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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

How not to manage product defects

5 years ago, I owned a Co-Motion SkyCapp. It was my first tandem, and amongst other things it taught me what I liked or did not like about tandems, in particular, S&S couplers are evil. Then in 2002, Lisa & I rode down the Pacific Coast on a 5 day bike trip, and the eyelets on the rear (which attach the rack to the frame) broke.

This was annoying to say the least: in 15 years of touring, no other bicycle frame has ever broken down on me in this fashion, but it was near the end of the trip, so a phone call to my brother got me a pick-up, and I brought it to the frame shop for a repair (cost: $60), and proceeded to eventually sell the frame and buy a new one (which I am very happy with).

In the course of interacting with folks on the internet tandem list, I discovered that a few other folks had had their tandems fail in exactly the same way. Well, so I started telling folks who were buying Co-Motions, to check their dropout eyelets, or to just re-do them. Co-Motion's representative then got on-board and said they had no such problem. When I then posted that I'd found others who'd had the same problem happen to their tandems, they changed their tune and said that it was just a bad batch of dropouts (frame components) that had since been fixed. I asked for a list of serial #s or model years affected, but they did not reply.

Fast forward a few years, and I issue another such warning for a frame made in the same era as mine, and suddenly I'm accused of having a grudge against Co-Motion, as evidenced by this e-mail from them:

It seems that somewhere along the way, I have made an enemy of you. I have
long felt that our reputation would speak for itself, and that in time, you
might mellow about this. Perhaps I underestimated the extent of your
determination. Perhaps you are waiting for an apology.

A further exchange determined the extent of their problem:
> Hm... I still remember your respond to my initial posting about
> broken eyelets:
> "I will stand our eyelets up against anybody else's". That was what
> prompted me to ask David Love and Pamela Bayley about their eyelet
> experiences on their co-motions. I'd call that a denial, but hey, you
> can call it whatever you want.

Yes, I made the above statement because I felt that our dropout, which was
made by one of the premier dropout forging companies in the world, was
indeed equal to any other company's dropout. We had no problems with any of
their other dropouts, and their other dropouts, made for Ritchey, Trek,
Schwinn and others enjoyed a strong reputation.

However, the Cappuccino/SkyCapp was hard on dropout eyelets because the
rear rack, having to extend so far to meet the upper rack mounts due to the
compact rear triangle, exhibited more lateral movement. This wasn't the
fault of the eyelets, it was more of a problem with the vast array of rack
adaptations to the beam bikes. Still, it was the eyelet that exhibited the
problem, so it was the eyelet we reinforced. We also made an effort to
recommend that anyone using a Capp/SkyCapp for loaded touring should make an
effort to get a nice rigid rack like a Bruce Gordon or Robert Beckman
design. These racks provide much better lateral stability because of their
superior upper mounts, taking the strain off the dropout eyelets.

> So you're saying that you have a problem even now?

Absolutely not.

>At some point, you
> made a manufacturing change to correct eyelet dropout problems, yes?
> So frames after that point are safe, correct?

Yes, the aditional brazing, as seen on Brian Speck's frame.

>So you could
> theoretically say, "Any frames made after this time will be free of
> eyelet problems", right?


>And that would translate to a manufacturing
> serial # past a certain # on Co-Motion frames, correct?

Yes. However, the difficulty is in identifying exactly when the problematic
dropout eyelets initiated. It would not be correct to recall all Cappuccinos
and SkyCapps made before X. Not only would it be extremely costly, it would
also involve a lot more bicycles than necessary. We did not track dropout
lots- the new parts would have gone into the same bin as the old batch.
Because we could not positively identify them, we decided to reinforce
everything after it appeared we had a problem and take care of the rest of
them under warranty. Why your repair was charged by Bicycle Outfitter to
you, I do not know- you should not have been charged.

>Or are you
> saying that you still don't know if your new frames would have this
> problem?

Not at all.

The reason why this is a case study on how not to deal with a product defect is that once a manufacturer has denied there's a problem, and then realizes that there's one, there's an honest way to deal with it: post it on your web-site, made it known there are are problems, and either issue a recall or tell folks that if you have a possibly affected frame we'll take care of you. To try to tell everyone else that my frame was suspect because it was bought used and because of its history, is being disingenuous. To then try to brush it off because it's too expensive to recall all affected frames, but not to explain to the general public what the problem was, and that they could be affected is to be cavalier about the most important part of a relationship between a producer and consumer: trust. If I can't trust you to always tell me what's wrong with even minor things, how can I trust you to tell me about major problems? If future Co-Motions were to have a manufacturing defect in their steerer tube which could cause a serious crash, would their past performance/waffling about their eyelet problems tell you that they would do the right thing and lose money and replace bad steerers? Or would they try to cover up, and fight the inevitable lawsuits.

I'll take the reverse example: when Rivendell Bicycles sold me a custom frame 10 years ago, they made it with a seat tube slightly too big. It was a 27.2mm seat tube instead of a 27mm seat tube. Just 0.2mm difference. I wouldn't have noticed. If the bike shop had called me about the problem I would have said, "no problem, put in a 27.2mm American Classic seat post." But my shop called Rivendell, and I immediately got e-mail from the company apologizing for the mistake, the employee on the shop floor berated himself, telling me he'd betrayed my trust had let me down and would never do this to me again. The company sent a UPS tag back to the shop, took back the frame, and sent me another custom frame. Let me tell you that if Grant Petersen had a bad batch of dropouts, he would personally see to it that every frame with the potential for this problem would be fixed. The man (and the company) has shown that he will never ever let making money get in the way of doing the right thing, and I will heartily recommend a Rivendell bicycle to anyone.

To me, these potential breaches of trust are what cause me to tell friends who ask me to steer away from Co-Motion bicycles. They might ride great, but integrity in business and personal relations on products that might potentially cause you and your partner great damage is just too important to me.

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