H. James Harrington  |  01/29/2009

Nice Car… When It Runs

What’s happened to reliability engineering?

I believe that most manufacturers have mistakenly focused on initial quality and reducing cost and cycle time during the production and delivery cycle. This has come at the expense of reliability.

Customers buy for the following reasons, listed by top priority:

Customers come back based on:

A customer puts quality last when making a purchase because quality is generally good no matter who the supplier is. In the same plant, the same people make Toyota and General Motors cars. Quality isn’t the problem; yes, there are “lemons” out there, but the top half-dozen name brands do a good job of producing initial quality. Why, then, have Ford and GM given way to Toyota as the No. 1 producer? Because Toyota is the best at producing reliability.

Let me give you some examples. The Toyota Yaris hatchback has 81-percent fewer problems during the first five years of ownership than the average car, while the Pontiac Solstice has 234-percent more problems than the average car.

According to the April 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, the overall cost of owning a Toyota Yaris for the first five years is $23,250 compared to a Mercedes-Benz SL550 at $110,500.

In the United States, Ford leads the Big Three in reliability. During a 10-year period, Ford-produced vehicles accumulated a total average of 85 problems, while GM reported about 163 problems and Chrysler about 160 problems. In 2007, Toyota outsold Ford in the United States and outsold GM worldwide, making it the world’s largest automaker. Ford sales dropped by 12 percent, GM’s dropped 6 percent, and Chrysler’s were down 3 percent.

German car manufacturers sit at the bottom of the heap. Although Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have excellent performance, comfort, and safety, they have extremely poor reliability. Mercedes-Benz has the poorest reliability of any auto manufacturer. I question how long it can continue to perform that badly and still maintain its reputation.

The 10 cars with the best reliability rating are:
1. Toyota Prius
2. Lexus LS
3. Toyota Highlander
4. Lexus IS
5. Toyota RAV4 (4-cyl)
6. Honda Civic
7. Honda Accord (4-cyl)
8. Toyota Corolla
9. Mazda MX-5 Miata
10. Honda CR-V

The 10 cars with the worst reliability rating are:
1. Buick Terraza
2. Chevrolet Uplander
3. Saturn Relay
4. Land Rover Discovery and LR3
5. Volkswagen Touareg
6. Pontiac Aztek
7. Nissan Armada (4WD)
8. Chevrolet S-10 (4WD)
9. GMC S-15 (4WD)
10. Chevrolet Blazer

Notice the clean divide between reliable Japanese cars and the unreliable rest.

Reliability, or the lack thereof, isn’t confined to the auto industry. We see it with PCs, TVs, La-Z-Boy chairs, light bulbs, clothes, and much else. If you define “unreliability” in terms of time, failure to conform to expectations covers the service industry as well. What percentage of the time does your doctor’s appointment start on time? How reliable is the FedEx delivery that’s supposed to arrive at 10 a.m.? How often do your shirts return from the laundry with a button or two missing? How accurate is the discount data system in the Kmart and Safeway stores? I had my cedar-wood roof replaced with tile to reduce fire risks three years ago. This year I see tiles coming loose and falling off. Poor reliability.

Six Sigma and lean are good at correcting problems in engineering and process design, but they miss the mark when it comes to prevention. They’re only effective when the engineers, programmers, or management team don’t do their jobs.

It’s time we got back to studying and practicing reliability engineering, and designing our products and processes correctly in the first place. The cost of initial defects is small compared to the cost of unreliability to our customers—and to organizations in lost customers and repair dollars.


About The Author

H. James Harrington’s picture

H. James Harrington

H. James Harrington is CEO of Harrington Management Systems, which specializes in total quality management (TQM), Six Sigma, lean, strategic planning, business process improvement, design of experiments, executive management mentoring, preparing complete operating manuals, organizational change management, ISO 9000, ISO 14000, and TRIZ. Harrington is a prolific author, having written hundreds of technical reports, magazine articles, and more than 35 books. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional. Harrington is a past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the International Academy for Quality (IAQ).


Nice Car...What about BMW?

I have been driving BMWs since the early 90's and never had any reliability issues with any of the 3 BMW cars I owned (328 and 330). As a matter of fact, I have one that has over 130K miles and still runs like a charm. I am very surprised to see that BMW did not make the list? Is there some bias perhaps fotr Japanese cars? Regards,