The Current State of QUALITY at Honda and Toyota

When you think about the consistency with which the people at both Honda and Toyota turn out high-quality vehicles, you begin to wonder whether there isn't something in the water... Which, we've discovered, is not the case. What they are doing is reconfiguring plant processes, installing more accurate equipment, strengthening the communication between the design and manufacturing staffs, working to improve supplied parts, and relentlessly emphasizing the centrality of the concepts "trust" and "respect."

When you talk to people at Honda and Toyota about quality, you begin to suspect that each company has stolen the other's playbook. Both are making remarkably similar efforts in pursuit of higher quality vehicles. And those efforts constitute a quiet assault that may raise the bar for the industry and keep them a step ahead of the pack.

Up with People!
"Mutual trust and respect is the foundation of building consistent quality." That was a quote by Gary Convis, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK), but it could just as easily have come from a Honda official. Both companies consider well-treated, highly-motivated workers to be the backbone of their quality efforts.

And Convis is straightforward about what keeps workers in a quality mindset: "The commitment to on-going long-term employment is very, very important to people, and that is a critical thing that makes Toyota different. We haven't had any layoffs and we are committed to not having them. Because of this stability, everyone focuses on the job to be done and how best to do it and cooperates on building high quality with the least amount of cost and waste. That is an ingredient that is underestimated and not talked about as much as say, the hardware of a new model."

In addition to job stability, Convis says that clear expectations reduce the miscommunication that can lead to defects. "The consistency of direction at TMMK from the first day forward has been to build quality in the process, in the station. It's very, very clear what is expected. And we don't deviate from it–regardless of whether someone may be having a bad day." Consistency extends all the way down to the basic concept of getting people to show up for work regularly. "Well over 5,000 people at TMMK had perfect attendance last year," cites Convis. "Over 400 people had 10 consecutive years of perfect attendance. It really does help you build a high-quality car when the same person is on the job consistently." He says that dedication to the team is the main reason for the perfect scores, but also admits that Toyota pays a small attendance bonus. Honda does, too, and the sense is that managers at both companies consider it a small price to pay for better quality.

Improved Plants
More concretely, both Honda and Toyota have been adding new, more accurate equipment to their manufacturing plants and reconfiguring processes for both higher quality and greater flexibility. With the launch of the new Civic last fall (see October, 2000, AM&P), Honda debuted its New Manufacturing System, which is centered around electro servo guns and electric robots in the weld department. Koki Hirashima, president of Honda of America Manufacturing (HAM) explains, "Our new flexible weld systems are dramatically different from the traditional systems that use model-specific jigs. The new systems produce more accurate welds for improved fit-and-finish; they're more efficient, handling different processes that had been performed by associates; and, they increase our capability to handle model changes quickly and at lower cost." Honda also introduced its Global Standard Layout in the assembly area which groups similar processes into five functional areas (wiring and tubing, interior, chassis, exterior, and complex) and institutes quality assurance checks within each area. Their reasoning is that this new organization makes it easier to catch and repair problems before they reach final inspection at the end of the line. And with almost a year under their belts with the new system, the results have been impressive. Hirashima says, "The straight ship rate has improved by 20%. And rejects per unit were reduced by 75%." As for weld quality, Honda says its body-in-white accuracy is up 5%.

According to Gary Convis, TMMK has also installed new electric weld equipment that is more flexible and accurate. The "spatterless" guns are designed to provide just the right amount of current needed to quickly form a weld without all of the picturesque (and wasteful) sparks that have been a hallmark of traditional weld shops. The new machines clamp the metal so lightly that Toyota has done away with the massive jigs once necessary to keep bodies accurately positioned while the old hydraulic robots connected violently.

More R&D in the U.S.
Honda and Toyota have both steadily developed their R&D capabilities in the U.S. over the years and are now reaping some of the quality benefits that come with greater proximity and improved communication between the people who design new models and their counterparts on the plant floor who build them. Tom Mitchell, assistant vice president of Auto Quality at HAM, says that having Honda R&D engineers just a few miles up the road instead of across the Pacific helps speed the solution of quality problems. Key issues are discussed on a weekly basis. "Before, there were times when we had a problem but we were not discussing it as a team. Now, we are talking about how to take care of problems as a team, rather than as separate entities."

The Toyota Technical Center (TTC) in Ann Arbor is a lot farther away from Toyota's manufacturing plants than is the case with Honda, but provides many of the same quality benefits. Line workers from TMMK regularly trek to Michigan to participate in trial builds and provide input to design engineers on critical quality issues like ergonomics. (Toyota executives say it is hard to overestimate the role played by good ergonomic processes in building consistent quality.)

Dana Hargitt, executive engineer at TTC, cites not only increased interaction with the plants as a boon to product quality, but says the basic Toyota design approach of not re-inventing the wheel keeps resources focused in a way that promotes higher quality. "There is a design production system similar to the Toyota Production System. The biggest thing that we do differently is that we don't start from a totally clean sheet of paper. We have a number of designs that have evolved and we know they work. We don't try to change those. We use everything we know that works from every model that Toyota builds. When you have a design that you know works flawlessly and is the lowest cost you use that design from then on. For example, the way plastic components fit together, where you put ribs, how you connect them, how you keep the gaps—there is a best way to do that, and those are the things you keep so you don't have to re-engineer that every time. That way you can devote more time to style parts and the parts that will change."

Working with Suppliers
Since a high percentage of their final products is made up of supplied parts, both Honda and Toyota have been concerned with teaching suppliers ways to produce higher quality components for years. Given both makers' low defect rate, their efforts have clearly been paying off. But supplier quality continues to be a key concern. Sometimes the problem is just getting a foot in the door. "There are many suppliers out there that don't feel that the trade-off is worth it because it is so much extra effort and such a different expectation working with Toyota than what they have with their other customers," says Dana Hargitt. And even with the suppliers that are willing to take on the extra burden of Toyota or Honda's stringent standards, progress can be slow. "Suppliers that have worked with us before get the idea and after the second or third project they are much better able to handle Toyota's demands," says Hargitt.

But the potential for improving the overall quality of vehicles by improving their component parts remains enormous, especially as the makers begin to exhaust internal efforts at raising their quality scores. In fact, it may be the biggest quality area left to conquer for Honda and Toyota. Mitchell puts it bluntly when talking about Honda's increased activities with suppliers: "We have to make sure that suppliers can help us out with quality."