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Mitsubishi adopts 'quality gates' in Japan

TOKYO - Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has begun using Mercedes-Benz's "quality gates" quality-control system to avoid glitches that have slammed its Japan sales.

Mitsubishi's U.S. cousin, the Chrysler group, adopted the system last spring. It establishes clearly defined quality checkpoints through which a vehicle must pass before it can continue to the next development stage.

Adopting the system will stretch Mitsubishi's total product-development time to 40 months from 30 months, said Marcus Schwill, general manager of the quality management office in the quality planning and support department.

Most of that time will be spent in the concept phase of development. It still takes only 19 months on average for Mitsubishi to move a car into production from design freeze, or model fix, as it is known in the quality gates system. But after watching sales slide in Japan for 14 straight months due to a quality scandal, the priority of Mitsubishi officials is clear: "Our target is not reduction of time. It is quality," Schwill said.

Six checkpoints

Most of the added time will be used to answer fundamental questions about the new model before hard development begins, he said. "We are front-loading the time to really think through the program."

At each of six quality gates in the Mitsubishi system, a review ensures that all tasks have been fulfilled, all targets met, and the product and processes have achieved the "appropriate levels of maturity," Schwill said.

Rolf Eckrodt, Mitsubishi's COO for car operations; three vice presidents; and the top managers involved at that particular gate attend the reviews.

For example, manufacturing managers would attend the later-stage quality gates, but not the one reviewing the product concept.

The system streamlines decision-making by limiting the number of executives who can meddle in the development process, said Michihiro Honda, corporate general manager of Mitsubishi's quality management office.

Before its alliance with DaimlerChrysler, which owns 37.3 percent of Mitsubishi, the Japanese carmaker had 40 directors, many of whom would have had some say in product-development decisions, he said.

"So, now, 10 people say yes or no," Honda said.

eK-Wagon big success

The effects of the quality gates approach already are apparent in Mitsubishi's new models. Development of the eK-Wagon, a minicar launched in October, included more than twice the usual number of quality tests and prototypes. The result was a 21-month development time from design freeze, with "meticulous testing," said eK-Wagon project leader Tetsuro Aikawa.
You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

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