Maybe we need to improve the process, not the work ethic
The results are in again, and if history is an accurate indicator, they're likely to fill us with self-loathing.
I refer here to Consumer Reports' annual auto report, which last month landed with a thud that was felt by most European and North American automakers. (To see the highlights of the report, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4922-702).
This year's report again showed (lest anyone had any doubts) that Japanese automakers have a better handle on reliability than their competitors in Europe and in the U.S. To fully comprehend how much of a difference they're seeing, take a brief look at Consumer Reports' list of best and worst vehicles. Of its 46 best, 38 were Japanese, seven were North American, one was European. On the opposite side of the ledger, U.S. vehicles accounted for 21 of the 34 worst, while Europe had 12, Korea had one, and Japan, none.
So we should all beat ourselves up now, right?
Well, maybe not. Instead of engaging in the usual self-loathing that Americans do whenever we see these surveys, maybe it's time to stop viewing this as a character issue. Maybe we should stop blaming this on lazy American workers or greedy American executives or incompetent American automotive engineers.
Maybe the process is at fault.
We've written about this subject previously, and have repeatedly heard the same refrain: American automakers have tried hard to improve their product reliability. They've assigned armies of engineers to examine these issues, and have boosted quality far beyond their 1970s and '80s levels. Moreover, they've equaled or surpassed the reliability levels of European automakers.
For all their efforts, though, General Motors and Ford can't seem to match the reliability scores of Japanese automakers. Despite adopting new quality programs, retraining their workers, obsessing about details, measuring and re-measuring and re-re-measuring parts, they seem to have struck a plateau.
So maybe effort isn't the issue.
Experts say that stories about Japanese attention to detail are more folklore than reality. In fact, Jay Baron, president of the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, says that engineers in Japanese plants don't always monitor their processes as closely as their American and European counterparts.
"There's a misperception about Japanese quality," Baron told us last year. "People believe that Japanese automakers build all their parts very precisely, and it just isn't true. We found they don't care about making each part to a precise spec. They just want the assembly to be in spec. And they don't micro-manage the process."
If you read Baron's comments carefully, you might get the impression that Japanese automakers are working smarter, not harder. In other words, this isn't a character issue. It isn't an issue of Americans not working enough hours or caring enough (many engineers are already working 60-hour weeks). It's a process issue.
And it's fair to say that after about 25 years of superior reliability, the Japanese process must be pretty good. (To read more about that process, click on http://rbi.ims.ca/4922-703).
Maybe we can learn from that process.
It would be nice to look at the Consumer Reports'survey and see American vehicles dominating the reliability ratings. And it would be even nicer to stop playing the annual game of American self loathing.
Reach Senior Technical Editor Charles J. Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.