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From the Detroit Free Press:

GM's quality quandary

Some General Motors vehicles outrank Toyota's, but a few troubled models reinforce a bad reputation GM fights to change

April 10, 2006



After General Motors has chased Toyota for more than 20 years, independent quality and reliability surveys finally give GM something to boast about -- but not enough.

The best vehicles GM builds -- models like the Chevrolet Malibu and Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Buick Century -- topped many Toyota models in the respected J.D. Power and Associates initial-quality and long-term dependability studies last year.

"Look at the midsize sedan segment. We own that from a quality perspective," said Bob Ottolini, GM executive director for product development quality. "The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are below all our recent entries in that segment."

However, while virtually every car and truck Toyota builds gets high marks in influential independent studies like those by J.D. Power and Consumer Reports magazine, a few models with very poor quality -- particularly four minivans that went on sale in 2004 -- torpedoed GM's overall score. Several of the company's most important brands dropped into the category automakers dread and shoppers avoid: below industry average.

If GM can get it right some of the time, why not all the time? Answering that question -- and quickly -- is vital to the company's future as it strives to hold off Toyota, recover from last year's $10.6-billion loss and remain the world's largest automaker.

GM cars -- the Chevrolet Malibu, Malibu Maxx and Impala, Buick Century and Pontiac Grand Prix -- took five of the seven top places among midsize cars in Power's 2005 Initial Quality Study, based on a survey of new-car owners. They finished above the Camry and Accord, both of which have earned sterling reputations for quality and reliability with decades of excellence.

Besides the minivans, GM's vehicles "are doing pretty well," said Neal Oddes, J.D. Power director of product research and analysis. "Across the board, though, the minivans did not launch at all well."

But even a single bad model reinforces the reputation for low quality GM gained in the 1980s, said Chris Denove, coauthor of the new book "Satisfaction: How Every Great Company Listens to the Voice of the Customer."

"The image of GM's vehicles is far worse than the reality," he said. "GM has changed. Some of the best-made vehicles in the world today are being produced by GM. It's paying for the sins of its past."

Denove wrote the book with James D. Power IV of J.D. Power.

"The data show the difference really is perceptual," Denove said. "Every automaker has had some quality glitches. Honda recently had transmission problems, but it got a pass because people expect Hondas to have good quality."

The converse of that is also true, however. Buyers unfamiliar with GM vehicles have come to expect poor quality, and the minivans reinforce the stereotype.

Toyota strives for consistency

Toyota is the industry's benchmark because the quality of its vehicles doesn't vary much from one to the next.

"We strive to get better by reducing variation in our manufacturing," said Kevin Martin, general manager of the quality division at Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, in Erlanger, Ky. "Everyone can screw in a bolt, but we teach people to recognize when it's misthreaded ... to recognize a fault and keep the problem from ever leaving the factory."

Toyota also benefits from the fact that it has fewer platforms for its vehicles than GM. A platform, or architecture, is a set of parts and systems that form the basis for a range of models. Because Toyota develops fewer architectures, it can spend more time and effort improving each of them. GM has been working for years to reduce the number of architectures it uses. It used to have five architectures for midsize front-wheel-drive sedans, but it has moved to a single platform for all cars like that -- models including the Malibu, Pontiac G6 and Saab 9-3 -- around the world.

Although developing a single top-notch architecture has boosted the quality of many of GM's new models, some vehicles -- notably the minivans -- continue to use old platforms engineered years ago.

"Once GM gets to average reliability on our scores, they seem to take the emphasis off continual improvement," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' automotive testing center. "We see other manufacturers that are mortified by an average score. It's a different mind-set."

GM takes steps to improve

GM disagrees with that assessment, saying that it has moved from simply fixing things when they break to developing vehicles robust enough to last at least a couple of hundred thousand miles with no defects.

To reach those goals, GM has a more rigorous engineering procedure. Whereas the company used to quit testing vehicles and parts at an arbitrary target, engineers now test them until they fail, and design them to last at least 200,000 miles -- more in the case of vital and expensive parts like engines and transmissions. "We have considerably more vehicles in test fleets now than in the past," Ottolini said. "We're putting 500,000 miles a year on vehicles before they go on sale."

In addition, the company has changed the way it builds vehicles.

"There was a lot of training to build the Malibu," said Raymond Dominguez, an assembly team leader with 36 years' experience at the Fairfax, Kan., plant that builds the Malibu. "The process is a lot better than it used to be. We have carts on rollers to carry heavy parts that we used to have to lift, and electric tools to attach wheels with less mess and strain than the old way."

Lawrence McLuney, another team leader who has been at Fairfax for 36 years, said that "the parts fit a lot better now. The standards are higher today. We're paying more attention now, wearing protectors to cover our belts, rings and watches" so the cars' paint doesn't get scratched.

"The workers here are really proud of the Malibu," McLuney said. "We know we're building a good-quality car."

That's fine for vehicles that are entirely new like the Malibu, Cadillac CTS sport sedan and the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade SUVs that just went on sale, but models like the minivans, which carry over much of their basic engineering from previous vehicles, aren't subject to that painstaking clean-sheet approach.

GM scrimped on minivan development, basing the vehicles on an 8-year-old architecture. The result is a vehicle in which many parts are difficult to install, said Marty Cain, a 29-year veteran who does repair work at the Doraville, Ga., plant that builds the minivans.

"It's a tough vehicle to build," he said. "It's probably been a nightmare for some engineer."

While nearly every assembly-line worker in Fairfax got training to build the new Malibu, minivan assemblers received training only if the part they installed had changed from the old van, said Ernie Burel, a team leader with 29 years' experience at Doraville.

"Some parts fit poorly, and that threw us a curve," he said. "Now we're making our own manuals for how to do each job. It's evolved since the new minivans started" production.

"Every way, we're finding something new."

The vans' low ratings trouble workers at the plant, Cain said.

"It makes you feel bad," he said. "I come in every day wanting to build a good car. I want to leave feeling like I did."

Help may be on the way

Company sources say GM is developing an all-new minivan in its new Lambda family of vehicles that should go on sale around 2008.

GM's major brands are about midway through their vehicle-replacement cycles. That means even if GM gets everything right with its new models, it's saddled with some weak players like the minivans for at least another couple of years.

"I don't understand why one division or platform gets it right and others don't," Champion said. "I have to put it down to management decisions and lack of attention to detail.

"They need the foresight to decide what goes forward, and then they need about seven Bob Lutzes," he said, referring to GM's vice chairman and vehicle-development guru."They need people who will not sign off on a product unless they are committed to making it the best in its class. They need that focus across the line."

In author Denove's opinion, GM needs "to continue to improve their quality, but they also need to become a styling leader so people will want to buy their products even if the quality is perceived as lower. That's what Chrysler did with the 300, and that's how GM can get people into its cars so they can see the quality is fine."

What GM has done to improve quality


1. Accumulate at least 500,000 miles of test-driving with a fleet of 250 or more vehicles in the last 60 days before a new model goes on sale.

2. Reduce the number of architectures GM develops so engineers can devote more time to each family of vehicles.

3. Engineer vehicles and parts to last at least 200,000 miles; engines and transmissions to last 150,000 to 200,000 miles.

4. Use the same assembly process in all factories.

5. Make quality a top criterion for companies looking to sell GM parts.

6. Reduce visible gaps in interior trim and exterior panels.

7. Improve appearance and feel of interior parts.

8. Share parts across multiple model lines to avoid duplicate testing and development.

9. Acquire and analyze real-time data from test vehicles equipped with the OnStar communications system.

10. Get assembly workers' input during development so vehicles are easier to build.

11. Spend more time training assembly workers.
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