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Ford Quality: Not An Overnight Sensation

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When it comes to quality, it seems as though Ford Motor Co. is on a roll. Or make that a tear. Consider, for example, the Ford Edge, which was named the leading medium crossover in Strategic Vision's 2007 Total Value Index, the winning midsize multi-activity vehicle in the 2007 J.D. Power APEAL (Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout) study, and received the 2007 Ideal Vehicle Award for premium midsize crossover from AutoPacific. Its platform-mate, the Lincoln MKX, was named the Strategic Vision 2007 Total Value Index leader, and was the segment winner in AutoPacific's Vehicle Satisfaction Awards and its Ideal Vehicle Awards. The Lincoln MKZ sedan was the segment winner in the 2007 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study and the segment winner in AutoPacific's Ideal Vehicle Awards. The Mustang had a hat trick in 2007 J.D. Power awards, winning its segment in the APEAL study, the Initial Quality Study, and the Vehicle Dependability Study. Not leaving Mercury out of this: the Milan was the midsize car segment winner (besting the Accord) in the 2007 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. And this list could go on for far longer than anyone not employed by Ford would like. 

Bennie Fowler, vice president, Global Quality, at Ford who has been with the company since 1990 in a number of positions-including vice president, Advanced and Manufacturing Engineer-ing; chief operating officer, Jaguar and Land Rover; executive director, North America Product Development-finds the notion that Ford quality has had a "quick turnaround" somewhat amusing. "If you look at the operating levels of the last 15 or 16 years you'd see that the quality of Ford has been improving over a consistent period of time." This isn't an overnight sensation. They've been working at it for years. But Fowler does admit that the difference now is that whereas during this period the improvements may have happened gradually, say an upward tick every three or four years, now it happens more consistently, without gaps between the quality gains. Fowler, who has been in his current position since April 1, 2006, says that when he reviews the data for the last few years, the quality of Ford product is evident. But he acknowledges that the quality hasn't been known as widely as he and his colleagues would have liked.


Customers Count.

"Quality" isn't something that Fowler defines. "For me," he says, "the customers define quality." He explains that they rigorously analyze what they learn from talking to people about what they're looking for as regards their cars and trucks. "Once we do that, we try to translate what the customer wants into engineering design specification, as well as processing standards." He adds, "Once you have done that, it is about making sure that in every step of the product development process and the manufacturing process those standards are adhered to." It is all about consistency.

One of the things that they have been doing at Ford to inculcate this consistency is to train people at all levels and in various functions about the importance of quality, or at least to have quality representation when decisions about products and processes are being made. Fowler recalls, "I started the first Six Sigma training program on a Super Duty product"-he was the vehicle line director for the trucks-"10 years ago. We have been building the infrastructure of problem-solving over the last 10 years." Perhaps not surprisingly, Fowler says that among the companies they'd benchmarked was Motorola, the putative home of Six Sigma. (One company that they benchmarked that is somewhat atypical is Johnson & Johnson. Fowler describes it as the kind of company whose customers lives "depend on defect-free products." Quality is a serious undertaking.)


Virtual Quality.

Although quality operations typically seem to be focused on the factory floor, that's not entirely the case at Ford. The company has been focusing on using its digitally based Global Product Development System to engineer vehicles with the requisite attributes to provide the quality that is sought by the consumers. "If you start with a platform that doesn't have the elements to achieve the basic quietness and ride, you won't build that in on the factory floor," Fowler says. Not only are engineers made aware of the importance of quality, so are the people in purchasing. Arguably, the buyers may have their focus on something other than quality when making their purchasing decisions, and a consequence of that could be poor quality. However, Fowler says that the philosophy that they're working to instill is "You can't have great value unless you have great quality."

Before they build a product in a factory, they build it on a digital line with digital people. It's called "digital pre-assembly" (DPA). The process is used to identify build issues early on in the process. The process was used on the development of the MKZ, Milan, and Fusion; it is being used for the next-generation F-150 that will go on the market later this year and for the Ford Flex. Work on the next-generation MKZ, Milan, and Fusion utilize DPA later this year. A key benefit that they've recognized is that by catching issues before they're built into vehicles allows engineers and other people to focus on things that customers want, not on things that they don't want (i.e., defects). They've calculated, for example, that in 2005 35% of the Ford product creation team members were busy working on rework of existing product quality issues. Obviously, dealing with Things Gone Wrong leaves less time for creating Things That Delight Customers.


Better Work.

This isn't just about making sure that the tooling is right and that parts fit together as planned. Another part of it is making sure that people in the plants are able to do their job in as ergonomic a manner as possible. Ford is using a software package from Siemens PLM Software (http://www.plm.automation.siemens.com/en_us/) that is permitting its ergonomics staff to design assembly-line work. While this type of software is being used by several companies, Ford claims that it is the only North American vehicle manufacturer that is combining the software with motion-capture technology. Essentially, an engineer is suited up with a harness, gloves, and head-mounted display. She then uses physical props to perform the assembly operations. The actions are captured by cameras. This information is loaded into the software to help create tasks that are the best as regards both ergonomics and quality.

Then there is the actual assembly of the products. Fowler says, "Our basic quality operating system starts with a daily operating review." Every plant manager and a quality team meet every day for two hours or more, "starting out with what we call 'tire kicks,' where we look at the basic fit and finish of the vehicles." They perform basic audit functions of the production. They analyze the various functions of the vehicles. They have drivers run vehicles through road tests. Information is then disseminated through the Product Information Centers that are located in all plants.


Fast Feedback.

Because Fowler maintains that "the customers define quality," the voice of the customer is heard loud and clear in Ford factories. Fowler explains that they have implemented a system whereby when a customer brings a car into a dealership for service, information about the claims is sent to the related manufacturing plant within, typically, 24 hours. And when this information is received, there is quick action. This is because they've established subsystem teams (about a dozen teams per vehicle) and vehicle function teams (about 36), which are a subset of the larger teams. "When the information comes in, instead of forming teams, they're already there." Information is mapped back to the specific workstations, and adjustments are made to the process to assure that the problems do not reoccur.

When asked what's more important to achieving quality, technology or culture, Fowler has no hesitation: "I think that 80% is about the culture. It's about the decisions that people make every day." He adds, however, "That 20% can't be underestimated." But it is the people who use those tools who matter most.

"If you're going to become great, sometimes that can be very boring," Fowler says. Boring? He explains that if you look at some of the great sports teams you'll see that they've mastered the fundamentals, then execute-consistently, reliably-the same way, but better than the other teams "sometimes to the point where they become boring." Certainly there's nothing boring about winning, but doing things right each and every time may be: "There's not a lot of fanfare for following relentlessly the processes you have. If you look at the culture at Ford, that is what we are moving to."

At Ford, Fowler insists, quality "is the basis of what we do." He says that at any meeting-be it a launch review or a cost-reduction review or anything else-"someone will be reminding us of our obligation to our customers to deliver the brand promise." It is a promise predicated on quality, reliability, and affordable transportation. "That's what we built the Ford Motor Company on."


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