The “EX” Factors: Ford’s Quality Journey

Last month I attended the annual World Conference on Quality and Improvement in Pittsburgh.  It was an exciting time for me, as I supported the publication of my Primer on Complexity and Quality, and gave a very well-attended session on viewing quality “Through the New Lens” of complex systems.

One of the great pleasures of attending the WCQI, is the range of excellent keynote speakers presenting wonderful narratives of organizational improvement.  This year was no exception.  ASQ Chief Executive Paul Borawski has provided a rich set of video interviews with Bennie Fowler of Ford.  As Paul points out in his “View From the Q” post at http://asq.org/blog/2011/06/four-questions-talking-quality-with-ford-motor-company/  most of us know that Ford famously adopted “Quality is Job One” as its corporate slogan in the 1980s.  As we see in Bennie’s comments, much has changed in the pursuit of “quality” since most of America first heard of W. Edwards Deming in 1980.

What struck me in Bennie Fowler’s comments were a series of what I call the “EX Factors.”  I’ve written and talked about some of these in other posts here and on Twitter.  So let me provide a brief description of what I see emerging at Ford:

EXpanding the Definition of Quality: Paul and Bennie talked about how the “old definition of quality” was no longer enough.  In other words, reliability is no longer the sole criteria of what we now mean by “quality.”  As Bennie Fowler states, Ford understands the EXpanded (and expanding) definition of quality.  What does this mean?  As Paul and Bennie discuss, the “old” quality was about conformance to specification and reliability.  Today’s EXpanded definition is about the dynamics of the relationship between the customer and the product.  The true quality of the Ford car comes to life only when the customer looks at the car, sits in the car, drives the car, or owns the car.  At the same time, what that car IS, reflects the design thinking, intention, and commitment of the Ford company that made it.

EXpectation versus EXperience: since the time of Henry Ford, the company has understood that it is in business to sell cars.  But where Henry was determined to “have it his way,” Bennie Fowler clearly expresses the company’s current understanding of its relationship with every customer.  Deming, Feigenbaum, and other quality pioneers wrote that the mind of customer is often changing.  But Bennie Fowler and Ford are now very much aware of the need for the customer EXperience, to meet or EXceed their EXpectations.  As Bennie said, cars that do not break is simply the minimum standard.  He noted the need to act with design thinking and intention, building great-looking cars, with appealing interiors, down to the tactile feel of interior materials. With critically-acclaimed new cars including the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, and forthcoming Escape, Ford “gets the EX” in customer experience.

EXecution:  one thing that Bennie and Paul discuss, that hasn’t changed over the last 30 years, is the need for EXecution.  The best intentions won’t matter to your customers if you do not execute well.  Are you doing what you intended, the way you meant it to be?  How are you measuring your results and impact in your market?

EXamine what happened: More than ever, Ford is paying attention to what their customers and their global market have to tell them.  They are EXamining both quantitative and qualitative data from multiple sources and multiple perspectives.  This drives the continuous learning that fuels continuous improvement.

EXcite with the nEXt: Bennie spoke about innovation, and particularly the application of new technologies to improve Ford’s customers’ experiences.  Clearly, this is not Henry Ford’s “give them Model T’s, make them black.” This is another example of a Ford company that now understands the vital dynamics of its relationship with its customers.  The EXcitement  of the nEXt comes only when the customer can and does perceive the value of the new, to them.  If Ford wants to EXcite with technologies like Sync, they know they have to inform and educate their customers with the value proposition of the new.

My first car was a Ford.  It was a 1970 1/2 (yes they made mid-year model changes back then) Torino.  It was an attractive mid-size two-door hardtop.  The only option on the car was a manual remote driver’s side mirror.  Total cost: $2,350.  No power steering, no radio, no air conditioning, no power windows, no rear defogger.  How was the “quality of the car?”  To me, not very good.  In the first instance, I had what might have been the world’s only “Torino-Falcon.”  On one rear fender my car had the Torino nameplate.  But on the other side, it said “Falcon.”  Oops.  This car also suffered from an engineering design problem in its front suspension.  Ball joints and front tires wore out regularly.  This design apparently afflicted other Fords of the era, including Mustangs.

I might not have bought another Ford after that experience.  But in the late 1980s, as I became a quality improvement leader in government, Ford had made “Quality Job One” and built the Taurus.  I bought one, then another Ford car.  Then another.  And another.  And yet another (a 2002 Escape now running strong with over 115,000 miles).  A commitment to “quality” in all its evolving meanings, can do that for a car company.

NOTE: I am one of ASQ’s Voices of Influence bloggers.  I do receive a very small bit of compensation from ASQ, but the views expressed in my blog posts are entirely my own.

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