For the past 15 years, the Ford Escort has been the number-one selling subcompact car in America. That's an outstanding accomplishment, given that the segment is rife with extremely strong competitors, both domestic (e.g., the Neon) and foreign (pick any Japanese car company and they have a competitor in their line-up). Although that class of vehicles is the least expensive, there should be no notion that the consumers of those vehicles are any less demanding in terms of quality than buyers of any other type of vehicles. Some companies that tried to scrimp on quality in this category have either gone out of the market (e.g., Yugo) or have a tremendous consumer-confidence rebuilding program underway (e.g., Hyundai).
The Ford Escort is produced at two plants in North America. One is the Wayne Stamping & Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI. The other plant is the Hermosillo Stamping & Assembly Plant in Hermosillo, Mexico.
In the 3.2-million sq. ft. Wayne plant some 3,700 people produce approximately 200,000 vehicles annually. That's 74 jobs per hour (net) and 1,184 units during two eight-hour shifts. The plant was retooled last year for the March `96 launch of the current-generation Escort (and sister Mercury Tracer). And during this period of time, there has been a precise focus on assuring that the quality of the vehicles that go out the door and onto dealers and then customers is the highest that can be attained. Bennie Fowler, plant manager, says with no uncertainty, "We won't hesitate to stop production of the vehicles if we encounter a quality problem."
Clearly, neither Fowler nor anyone else wants to have that happen. So there are methodologies in place at Wayne to assure that problems are resolved before they become line-stopping events and, just as important, that the quality of the vehicles produced get better with time. When it comes to quality, Fowler says it straight: "We don't exist without it." So he spends, he estimates, about 60% of his day concentrating on quality.
A key method for assuring that the right things happen is the formation of Variable Reduction Teams (VRTs) in the plant. These teams represent vehicle subsystems, such as Interior Trim, Sheet Metal, Powertrain, Chassis and Paint. In all, there are 12 VRTs.
Each working day, in a large, well-lighted room just off the factory floor (in a section where end-of-line tests are occurring), at 8:30 a.m., there is a meeting. Bennie Fowler is there. Marty Aschoff, quality control manager, is there. The manufacturing manager, area managers, hourly people, engineering personnel, purchasing support, and even sometimes supplier representatives are there. At these meetings, two VRTs stand in front of a series of graphs, charts, drawings, matrices, and other information relevant to their subsystem that are mounted on the walls. And they make a presentation, going through the process, explaining what their issues are and what they are doing to resolve these issues. They are looking for variations. This is all based on data. On lots of data. As Aschoff explains, "If we didn't have the data, we'd react to the moment. But we're getting a solid sampling of data and so we work with it so that we can make sound business decisions. This allows us to take the focus off of the people"—as in the finger-pointing that sometimes goes on in organizations—"and onto the data."
On the meeting goes, with the presenters and their fellow VRT members answering the questions: "What do your indicators tell you?" "What are you working on?" "What interim actions are being taken?" "How is the problem being resolved with a permanent fix?" The people have resources right within the facility to call on for help, be they product engineers or purchasing people. There is the wherewithal to make the changes—right away.
The Outside World
What's interesting about what's going on during the meetings is that there is clearly a focus on the outside world, as well as what is going on in the plant. The data displayed not only includes information on jobs per hour and scrap rates and the like, but also on where the plant and the product stand vis-à-vis other plants—Ford and everyone else—and other vehicles—be they subcompacts or not. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't look at the indicators," Fowler remarks.
After the planned presentations of a meeting I attended, a few people from another group approached Fowler and Aschoff. One of them was carrying a part. It had been determined that the part was causing an audible vibration after installation. The part came from a supplier. Both Fowler and Aschoff asked a series of questions to get information about the part and the problem. It was determined that the supplier had made an engineering change. The action was decisive: all cars in which the changed parts were installed were isolated and the part was not to be installed in other vehicles. The supplier was to be contacted and would be required to show that a permanent fix would be effected A.S.A.P. Not only was it the right thing to do in terms of the customer, but it clearly sent a message to the people in the group that management isn't just like talking the talk about quality.
But a sudden, big problem like the rattling component is not the norm. As Aschoff puts it, "There are no dragons to slay out there"—no huge problems. They are, indeed, sweating the small stuff in their quest for quality.