Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Wobbling Along

The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell. ~Confucius

It is extremely rare that I find myself in complete agreement with President Bush, but I have to say he's hit the nail on the head this time. Upon being informed that the top selling auto company in the U.S. was now Toyota, he is reported to have said that American auto companies need to build better cars.
I hope the extravagantly paid executives of GM, Ford, and that All-American company Daimler-Chrysler are listening. I doubt it, though, because it would interrupt their frantic calls to Congressmen demanding tariffs and government-sponsored loans. Besides, the President didn't really go far enough, because the problem is not just building better cars, but to actually quit finding ways to torment their suppliers and just concentrate on their own problems.
Actually, the auto makers have found all manner of methods to waste time and money, but I can speak first hand about how they do it to suppliers, because I worked for one of those suppliers.
The Detroit auto makers have made great noises for years about their devotion to quality. The fact that the Japanese auto makers run rings around Detroit when it comes to reliability has never gotten in the way of GM and friends devoting tons of money and people to various quality improvement schemes. The problem is that these schemes do little to improve quality; in fact, meeting the Detroit requirements takes time and resources away from actually trying to provide quality products. Let me explain.
GM had a program called Mark Of Excellence. I won't go into the voluminous details of how it worked, but it involved generating huge amounts of paperwork and statistics, most of which did little in reality to improve products. Part of the MOE process was to endure a GM team on site for three days who picked through records, tied up all the managers, and generally brought things to halt. At the end of the agony, the team gave a report of its findings with recommendations for improvement. But, the three team members create their reports independently rather than consulting with each other and combining their findings. As a result, we were treated to hearing the Engineering team member say that we didn't have certain procedures in Quality Control, while the Quality Control representative had already approved those self-same procedures. When this was brought up to the team during their presentation, the Engineering representative said, well, that's too bad, but we can't change the report now.
If we had thought their report was going to have any real impact, it would have bothered us. In fact, U.S. automakers go for the lowest bid supplier and quality-take-the-hindmost. Only when a supplier turns out total crud do they start considering that the phrase “Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick two!” may apply to them.
But it's not sufficient to send in the MOE team because that only happens every few years (or never again, if you get smart like we did). Each plant has quality improvement teams, any one of which is liable to send representatives to your plant to tell you how to do your business. Then, the Purchasing group started their own program. None of these programs will accept any documentation or data produced for the others. In Purchasing's case, this was understandable. Once, when presented with our data, a Purchasing man went ballistic because it showed a period of large variation. Yes, it did, i said, and here's what we did about it. “You can't show data like that! Take it out of the report!” In other words, I don't care what's really happening, just give me pretty charts.
Compare this to a Toyota visit. We were about to begin making a product for a joint GM-Toyota venture, which was under control of Toyota. Their quality auditor came to our plant, spent two hours looking things over, completed his checklist and told us we were good to go. While I was pleased, I was worried that there had to be more to it than this, and I said so. “Nope,” he said, “It looks to me like you can make the part to the specs we ask, and that's all that counts.” Now why didn't GM pick up on that from their partner?
As if the surveys and improvement programs weren't enough, every so often, a group with nothing to do at headquarters would descend on our plant with a product “improvement”. Once such team was determined to get to the bottom of the iced-up lock problem.
This will come as a shock to Northerners, I know, but door locks freeze up in the winter. The complex reason for this is that, since there is no way to hermetically seal the lock, water gets in, particularly when people drop keys in the snow first. When it's cold, water freezes. GM engineers had managed to grasp this through the use of lots of charts graphing temperature versus complaints about frozen locks (I am telling you the truth; they needed charts to prove that more locks freeze in February than in July).
What they hadn't figured out is that if you put a drainhole in a lock cylinder, it works best if it's positioned underneath the cylinder. Unfortunately, GM's design put the drainhole on TOP, where it didn't do much good. So, when the Engineering Product Improvement Team showed up saying that frozen lock complaints had to be reduced, we brought up this obvious fact. But they didn't like it because: a) There would be a one-time tool charge to change the hole position; and b) they hadn't thought of it. Their solution was to pack the lock full of grease because, if it was full of grease, there would be no room for water. Of course, the grease in locks is not cheapie stuff, so the price of a lock set increased by a nickel, which doesn't sound like much, but multiplied by the number of vehicles sold, it adds up.
We pointed out that car owners would not appreciate getting lock grease on their clothes, that owners would just squirt WD-40 or something into the lock to get rid of the grease. But, no, by golly, extra grease it would be.
A couple of months after implementing this thoroughly messy solution, one of the engineers came back to view, with great satisfaction, the fruits of his labors. By the wildest of coincidences, a plant quality improvement team member was visiting on the same day. She said the plant was happy with our lack of defects, but they were concerned because there seemed to be a lot more grease in the locks. It got on the operators' hands, and they had to keep cleaning up to avoid getting goop all over their workstations and all over the cars. You can only imagine the satisfaction I had in introducing her to one of the geniuses who had called for the increase in grease.
They never came to blows, but we did have to ask them to step outside because their yelling was disturbing the office staff. I vowed if GM Purchasing ever called again asking for phony data, I'd give them her phone number.
I'm guessing she works for Honda or Toyota now. GM couldn't have stood her common sense for long.

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