"Our quality improves immensely when the customer gets his car on time." This blunt statement comes from Brett Suits, manager of the X5 SUV assembly line at BMW Manufacturing Corp. in Spartanburg, SC. It emphasizes that in an industry where every maker has improved vehicle build quality, delivery time is becoming more and more critical in the competition to win customers and dominate quality surveys. The customer satisfaction surveys administered by J.D. Power and Associates have become the de facto standard for quality in the auto industry, and since they often rely on customer's opinions for their data, subjectivity rules.
Suits says, "I can look at all of the customers that got their cars on time, and I can look at the customers that got their cars a week or two weeks late–one car may have a J.D. Power score of 100 and the other 150. They are all built in the same time frame, they are the same models with the same options–so, what's the difference? The customer wasn't satisfied because he or she didn't get their car on time. It has a major impact." This impact is especially acute for a made-to-order operation like BMW that serves a clientele of people who are long on money and short on patience. (The good people at BMW use words like "demanding" and "passionate" to describe their customers. The average driver cut off by a speeding Bimmer might use some other characterizations...)
To combat the lack of perceived quality that accompanies a late delivery, BMW Manufacturing instituted a new system last April that centers around mobile groups of workers called "attack teams." These teams are dispatched to assembly line locations where workers cannot finish processes on time, usually because several cars in a row are slated to receive special options. Under the old regimen, tact times were determined based on the average percentage of vehicles that were projected to receive options like navigation systems. So, though an assembly worker receives an average of three minutes per car, that might be broken down into 2 minutes 40 seconds for non-navigation equipped cars and 3 minutes 40 seconds for cars with the option. Thus, if the demand for navigation rises above the projected average of one out of every three cars, delivery time suffers.
With the attack team system, if customer orders dictate 10 special option cars be made in a row, a team is sent to the area that needs help until it returns to a normal production flow. On the X5 line, four attack teams have been created and stationed near option installation points and critical processes. For example, there is a team in the area where the assembly processes cover access to the interior electronics systems, since fixing an electronics problem before it is concealed greatly reduces repair time and increases the chances for on-time delivery. Suits sums up the change in approach by saying, "The old style was scheduling, the new style is an agile attack."
With X5 production running 60 to 70% above the original production volume plan, BMW needs the kind of agility represented by the attack teams to keep up with on-time deliveries of burgeoning customer orders.
Brett Suits' final words on the subject are spoken with the finality of a man with long experience, "The days of being able to tell our customers when they will get their cars are over. Now, they tell us."