Friday, September 21, 2007

mattel: product management at fault (updated)

(Update: Holy Fong, it looks like a Mattel product manager commented on this post - see below)

The New York Times is reporting that "U.S.-based toy giant Mattel Inc. issued an extraordinary apology to China on Friday over the recall of Chinese-made toys, taking the blame for design flaws and saying it had recalled more lead-tainted toys than justified."

BBC News adds that "Thomas Debrowski, Mattel's executive vice president for worldwide operations, said on Friday that the firm should shoulder the burden of responsibility for the safety breaches."

When I wrote about kerosene-filled eyeball toys back in June, I mentioned I wanted to meet the product manager who got approval for the decision to specify kerosene for the product. The point of that little bit of flippant irony was that the so-called "decision" to use kerosene was a sin of omission on the part of the product manager, not a sin of commission. The same for the use of lead. My bet is that they didn't specify not using kerosene or lead in those toys, or at least they didn't do it with an enforcement clause. The rest is, sadly, history.

Sad because Mattel has now confirmed what I had only joked about - that they left key requirements out of their toy designs and review processes that would have (perhaps) prevented this incident from ballooning into what it has become.

Want proof? We can't get it, because we can't get access to the Mattel product requirements. But if we could, we'd start by looking through them to find something like "the system shall not employ toxic materials for any coating or other user-accessible interface where those toxic materials are present at a level known to present a health risk to the user as defined by the following US Government safety specifications." Then we'd look for some sort of proof that the supplier/contractor whose job it was to execute these designs had a) read and b) agreed to them in their final state.


Essentially Mattel has admitted today that the toys that were recalled met their design specifications. A massive international incident between global powers, a spike in holiday toy prices and the lives of individuals can (in a sad reductum ad absurdum exercise) be boiled down to a product management failure.

More generically, it can be boiled down to bad requirements.

Product managers, beware.

UPDATE 1 - Not surprisingly, the Chinese agree, as do some Canadians:

According to a survey conducted by Canadian experts released early this month, up to 76 percent of the total 550 recall incidents since 1988 were due to the design flaws.

However, the inappropriate and one-sided expression of some news stories, such as "Mattel recalls Chinese-made toys," apparently caused the misunderstanding of the incident and blemished the image of Chinese-made products.

Although some of the toys with potential safety problems were made in China, design flaws rather than manufacturing errors have been the root cause of the problems. And the corresponding brand owners are thus to blame.


Bruce McCarthy said...

And I thought nobody ever read my requirements documents!

Paul Young said...

Hey Bob. You nailed it that this was a sin of omission rather than commission. We too suffer from unread requirement docs, and went to a treatment->requirements process. One of the biggest challenges of working w/ overseas suppliers is figuring out where the dividing line is where you can stop documenting requirements. MRDs would be the length of War and Peace if we attempted to document every requirement and non-functional requirement. There is *some* level of assumption that you have to reach w/ your development team and manufacturer or we'll never get the speed of development we're after.