation and lots of questions about whether the company waited too long to announce the recall suggest that it may be falling short.)

Taking responsibility does not mean you’re admitting intentional negligence. What it does mean is that you stand behind your product and you’re committed to taking care of your customers. And isn’t that what builds trust and loyalty?

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