The campaign began on paper. Instead of simply combing through factories looking for improvements, the Mercedes team asked suppliers to outline their plans for quality improvements in detail. Taylor requested from each supplier a multiyear business plan that quantified how the supplier intended to meet Mercedes' doubling of vehicle production. Also, the supplier had to tell what new investments were necessary, what worker training would be required, how it would prepare for the launch and how it would run the operation after launch.
For the larger suppliers, Taylor met with both the supplier's plant manager responsible for the Mercedes program as well as that manager's boss. Those meetings also were spent going over multiyear business plans. In some cases, he says, the plans were sent back for revisions several times.
"We asked them how they were going to grade their performance," Taylor says. "And the important thing for us was making sure they graded it on the same criteria we used. We wanted them to focus on specific issues of the operations, not just issues of their own choosing.
"In the end, we want to be able to measure what we're all doing. And to do that, we all need to be able to look at the same points and data."
Material tracking was one area of concern. The redesigned M class, as well as the R-class sport wagon that will be built next to it in Vance later this year, are much more complex vehicles than the previous M class.
The vehicles have content that didn't appear in the previous generation, including center consoles, grab handles, integrated trailer hitches and electronic transmission systems. And they also come with more trim variations than the original model.
This new complexity is apparent at the Delphi Corp. plant in Cottondale, Ala., just down the road from the Mercedes assembly line. Delphi held the contract to supply the original M class with a complete cockpit. It was made from components shipped from 60 suppliers.
That original contract had Delphi delivering three different cockpits to Mercedes. By the end of this year, the new program will have Delphi producing 15 cockpit variations. The grab handles that are part of the cockpit by themselves come in 20 variations.
To keep it all straight, Delphi installed a plantwide system designed to eliminate mistakes.
As Delphi assembly workers reach into multitiered racks of parts that contain numerous part variations, they are guided by small lights that indicate which one is correct. An invisible electronic barrier falls over all of the wrong parts; reach into the wrong bin, and an alarm sounds. Until the correct part is in place, the cockpit won't move to the next station.
Delphi Plant Manager Brian Donato says the system is an outgrowth of Mercedes' push for tighter quality control that began with the new program.
Like other customers, Mercedes also has pressed for cost controls, he says.
"But the biggest push is the quality question," he says. "The message always comes with a quality overtone."