Ford banks on standardization

Padilla's strategy: Boost quality

Back to the basics
Ford has a 5-step plan to improve quality.


1. Use more carryover parts

2. Standardize production

3. Avoid late design changes

4. Toughen Q1 requirements

5. Use Six Sigma to fix quality glitches

DETROIT — After several problem-plagued model launches, Ford Motor Co. plans to use more carryover parts in future vehicles.

“‘All-new’ is difficult to manage,” said Jim Padilla, the new group vice president of Ford North America. Padilla was interviewed at the Wayne Assembly plant in suburban Detroit, where employees are trying to fix quality problems in the popular Focus compact.

Quality has become a major headache for Ford, with multiple recalls and poor quality ratings for its Focus and Escape sport wagon. The fear of launch problems also has delayed the 2002 debuts of the redesigned Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport-utilities at the Michigan Truck plant, next door to the Focus plant.

To fix this problem, Padilla wants to use carryover parts to simplify vehicle design and production.

A multitude of new components caused numerous production glitches during the 1999 North American launch of the Focus. At the time, Ford thought it could do a simple launch because the automaker already was producing the European-engineered Focus in Germany.

But Ford underestimated the engineering changes needed to adapt the new car to the North American market. “Too much change causes too much instability,” said Anne Stevens, Ford’s vice president of North America Vehicle operations.

Ford also skimped on worker training and did not allow enough time to test the assembly process, Padilla said.

New to the Big 3

Carryover parts are components that have been used on previous generations of vehicles, then retained for new models. Since these parts already have been tested — and their assembly procedures verified — engineers can check a new vehicle’s quality more easily.

Quality leaders Toyota and Honda traditionally have used a high percentage of carryover parts to maintain high quality in new models. Now the Big 3 are adopting a similar strategy. During a briefing this month, General Motors executives said they will use more off-the-shelf parts in future vehicles.

This is a relatively new philosophy for Detroit. During a 1998 preview of the redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee, former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Robert Eaton proudly held up a small bag and bragged that it contained the Jeep’s only carryover parts. Padilla, 55, isn’t likely to make a similar boast.

By using more carryover parts, Ford can purchase higher volumes of components at a lower price. Suppliers of carryover parts already have demonstrated their ability to meet quality targets.

And carryover parts will not necessarily constrict Ford’s product stylists. “There are things you can keep mechanically and still have a new look,” Padilla said.

If successful, Ford’s effort to upgrade the quality of the Focus could have a major impact throughout the company. In effect, Padilla is using Wayne Assembly as a manufacturing laboratory. Eventually, all Ford assembly plants will employ the same troubleshooting procedures to attack problems identified by customers and to reduce warranty costs.

Padilla’s goal is to standardize production and quality control. Ford’s assembly plants won’t necessarily look identical, but their employees will use the same procedures. This strategy echoes a similar campaign by General Motors, which has been standardizing its production system at all of its assembly plants.

Here’s how the system works:

  • Each plant forms teams of suppliers, engineers and manufacturing managers to focus on a particular issue such as powertrains, brakes or electrical problems. Each team also has a cadre of Six Sigma “black belts” — employees trained to analyze the variance in parts that might cause defects.

  • Each team draws up a list of the most important quality problems, using warranty data, J.D. Power statistics and the plant’s internal “Things Gone Wrong” statistics.

  • The teams identify a fix for the problem. If the solution is sufficiently costly, it might require a senior executive’s approval. Normally, the teams have the authority to carry out their own ideas.

  • A team of hourly workers inspects each vehicle as it comes off the assembly line. The workers use a checklist that identifies the same quality issues that the troubleshooting teams are trying to fix. Thus, all plant employees — including engineers, suppliers and hourly workers — have the same priorities.

    Some successes already

    Ford already has had some successes in its campaign to use more carryover parts. The new Ford Thunderbird, which shares components with the Lincoln LS, has only 500 newly tooled parts. Although the Thunderbird suffered some production glitches, it has had fewer launch problems than the new Focus or Escape.

    But the highly profitable Expedition and Navigator have been significantly redesigned, with 1,500 retooled parts. Ford has delayed the launch at Michigan Truck until March 18 to ensure a smooth ramp-up. Michigan Truck is using the same troubleshooting procedures as the neighboring Wayne plant.

    To underline the importance of a smooth launch, Stevens noted that she is spending two to three hours at Michigan Truck every Friday. Stevens’ verdict: “The plant is doing reasonably well now.”

    Ford’s troubleshooting procedure began to take shape in the 1990s, but the company did not pursue it aggressively, Padilla said. After he was named group vice president of global manufacturing in 1999, he gave the program a higher priority. And when he got his current job assignment last July, Padilla made it a key feature of his “back to the basics” campaign.

    “The intensity has changed."

  • You can reach Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

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