When it comes to keeping an eye on the U.S. auto industry, all you have to do is blink and you’ll miss the latest headline. Even as we were putting this issue of Quality Digest to bed, DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter (“Dr. Z”) Zetsche announced that “all options are on the table” after being asked if the German automaker might sell its Chrysler unit. This after Chrysler had already announced a three-year, $4.5 billion recovery plan that includes the elimination of 13,000 jobs. The electrons had hardly faded on the blogs and online news reports before stories emerged speculating on a Chrysler buyout by GM or Renault-Nissan. By the time you read this, I’m sure the entire topic will be old news and—who knows—you might be buying a Chery Viper.
We could spend pages—and we have—discussing how Chrysler and the other traditional Detroit automakers got into this position, but certainly one issue was poor quality, something that Chrysler, GM and Ford have all immensely improved upon. In the past, when dealing with the quality issue, the tendency was to point a finger at the U.S. automakers themselves, while neglecting to point the remaining fingers at the thousands of companies that make up the automotive supply chain. Poor quality anywhere along the supply chain throws a monkey wrench into the upstream works, hence the need for standards like ISO/TS 16949. But there are other methods of ensuring supplier quality besides mandating it. That’s why we were particularly interested when DaimlerChrysler approached us with a story of how it works with its suppliers to get them on track if the supplier’s quality is sub-par (as seen in this month’s cover story, “A Little Help From Their Friends” ). Rather than drop-kicking a low-performing supplier out the door and looking for a replacement, DaimlerChrysler sends in a quality assurance and audit team (QAAT)—quality specialists—to help the supplier discover the root causes of its production problems and fix them.
However much a supplier may cringe when it first sees QAAT show up in the front lobby, the results speak for themselves. The supplier gets expert advice and hands-on help from DaimlerChrysler, its quality improves (thus it stays on DaimlerChrysler’s supplier list), DaimlerChrysler doesn’t have to go through the tedious job of looking for a new supplier and, as a bonus, the supplier improves its performance with its other customers as well.
Another, perhaps unintended, benefit is that this knowledge transfer takes on a life of its own. In a kind of trickle-down “qualinomics,” DaimlerChrysler shares quality techniques with its tier-one suppliers, who pass this knowledge on to other plants or divisions and, most likely, to tier-two suppliers and beyond. As knowledge works its way through the automotive supply chain, all companies learn how to efficiently produce products with reduced defects.
It would be easy to say that the U.S. automakers’ efforts to improve quality may be for naught and that the tarnish of too many years of poor quality can’t be rubbed away by a few years of quality successes (by most industry accounts, U.S. automakers are nearly matching the quality and efficiency of their foreign counterparts). But even if Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler were to disappear, it’s safe to say that U.S. industry has taken 35 years of hard-learned lessons to heart. We have learned that we can’t afford to be arrogant, that slapping a “Made in America” sticker on your bumper is meaningless if the bumper falls off. After three decades of catching up, U.S. industry is capable of producing products of superior quality. Hopefully, for U.S. automakers it isn’t too late.