Keep Quality Control Simple and Involve Team Members

If American and European companies got anything from the invasion of Japanese products to the U.S. market in the 1980s, it was quality fever. The level of quality consciousness in Japanese companies made our heads spin. They were crafting fine art and we were slapping parts together. But we woke up and worked hard to fix this. J.D. Power’s recent surveys of initial quality (during the first three months of ownership) show that the gap between Japanese auto companies and U.S. and European competitors has shrunk to the point of being barely noticeable. But longer-term data shows that the quality differential has not been erased. It has just been hidden. It is relatively easy to inspect an assembled vehicle and fix all the problems before the customer has a chance to see them. But inspected-in quality is often temporary quality.

I have seen a lot of non-public internal quality data on auto companies, including data collected by J.D. Power and the results are striking. Initial quality shows little difference across automakers. But three years out, the gap grows. Five years out, the gap balloons. In the 2003 annual auto issue of Consumer Reports, the magazine summarizes its studies of durability. Not surprisingly Acura, Toyota, and Lexus are the top three makes for problems per 100 vehicles during the first three years of ownership, with 25 problems per 100 vehicles for Toyota and Lexus. The U.S. and European makes are mostly at the bottom of the list, with 50, 60, 70 problems per 100—two to three times worse than Toyota and Lexus. Why does the gap persist?

Unfortunately, for many companies the essence of building in quality has gotten lost in bureaucratic and technical details. Things like ISO-9000, an industrial quality standard that calls for all kinds of detailed standard operating procedures, for whatever good they have done, have made companies believe that if they put together detailed rule articles the rules will be followed. Quality planning departments are armed with reams of data analyzed using the most sophisticated statistical analysis methods. Six Sigma has brought us roving bands of black belts who attack major quality problems with a vengeance, armed with an arsenal of sophisticated technical methods.

At Toyota they keep things simple and use very few complex statistical tools. The quality specialists and team members have just four key tools:

  • Go and see.
  • Analyze the situation.
  • Use one-piece flow and andon to surface problems.
  • Ask “Why?” five times.

(Asking “why” five times whenever you uncover a problem will provide root cause analysis of the problem as well as countermeasures to solve it. As discussed in Chapter 20, it’s an excellent team tool for keeping the focus on solving problems rather than blaming someone for them, which is just another form of muda.)

Don Jackson, VP of manufacturing for Toyota’s Georgetown plant, was a quality manager for a U.S. auto supplier before joining Toyota. He had been a stickler for detail and defended the complex quality manuals he had helped write. At Toyota he learned the power of simplicity. As he described it, “Before joining Toyota I made a lot of policies and procedures too difficult to follow. They were doomed for failure.” He still participates in some quality audits of suppliers, but his approach and philosophy are now completely different from the more bureaucratic mindset he had before joining Toyota:

You can write a complex procedure that covers the operator, equipment maintenance, and a quality audit—and theoretically, the process will run forever. But my philosophy is support the team members who are running the process. I want them to be able to know everything because they’re the ones producing the product. So those team members have to know that the preventative maintenance was done on schedule, and their equipment is in good shape by some visual control system. The quality check every hour … those team members should know that it was done and it was OK every hour or they stop the line. Then finally, they must know what their job requirements are and know that they’re getting good built-in quality by some means. So those team members are in total control. I want that team member to know that they have everything they need to build that product correctly ,.. man, material, method, machine.

Obviously this audit is very different than the typical quality audit of following detailed procedures from a manual, perhaps analyzing some statistical data, and maybe even checking to see if the procedures are being followed. Jackson is looking with a different set of eyes—the eyes of the operator controlling the process. He is looking at quality from the point of view of the shop floor—the actual situation (genchi genbutsu).