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Detroit's new watchword: quality, quality, quality

The new motto along the noisy assembly lines in Detroit is: "Build it right the first time." Carmaker's own surveys tell them that "quality" is the key consideration in buying a car for the vast majority of Americans. Quality is a major reason many choose imports.

The general impression, even among Detroit engineers, according to one recent poll, is that the Japanese have the edge in "fits and finishes" -- in large part because of the high caliber and dedication of their work force.

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Although Us automakers insist that quality has long been a top Detroit priority, until recently they shrugged off any need to examine the issue. Now they concede that production goals have sometimes taken precedence over quality. Recalls and repair problems in American cars, some admit, have been far more common than necessary.

The growing realization that the key to their very survival may lie in convincing car shoppers that buying American means buying top quality is prodding automakers to admit their product's shortcomings. The point is a crucial one this fall as the first of the new fleet of American small cars begins to roll off assembly lines.

The consensus of industry experts is that both labor and management must share the blame for past mistakes and unite behind the freshly intense corporate determination now to "build it as though you're going to buy it."

Signs of the new commitment to top quality are everywhere. They show in Detroit's vow to design and produce a totally new, rather than just an "improved" small car and in retooled plants that often have to be stripped to the bare walls to make way for the new equipment. They show up, too, in much more rigorous testing programs. At the Chrysler Corporation's Trenton, N.J., engine plant, for instance, where the working motto is "Ship only flawless engines," the firm's new 2.2 liter engine must pass 130 inspection points or about twice as many as on the usual engine assembly line.

The new determination to step up car quality also shows in the new push to tag and identify any problems in the testing process or right on the assembly line so that any mistakes that creep through are caught before being mass produced. In several auto plants workers are constantly reminded of the goal before them by such wall signs as "Don't ship it until it's right" and "There is no 'I' in team."

Involving the American automaker is at the heart of Detroit's new quality push. By increasing his participation at every stage of the production process, automakers hope that assembly-line workers will begin to have more reason to take pride in what they produce.

Autoworkers, well aware that not only pride of workmanship but their very job s are at stake, have been initially enthusiastic, committed, and even patriotic about the new effort. United Auto Workers (UAW) president Douglas Fraser points to a new "sensitivity" to the problem on the part of labor and a fresh determination to build a better product.

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Both Chrysler and the Ford Motor Company have relatively new agreements with workers aimed specifically at improving the quality of cars produced. While these borrow heavily from japanese variations, they do not yet allow American assembly-line workers to pull the cord and stop the line when they see a problem that needs correction. But spokesmen for both companies also say the idea has not yet been ruled out.

Chrysler, which is under the greatest pressure from Washington these days, has been the most forthright in addressing the quality problem. Vice-president George Butts, conceding that "customers are telling us we've got to put more quality in our product," says Chrysler's top commitment now is to "best in class" quality. "It's more important than meeting any production schedule," he says.

In addition to increasing automation -- robots now do most of the company's spots welds -- Chrysler has stepped up the quality checks on its new small K-cars at every stage of production. The reliability target for the performance of these cars (the Plymouth model is aptly named "Reliant") is an ambitious 30 to 50 percent over that of any previous car.

New this year is a company-wide Chrysler management agreement with the UAW which calls for the establishment of top-level joint committees to develop programs for improving quality in each plant. The plan, initially being tried in the firm's K-car assembly plants in Michigan and Delaware, also calls for joint, specially trained quality action teams in each shop specialty from air-conditioning installation to painting.

Any worker who spots a problem on a car going through must report it to his supervisor. If nothing is done, or the problem recurs, the employee may take the complaint further up the chain of command to the union-management quality-control committee.

"In the past, often a complaint to the foreman, [who is] pressured by production demands, would result in a 'let it go' decision," explains UAW spokesman Robert Barbee. "That's the way a lot of shoddy workmanship got through.

"Now if the plant supervisor doesn't blow the whistle on the foreman, the union will -- we'll go straight to the top of the corporation," insists UAW vice-president Marc Stepp.

At Ford, where the push for quality improvement is also more intense than ever before, there is a similar year-old employee-involvement agreement with the UAW. But the implications of the power and responsibility of the individual worker in taking complaints up the line until he gets action do not match the Chrysler plan.

"That can lead to a 'Who can you tattle on?' approach -- I don't think thay's the way to remedy the problem," says Ford vice-president for Labor Relations Peter Pewstillo.

Instead Ford has emphasized to plant managers that quantity is not enough. "They're instructed that they aren't going to get by unless they're putting out acceptable finished products," says Mr. Pestillo. To help pave the way, Ford has installed a new system that permits the assembly line to be stopped more quickly.

To involve the worker more closely in the quality-improvement effort, Ford is offering more-varied training to employees -- the better to fill in for absent workers and spot production flaws. It has established labor-management teams in about 20 plants, patterned after Japanese quality circles, to discuss ways to improve quality. Ford has also been listening more carefully to worker suggestions on that topic. After a visit by employees to a pilot plant where a prototype of Ford's new Escort and Mercury Lynx were being assembled, a worker suggested that the radio mount on the dashboard be designed in a more efficient way. The suggestion was followed, according to Pertillo.

"This is a business venture with us -- it's no great social pursuit," cautions Pestillo. "But what we're really talking about is a change in attitude . . . . We've found that if management tolerates junk -- we've never wanted it -- that's what it gets."

General Motors Corporation, which despite the poor sales record of all US automakers has managed to keep a strong 45 percent of the US market, has announced no special new programs to improve quality control. But a spokesman insists it is a longtime corporate concern. He says some assembly plants have had quality circles for a few years, and that about half of the firm's 139 plants have active Quality of Working Life programs, focusing on improving managemetn-employee relations and finding wasy to make it easier for the worker to do a better job.

As proof that this kind of stepped-up employee involvement can work, the spokesman points to the turnaround some years ago of GM's Tarrytown, N.Y., plant. The facility had been plagued by labor unrest, absenteeism, and poor quality cars coming off the assembly line. Management and labor talked through their conflicts and workers suggested improvements that were incorporated in plant planning. As a result, grievances were sharply reduced and the plant, instead of closing (as Ford's Mahwah, N.J., plant did recently because of quality problems) now is producing the company's new X-cars.

Some industrial-relations experts view Ford and Chrysler's experimental efforts to involve workers in improving car quality as a step forward that has great potential for other industries.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," says Dr. Nels Nelson, director of Cleveland State University's Industrial Relations Center. "These are the people, after all, who know more about how cars are put together and how they ought to be than anyone else. . . . Now they will be put back in the process where they will really have pride in their work and bear some of the responsibility for the wuality of the product."

Some auto industry observers are questioning whether American workers have the patience, stamina, and job dedication to make quality-control programs work. Much may depend, some expers say, on how much management really supports the new push.

"Everybody would like to take pride in whatever work it is they do," observes Alfred Blumrosen, a labor-relations expert and professor at Rutgers University School of Law in New Brunswick, N.J. "That feeling can either be brought out or suppressed. We as a nation really changed our whole notion of quality control when we went in for built-in obsolescence. To now value quality requires a change of thinking not only by workers but by management."

The alternative to success is a grim one for most automakers and workers, giving the latter a strong vested interest in making the quality push work.

"We're talking about quality not just for its own sake, but for survival," notes Louis A. Ferman, co-director of the University of Michigan's Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. He argues that this kind of work situation in which labor and managemnet are pitted together against a common enemy and in search of a common goal is ushering in a whole new era in industrial relations.

"A very subtle thing in beginning to happen between union and management . . . the atmospheric relationship has been changing. it's not that the adversarial relationship and the threat to strike have disappeared. But they've been moderated."

Is it only a temporary alliance?

"That's the $64,000 question," says Professor Ferman. "But there have been crises before and labor and management have never united this strongly."

Whether the current quality push is viewed as a public relations ploy or a serious effort to get on top of the quality problem will have everything to do with whether it succeeds or fails with American car buyers, auto analysts say.

"Coming out publicly with this and trying to work through an approach to the problem is an admission that there has been a problem in the past, and that new emphasis should help the industry," says Gary Ciminero, an automobile analyst with Merrill Lynch and Company in New York. "But manufactures are going to have to do more than talk about it -- they're they're going to have to come through with demonstrably improved quality." If they can do that, he says, the economies made possible by the stepped-up volume of small-car production and the relatively high price of Japanese cars of comparable quality makes for a "very good prognosis" for Detroit's comeback.

For a number of reasons, including increase reliance on automation, retooling of car plants, and stronger worker motivation to make the comeback succeed, Dennis Healy of Drexel, Burnham, and Lambert Inc. says he thinks the quality of the average American car, compared to its Japanese counterpart, will improve.

But it is primarily for other reasons that Mr. Healy says he thinks the US auto industry will survive the present crisis. He considers the current car sales problem largely due to the general recession. The economy's recovery, the stabilization of gasoline prices, and the strengthening of the yen compared to the dollar over the last several months will combine to help the US auto industry bounce back, he says.

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