The Key to Improvement? Sustainability!

Six years ago, Ford Motor Company was losing billions. It had a lineup of tired, old, uninspiring, stodgy, and poor quality vehicles. Like the other U.S. automakers, it had lost ground to European and Asian companies, which were not only making better cars and trucks but which seemed to have a better grasp of buyers’ wants and needs.

Around the time that Alan Mulally took the reins of Ford, the company slowly started to improve. They pared their bloated lineup of cars, introduced some new models, and improved the quality of their products significantly. Ford also got its financial house in order, avoiding bankruptcy that crippled GM and Chrysler.

Because of its improvements – and because the #1 car company at the time, Toyota, was hit with a huge number of product safety recalls – Ford leapfrogged into second place in the U.S., sales-wise, in 2010.

In the last couple of years, though, Ford has struggled to maintain its upward trajectory, mainly because of its own product safety and quality issues (oh, irony). Their “MyFord Touch” system, developed in partnership with Microsoft, has been buggy nearly from the outset. If you were extremely patient with them – as my wife and I have been since problems first cropped up over a year ago – you’d have been rewarded with a relatively bug-free system.

MyFordTouch_screen_CNet

MyFord Touch screen (CNet)

Still, MyFord Touch isn’t a driver-friendly system. If I’m all alone in the 2011 Edge, I have to wait until I come to a stop light or I park the car to switch channels, change media, or adjust the interior temperature.

Ford’s also had a recurring problem with its 1.6 liter EcoBoost engine, which it attributes to a software flaw. This problem could result in overheating and engine fire. This engine is being used in a number of vehicles, like the Fiesta and the new Escape.

2013 Ford Escape (automobilemag.com)

2013 Ford Escape (automobilemag.com)

I have no doubt Ford will make good these problems but I’m wondering why they ever came up and affected so many new vehicles, not to mention Ford’s hard-won reputation for quality. As an outsider, I can only take a stab at the root cause of this dilemma Ford finds itself in.

It appears that while Ford correctly identified opportunities for improvement, then developed and implemented changes in their products and their organization, they may have overlooked or downplayed the significance of reviewing and updating. They had the “Plan” and “Do” parts of the Deming Cycle right – they didn’t do so well on the “Study” part, however. Guess you could blame that, in part, on all the excitement that positive press created within Ford. (One of the worst mistakes a company can make — letting emotion take over from reason.)

We have to work the Study part of the cycle to sustain improvements, to keep them going over the long haul. This is key – if we fail to look at the data we’ve accumulated, or we concentrate on the “wrong” data, the “Act” part of the cycle is worthless (or close to it).

Sustaining improvement is, as far as I know, the most difficult aspect of product and process quality. How tough is it? Well, just ask Ford.

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