Having been the butt of many jokes when it comes to product quality, Chrysler is on a mission to prove to the world that it can build reliable cars and trucks. The battle will be tough, since more than 60% of the 30 million Chrysler-, Dodge-, Jeep-, and Plymouth-branded vehicles on the road today are more than six years old (only 10% are less than two years old). There are a lot of K-Cars, Horizons and New Yorkers out there, vehicles which most of the folks within Chrysler would rather forget about. Still, the automaker is making progress in shifting the perception and reality of its product quality, thanks to several new models, including the Dodge Ram, Chrysler 300 and Jeep Liberty. For the first time in eons, the Chrysler brand scored above the industry average of problems per 100 vehicles in 2005 J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study, which measures problems experienced by vehicle owners over a three-year period. Chrysler posted a 235 PP100 result, which just bested the 237 PP100 average. While that may not be much to cheer about to many, just look back to 2004, when the brand had 285 PP100, or 2003 when Chrysler posted 295 PP100. A 60 problem reduction over three years shouldn’t be easily dismissed. The story is equally impressive on the initial quality front, where the Jeep and Chrysler brands have both posted double-digit percentage improvements within the past three years.
The battle to get serious about improving product quality began in 2002, with the Jeep Liberty. A new manufacturing facility in Toledo, OH, provided Chrysler with the opportunity to initiate its “quality gate” concept, which requires a vehicle to meet predetermined quality standards as it makes its way through the development process. If the standards are not met, engineers halt the program to resolve any outstanding issues before the vehicle moves to the next phase. With Liberty being the test case, Chrysler developed ever-increasing quality standards for its other products, including the Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Durango and LX rear-wheel drive passenger car family. “We set tougher tip levels across each of the model years and the requirements at each gate are getting tougher,” says Steve Walukas, vice president-corporate quality for Chrysler Group. “The ’07 models will have the tightest targets that we have ever had in place.” Currently under the microscope are the C-segment products: Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Patriot (dubbed PM, MK and MK-79 internally, respectively), as well as D-segment cars, which will replace the current Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus. The C vehicles began rolling off the line at Chrysler’s Belvidere, IL, assembly plant in January ‘06, while the Sterling Heights, MI, plant will start building D platform vehicles later in ‘06. Walukas says Chrysler identified potential problems with the C-segment vehicles early in the S0 design phase of development, at which point the program was halted. Once the issue was resolved, the process continued and the development team managed to maintain the original Job 1 production date. “We are ahead of all of our quality targets on C-Segment right now. What’s happening throughout the organization is we are now moving into what I like to call a ‘fire-proofing mode’ versus the old ‘fire-fighting’ mode. The folks that worked on the C will now move over to the D products, which will help us reduce development time and improve our learnings,” Walukas says. Use of the quality gates, along with the revamped Chrysler (product) Development System, are crucial parts of Chrysler’s plan to become the world’s most-efficient auto manufacturer by 2007. The advancements in quality helped to reduce the automaker’s warranty costs by 25% within the past five years. Those savings are being pumped back into product, enabling the development of additional derivatives off the same vehicle architectures. All of which is being done in shorter timeframes.
Chrysler’s supply base also is feeling the pressure to improve quality, but Walukas says suppliers are not being asked to do anything the automaker isn’t doing itself, including Black Belt certification, Shainin problem-solving techniques, and Design for Six Sigma processes. More than 40 suppliers have taken part in the Black Belt certification process, while the top five managers at the automaker—including CEO Tom LaSorda—have received Black Belt certification. In all, nearly 300 Black Belts have been awarded via the Chrysler program, with 36 Master Black Belts certified since the program began several years ago. “The message we’re trying to convey through all of this is we need perfect parts. Good enough is not good enough anymore,” Walukas says. “While reviewing the plans for the MKs [Compass and Patriot] we paid attention to the details to the point of having Eric Ridenour”—Chrysler Group’s COO—“looking at some of the fasteners on the product.” The road ahead will be even more difficult to traverse, especially since most of the traditional low-hanging fruit that plagued quality scores—powertrain malfunctions, electrical problems and poor fit-and-finish—have mostly been rectified. Now it’s time to pay attention to the nitty-gritty—cupholder dimensions, glove-box size and electronic accessory reliability—to name a few. “We are going to focus on the customer and take the notion of the voice of the customer and use that in design. If you focus on the customer and get it right that will all drive right back into the system and we need to all work towards having that type of performance in all of our activities,” Walukas proclaims.