Boo Mattel, Hooray Mattel


Mattel is the latest victim in the “poison products from China” series (the “poison train,” as The Consumerist blog calls it). Victim is absolutely the wrong word to use, considering Mattel chose to source from China and admitted their own quality control procedures were not followed, as this news article details:

“We require our manufacturing partners to use paint from approved and certified suppliers and have procedures in place to test and verify, but in this particular case our procedures were not followed,” Jim Walter, Mattel's senior vice president of worldwide quality assurance, said in a statement. “We are investigating the cause to ensure such events do not reoccur.”

I'm not against offshoring or outsourcing, it's not always wrong. But, I do think many companies make dumb decisions that suboptimize around labor cost or unit cost. That's the real problem, there. That, and companies often don't take responsibility for what their chosen vendors (and 2nd tier suppliers) produce.

On that note, Mattel is taking some responsibility. As this article explains, Mattel is naming their vendor, in public and for their competitors who might also source from the same factories. Why name the vendor?

Mattel spokeswoman Jules Andres said Tuesday that all the toys that were recalled were made by the one vendor and that the company has “ceased accepting shipments from the facility.”

Mattel has shared the name of the vendor with competitors who may also be doing business with the Chinese company, Andres said.

She said she did not know what other toys might have been made at the facility for other companies, but that the company felt it was important for competitors to have the information. “We do not consider safety to be a competitive advantage,” she said.

It may be “almost too little, too late,” but hooray for Mattel for that last statement, that safety should not be a competitive advantage. That reminds me of comments that Paul O'Neill (formerly of ALCOA and the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiatve) made in the DVD “Good News… How Hospitals Heal Themselves“, basically that patient safety and infection control information and practices MUST be shared amongst competing hospitals since patient safety shouldn't be a source of competitive advantage either. That's just being responsible to your community. It's “unconscionable” to do otherwise, O'Neill said.

Now, back to the first article and the “boo-ing” of Mattel. And, no, you Simpsons fans, I was not saying “Boo-urns” (sorry for the obscure reference there). It really is no excuse, for anyone, to say “we had procedures in place, but they weren't followed.”

That's basically like saying either, “we had procedures in place and our lousy stupid careless employees didn't follow them, shame on them” (an unfortunate blame game). Or, it says “we had procedures in place, but we forgot to make sure they were being followed.” It's leadership's responsibility to MAKE SURE procedures are followed. Same goes with “standard work” in a Lean context. Standard Work doesn't magically implement itself, you have to:

  1. Create an environment where employees had input into the standard work, understand WHY it's important (e.g., don't poison babies), and where incentives aren't in place that encourage circumvention of the standard work.
  2. Audit the standard work and audit the audits. You should try to rely on intrinsic motivation (point 1) but also provide oversight to MAKE SURE the standard is followed.

If Mattel's “investigation” into the problem of procedures not being followed starts with “who?” instead of “why?” they won't really get to the root cause.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Matter has more problems… I saw the CEO on TV and, while apologetic, he seemed only to insist on inspection and testing — test, test, test. He said “no system is perfect” — that’s not an excuse!! They need to ask about the root causes of how this happened. But, can you make toys anywhere other than China if you wanted to? Where is the factory capacity going to come from now? Thanks, corporate America, here’s what selling out U.S. workers is getting you…. corporate karma everyone. Nice going, execs. You sow what you reap, right?


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