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Built to Last: The strategy behind Ford's manufacturing success

|Sep 28|magazine19 min read

Written by Bennie Fowler, Group Vice President, Global Quality and New Model Launches for Ford Motor Company

We have addressed many quality concerns in a significant way since 2002. We reduced capacity by nearly a million units; we slashed material costs; we added new products; and we refocused on our core business again. But our revenue didn’t keep pace with higher costs. Our prior plan was based on share growth to justify our overhead and, frankly, we were driven by costs and capacity, and not enough by our customers.

We knew at the time there wasn't much we could do about the external environment. But we knew we could control our direction. It didn't become a cost-cutting exercise or a retreat into smaller markets. It was more of a retaking of the American marketplace. We really began to play more offense and fight back. The goal back then was to return to our heritage of becoming America’s Car Company and doing what it takes to give customers and our employees a reason to believe in Ford again.

It all started with a sharp customer focus as the foundation for everything we do. We were relentless in this regard because growing companies – the ones that are increasing their market shares today – see the world through their customers’ eyes. We’ve seen it work inside and outside of Ford.

PROCESS, DISCIPLINE, CONSISTENCY

Driving us is our Global Product Development System, which requires us to do more planning up-front so there are fewer changes down the line. The payoff is product development times that are reduced significantly -- about six to 12 months earlier than before.

What’s more, by equipping plants so they can switch easily between products, we were able to dramatically reduce the investment made on each new vehicle. The conversion of our assembly plants to flexible manufacturing kept us on track, but it wasn't enough just to deliver more products, faster; they have to be high-quality products. Improving quality requires added innovation in the way we manage our people and our processes.

One enabler to commonality and more competitive costs is a single team approach to product development and purchasing, with a single objective and a single process – versus each team working separately as in the past. We continue to pursue more parts commonality in areas that are invisible to the customer, and we will forge much closer and mutually profitable relationships with key strategic suppliers.

It all starts in the virtual world. We begin with the product attributes that the customer told us are important, such as fuel economy, lower emissions, safety features and craftsmanship. These attributes are designed into the vehicle at the start of the product program. They are validated in the virtual engineering lab. Depending on the model, up to 40,000 design standards are checked on a computer screen before the vehicle moves on to the next stage of development. Then in manufacturing, virtual tools confirm that the design can be built consistently and with the safety of the operators in mind. As a result, we've cut time to market, reduced costly late engineering changes, and building fewer – but better – physical prototypes. We have the lowest work-related injury rate in our company's history. We test long-term durability of every part in the lab and on the road. Once we move to production, our plants are ready. Today, every plant follows the Quality Operating System (QOS) with discipline and consistency.

As a result of our virtual technology, we've cut time-to-market by eight to 14 months, depending on the vehicle program.

First introduced in the early 2000s, Ford launched its Quality Operating System training United Auto Workers (UAW) and plant workers as QOS Coordinators (QOSCs), which gives hourly workers control over quality. After QOSCs finish their Black Belt course work, they then take a mandatory test to achieve the prestigious Six Sigma Black Belt certification with the goal of having at least two black belts per plant. QOCs devote 100 percent of their workday to monitoring quality process and procedure adherence and cannot be pulled from their job to replace an absent employee on the line. They ensure that every employee at every station understands precisely what they need to do and how to do it. Since the introduction of QOSCs, Ford’s initial and long-term quality has seen a continuous upward trend. We also launched a course through Wayne State University in Detroit in 2008 for hourly quality representatives to become certified as Six Sigma black belts.
 
The QOS process is crucial for identifying and correcting problems within the manufacturing facilities. QOS is implemented in each plant by Variability Reduction Teams (VRTs) – cross-functional groups of engineers, plant management and product specialists, including the company’s most skilled problem solvers who have been trained through Six Sigma.

Each VRT is assigned to one of 12 subsystems crucial to customer satisfaction. The subsystems are Ride and Handling; Sheet Metal; Wind; Water; Paint; Noise, Vibration and Harshness (known as Squeak and Rattle); Chassis; Exterior Ornamentation; Interior Trim; Electrical; Powertrain; and Handles, Locks and Mechanisms.
Also, thanks to real-time technology, customer claims from dealerships are fed to the assembly plant everyday for problem-solving within 24 hours. We deal with every claim, every day. Processes such as Early Claims Binning in manufacturing, streamline communications about potential quality issues between plants and dealerships. Warranty claims are fed to the assembly plant everyday where the issue is dissected and either traced back to the installation process or fed back to the design engineer.
The company has trained an army of problem solvers among product designers, manufacturing engineers and hourly work force. Around the world, we have well over 90,000 Six Sigma green belts, over 9,000 black belts and 500 master black belts.

The assembly plants build on that competitive advantage and recent successes can be attributed to the strong partnership between Ford’s leadership team and the UAW. Together, they’ve built an overall strategy for consistency and given our teams in the plants the tools they need to deliver. Vehicles are designed for quality, and the plants have the necessary tools to deliver that quality in the manufacturing process.

LEAN MANUFACTURING

We created a single global manufacturing team to be able to leverage Ford's global assets by eliminating duplication, implementing best practices and a systematic approach to quality and utilizing common components for the advantage of scale.

Flexible features include the ability to:
• Quickly change the plant’s production according to customer demand.
• Convert to new products with minimal investment and changeover loss.
• Easily retool, and reprogram robots and computers for rapid changeover on the plant floor.

With increasing market segmentation, Ford’s new flexible assembly system means the company can react more quickly to meet shifting customer demand. The company will be able to produce a wider variety of vehicles, change the mix of products and options, and change volumes – faster and with minimal costs.
Quality is built in at each workstation based on these standardized work processes and a clear understanding of the customer’s expectation.

To create a lean and high-quality facility of empowered workers, we have a continuing impact on how their jobs are done. Typically in a plant, supervisors manage operators, but in Ford’s inverted pyramid system, operators work in teams of six to eight, with a team leader. Supervisors are manufacturing advisers, supporting the operators and their team leaders. Operators assume roles of responsibility and decision-making. Their motto is: “Zero defects. Zero waste.”

Ford has been a leader in ergonomics and that continues to play a major role in the design of new jobs and tools. The new tools translate into less stress and strain on operator arms and wrists. In fact, very few operators will need to work with their hands raised above their heads or stoop down to do a job below their knees. Operators will ride on skillets as they work, which are individual pallets for every vehicle, and some are capable of adjusting to each operator’s height and work activities as the vehicle moves from work cell to work cell.