Auto industry changes definition of quality control

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There was a time when people would joke about not buying cars made on Mondays or Fridays because they were concerned workers might not be focused on putting the dashboard in properly if they were thinking about their weekends.

Dramatic changes in the auto industry have created a new definition of quality control for carmakers and their customers that goes beyond the basics of making sure everything is put together right on the factory floor.

"Quality control begins a long time before that. It begins with the design of the parts, the selection of the vendors … at the very beginning," said Fred Mackerodt, CEO of New York City-based Fred Mackerodt Inc., which delivers General Motors products to auto journalists.

Overall, quality control in the industry is headed in the right direction, analysts say. Thanks to hotly competitive markets, a tough economy and younger customers who are more persnickety about how their cars are put together, car quality has dramatically improved in recent years.

In J.D. Power & Associates' Initial Quality Survey for this year, the domestic companies reduced their problems by 10 percent, while foreign carmakers reduced theirs by 8 percent. The study measures problems per 100 cars in the first 90 days of ownership.

Because almost all new cars and trucks have fewer problems with their mechanical components and other basic "build" issues, quality control now includes some of the finer, but equally important, details of vehicle ownership.

Much attention is paid to such matters as wind noise, whether all knobs and buttons are operated silently and with a pleasing clicking sensation when they are engaged, interior appointments that are pleasing to the eye and comfortable to use and a pleasant ride.

"The design of the vehicle affects the engineering, and the engineering affects quality," said independent auto analyst Tom Libby of Detroit. "When you design vehicles, the quality needs to be a priority during the design phase. If that doesn't happen, there can be parts of the vehicle that, for instance, make wind noise inevitable. Or some of the instrument panel items are not accessible."

When car companies are criticized for any quality control issues, how they handle such reviews varies.

First, some own up to their problems. Several years ago when Volkswagen was having serious quality issues and service department problems, its executives were quite frank that something needed to be done, and fast.

Second, companies may shift policies and make quality control a higher priority. Toyota, which lately has been hit with an unusual number of quality woes and recalls, says it will make quality control Issue No. 1 for the company in years to come. When Mercedes Benz suffered through mediocre to poor quality control several years ago, officials vowed to turn things around. They did, analysts said.

"In the case of Mercedes, it meant reducing some of the technology on their cars," Mr. Libby said. "They had a situation where they added a lot of technology to one of their products in particular, which caused problems with customers and lowered their quality scores." The company removed some of the more troublesome equipment, and scores improved.

Third, companies try to determine if problems can be traced to something that has nothing to do with the car itself. For instance, inadequate training of dealers on new technology can cause problems.

"If a salesperson doesn't effectively communicate to the purchaser on how to use that technology, the purchaser may think there's something wrong with the car, when in fact, nothing is wrong. The customer just doesn't know how to use the technology," Mr. Libby said.

Fourth, in response to past quality problems, carmakers often crank up the testing. That's what General Motors did. When the firm was hit with poor perception of product quality -- something that still plagues it despite vastly improved ratings in independent studies -- it redoubled its product testing.

In the past three years, the company has reduced the dealer claim rate for quality issues by 45 percent. In the last J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Survey, Buick tied Jaguar for the top spot, and Cadillac was right up there among the top brands.

"We now take cars before we sell them and put 100,000 miles on them for such things as durability tests, tests for corrosion, tests for any kind of component failure in all temperature levels, hot and cold," said Jamie Hresko, GM vice president of global quality.

"Before we introduced the new Chevy Equinox, we had 41?2 million miles put on a set of test cars," Mr. Hresko said.

"With OnStar, we have the ability to interrogate the drivers from here in Detroit. Our powertrain team, for instance, can be in touch with a car and its driver in the mountains of Colorado to see how the engines are performing. It's like having a flight recorder on board in the car."

But none of these things will be particularly meaningful if the corporate culture isn't focused on quality.

At GM, Mr. Hresko said he had been annoyed in the past that the mentality seemed to be "good is good enough," rather than striving for the best. "There's now been this cultural shift at GM in quality over the past five years. Now our objectives are to win, not to just be competitive."

Don Hammonds can be reached at 412-263-1538 or .


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