Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Ghost of Henry Ford


According to the JD Powers Initial Quality Survey (IQS), in June 2010, Ford climbed to the top of the quality heap among non-luxury automobile manufacturers! Is that right? After decades of lemons, Ford finally squeezed some lemon juice to rock your taste buds! The JD Powers IQS study watched closely by the industry and consumers is based on a 128 question survey of auto owners after the first 90 days of ownership. It is indicative of initial quality. The IQS rating is significant for the Ford Motor Company in that Ford vehicles show the least amount of defects in 24 years. Indeed since mid 2000, Ford had steadily climbed in the IQS rating.

What changed? Perhaps the following videoclip at Ford’s assembly plant in Chicago may provide a clue.


In this clip from August 2006, the popular TV series Dirty Job with Mike Rowe featured the assembly of the instrument panel on a moving assembly line. The use of technology for process control, the Instrument Station Process Control (ISPC) is one of many quality tools that can be deployed to ensure that the job gets done right. Doing the right thing at the right time is a simple way of viewing how quality is achieved. Because we live in an imperfect world, we make mistakes, tools ware out and break, etc. doing the right thing at the right time and knowing that the right thing was done at the right time is key to Quality Assurance. The display on the Assembly Information Control (AIS) box displays the ISPC readout for that assembly. Assuming that Ford diligently marries such technology with the Quality Assurance philosophy for each job and sub-assembly it should continue to maintain its lofty IQS rating.

The Ford Motor Company despite its poor performance in recent history is no stranger to quality or innovation. Founder Henry Ford revolutionized not just the auto-industry but triggered an industrial revolution by introducing the moving assembly line at the Highland Park (MI) plant in 1913. This single innovation changed the paradigm in manufacturing by orders of magnitude. Where it took 728 minutes (about 12 hours and 7 minutes) to assemble one car, the moving assembly line accelerated the production rate to 93 minutes (1 hour and 33 minutes)! A Ford Model T that cost $950 in 1908 cost only $360 in 1916 fulfilling Henry Ford’s vision “I will a car for the great multitude”. Henry Ford and his partners instinctively understood the application of quality processes and tools. In 1914 Ford raised the wages of its employees from $2.34 to $5.00 a day and introduced an 8 hour work in 6 day week which eventually evolved to a 5 day work week. Ford also introduced profit sharing with its employees. Not only was Ford able to retain its’ trained workers but was luring employees including engineers and designers from its competitors. To manage its Supply Chain, the plant in Dearborn, Michigan encompassed all the steps the manufacturing process from refining raw materials to final assembly of the automobile and included a steel mill, glass factory, and the automobile assembly line. By 1918, Ford Model Ts represented half of all cars in America. In the spirit of continuous improvement, Henry Ford was not satisfied with the status quo and experimented with plastics made from soybean which was incorporated into Ford automobiles such as horns and body paint and in 1942 patented an automobile made almost entirely of plastic, attached to a tubular welded frame that ran on ethanol produced from gain.

Perhaps the ghost of Henry Ford has returned to stalk the corridors of the Ford Motor Company.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Of Sponge Scrubs and Space Shuttles


I suspect that like me, you often come across items that you’ve purchased that failed to meet your expectations. At best they are a source of irritation and at worse true frustration because you really needed the item to work and it had not been a cheap purchase. A personal (though seemly trivial) example is the Scrub Sponges we buy for washing pots and pans in our kitchen. I like these sponges because they have a soft spongy side for washing dishes with an abrasive surface on the opposite side for scrubbing stubborn cooked-on or dried-on food. I used to buy the ones made by the 3M subsidiary, Scotch, but recently thought I’d try the generic brand offered by the local supermarket. Where the 3M product used to last a few months before they started to wear out, the generic ones lasted only a few weeks before the sponge started curl to and separate from the scrubbing pad which had also started to pill and tear away in layers. Although the 3M product was almost twice as expensive at the generic brand, it lasted many months longer than the generic brand. There’s obviously a flaw in the design process for the generic brand likely in the choice of material, quality and durability of the components, adhesion process, and finally testing to see if the product actually did what it was supposed to do.
Given the number of times I’d encountered products of inferior quality I was thinking about the process failures that lead to products that fail in the field or market place. The concept of Quality by Design, which also encompasses Risk Management, obviously escapes many of these companies. It reminded me of an article I read in the paper in March 2011 about how a contract guard at a US federal building in Detroit found a package and due to some break-down in the process, the package was not screened until 3 weeks later. It was discovered at that time that there was a bomb in it! The article did not give much detail but stated that the guard had since been dismissed. If that’s all the entity responsible for security in this building did in response to this obvious failure, then I’m not optimistic that a similar failure will not happen in the future. I am also reminded of the space shuttle Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986 where the risk of failure of the O-ring was known as early as 1977 to the engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center and manufacturer of the booster rocket, Morton Thiokol. The failures leading to this disaster are detailed in the report and findings of the Roger’s Commission. In this case, I see distinct failures in at least 2 places costing the lives of the seven crew members of the Challenger Space Shuttle. Morton Thiokol’s product that failed was the solid rocket booster (SRB) and NASA’s processes failed to ensure a safe and successful launch.
Granted, the consequences of a scrub sponge falling apart are absolutely orders of magnitude apart from the space shuttle’s SRB falling apart. I believe that they do however share their failures in a break down in their quality processes such as Quality by Design, process control, Corrective and Preventative Action (CAPA) and continuous improvement.