“In the product planning process, we think of quality in two pieces: Basic Quality [BQ], which is the quality of the vehicle itself and how it holds together, and Perceived Quality [PQ], which encompasses the stance, fit and finish, the sound of the doors as they shut, and the interface points,” says Larry Dominique, vice president, Product Planning, Nissan North America. The PQ portion of the equation rests squarely in Dominique’s group, and has evolved over the past five years such that a fairly rigorous set of goals are created for each vehicle that Nissan brings to market. “Every vehicle has a quality target,” he says, “but we can’t just dump it on the engineers and manufacturing guys and hope it happens. We have to work with them from the start of the process to make sure we hit our goals.”
Dominique admits to not being a PQ expert, but to employing a large team of them. Together these engineers, product planners, and designers take the targets set for 22 separate attributes and begin their evaluations at the clay model stage. “They can give an assessment of how the finished vehicle will look, especially in terms of fit and finish, at this stage,” he says. “They may tell you that the design will not work as presented, or they will critique the switch placement, and these elements will be refined as the program progresses.” Much of this work is conducted at the digital review stage, and involves a full review of the chosen materials and processes. “Once the design is set,” says Dominique, “we look at how to transition to executing to that perceived quality goal, and that means working very closely with the engineers.”
Dominique readily admits that Nissan was heavily criticized for the interior quality of the vehicles introduced between 2001 and 2003, and rightly so. This pushed the PQ group to expand the virtual phase of the program for the simple reason that adding supports or making material changes at this stage costs nothing. “It’s still not a fully refined process,” he admits, “but it has allowed us to make a big step forward in quality in our latest vehicles, and what we’ve learned from the process thus far will be integrated into our next generation of vehicles.”
The targets the PQ group aims for are corporate in nature, and demand that he first gets a sign-off from his North American bosses before taking these results to Japan for global approval. “There can be variations because of the different expectations you find in different regions,” he says, “but it’s unacceptable to miss the target. That gives us a lot of momentum to invest the money to reach the goal rather than save 50 cents. We have to hit that number.” On one recent program, the program director didn’t want to spend the money necessary to coat the part of the exhaust system visible from directly behind the car. “It detracted from the appearance of the car, so—with executive approval—we added a dollar to coat that piece so it looked better,” he says.
This isn’t to say that the look of the exhaust system is one of the 22 PQ items the team studies. It is, in fact, one of hundreds of data points that make up the 22 targets. “It’s possible,” says Dominique, “to have 15 points under one of those main headings, and to have one of those points under that heading not be met yet still reach the aggregate necessary to move forward.” That’s because the data points are under continuous review and the weighting changes based on in which segment and category the vehicle competes. “There are certain expectations customers in each segment have, and we break those main attributes down and weight them based on these expectations,” says Dominique. This means that vehicles in different segments are judged by different standards, Nissan and Infiniti vehicles are measured differently than their competitors based on customer expectations for the brand, and—in the future—the gap between the Nissan and Infiniti brands will be wider. “The tactile response of Infiniti switches will be different than for our Nissan products,” says Dominique, “and how these same switches react compared to a Mercedes will be different as well. It will be what a customer expects of the Infiniti brand.”
Part of this change is being driven by Nissan’s global launch of the Infiniti brand. “No matter where you drive a BMW, it feels pretty much the same. We want the same for Infiniti and Nissan as well,” says Dominique. That doesn’t mean there won’t be Europe-specific, Japan-specific, or North America-specific Infiniti and Nissan models. It does mean, however, that a customer from any of those regions would be able to tell instantly that the car he was driving belonged in the Nissan or Infiniti stable. That will be easier in the future, he says, because there will be less sharing between the two brands. For example, the Infiniti QX56 and Nissan Armada share a platform today, “in the next generation they won’t.” Yet Dominique sees a future with myriad vehicles off a common platform selling 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles per year—or less. “The number of vehicles in this volume range is skyrocketing,” he says, “but it doesn’t increase the amount of research my team must do.” In part that’s because the vehicle is separate from the platform at the concept stage. “I don’t care what the platform is,” he says firmly. “It’s Engineering’s job to find a design solution for me.”
At times, there isn’t a simple solution and a new platform must be considered. “We don’t want to invest $500-million on a new platform for one vehicle,” he imparts. “It’s not cost-effective, and it doesn’t make sense.” However, that may change rapidly if the vehicles loaded into the five-year product cycle and changing global requirements can benefit. “When we need to go unique, I go up through the product planning process and the executive committee either approves the investment or they don’t based on the return on investment.” And the process begins again.