• Thomas Russell

SansegalChina develops quality program

Everybody knows China can make inexpensive furniture. Kevin Smith wants to help it produce the style and quality that American consumers have come to expect.

Smith is managing director of SansegalChina, a production management and design firm that has developed a quality control program for China factories called ICARE, or Individual Customer Acceptability Rating Exam.

"Quality of design is always fundamental in your excellent companies," Smith said. "There are a lot of companies in China that almost look at design from a creative standpoint as almost secondary."

Sansegal launched ICARE in October 2002 to help Chinese workers better understand and produce what American shoppers look for in home furnishings. The program is based on a series of lessons and exams that teach what makes American consumers unique.

Information includes the types of rooms in the American home, the functions of those rooms and which furniture would go in which rooms. The package also tells reasons why good packaging is important to the delivery process, and the consequences of delivering defective goods.

Before a product ships, workers trained in ICARE are asked to judge each product on its look, feel and function, based on the American consumer's expected response to the product.

The approach is hardly scientific. Products that produce "positive feelings" will ship, while those that produce negative feelings don't ship unless they are improved.

Still, ICARE is gaining some attention in China. Art Heritage International, a factory in Dongguan, where Sansegal helps oversee production and design work, has asked the company to train 250 workers in ICARE. Sansegal also is looking to certify workers in ICARE at Winny Overseas Ltd., a plant in Zongshan.

"It's basically critical to our success because the knock on China is that the prices are cheap, but the quality is terrible," said Steve Hendrick, Sansegal's sales team director.

He said ICARE is especially important to producing furniture of the quality you'd find in a Century or Henredon showroom.

Quality control programs are not new to the marketplace. Companies use them to make sure what's being shipped meets the design and production standards set forth by individual manufacturers and designers.

But Sansegal officials believe ICARE's customer-centered approach and market analysis sets it apart.

Richard Bennington, the chair of High Point University's home furnishings management and marketing program, believes quality control programs such as ICARE are important, especially considering the cultural differences between China and the United States.

"When you deal across cultures, what is important to one group is not important to another group," he said. "Anything they can do to help the person who is making the product understand who is using the product and how it is going to be used is very valuable. There is a lot of difference in how people view furniture."

Smith doesn't envision ICARE lasting forever. Eventually, he hopes to certify enough workers so they can make quality decisions on their own and teach others what they have learned. That could end Sansegal's involvement in ICARE in two or three years, allowing it to focus on its specialty areas of design and marketing.

"At the end of the day, they are the folks making it and making more decisions about quality," Smith said. "They have to understand it at its core because they can have so much impact on it. The more we can empower people through knowledge, the more attention and energy we will have to place in product design and sales.

"If you can empower people to take responsibility where they have an impact, the results are so much better. We feel education is the key."

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