This is the eighth in a series of articles written by motorhome manufacturers that address the subject of quality control. Recently, FMCA commercial members involved in the production of type A, type B, and type C motorhomes were invited to describe the quality-control strategies they have in place at their manufacturing facilities. Their stories appear monthly.
Alfa Leisure takes quality seriously. Although Alfa is a rapidly growing motorhome producer and a recognized fifth-wheel leader, the company is not content with its position. Alfa’s sights are focused squarely on producing the best motorhomes in the world.
Alfa has been building its record-setting 36-foot See Ya diesel-pusher motorhome for less than little more than a year, and we believe we have hit a home run with this broadly accepted, innovative product. Although we have raised our production rate 10 times in just the last nine months, and are barely able to keep up with demand, we will not increase our rate beyond our ability to build increasingly higher-quality coaches. Alfa is proud of the See Ya’s market success and its dramatic production-rate increases, but the company’s real source of pride is the quality of our recreation vehicles.
Based on both internal and external quality indicators, we believe that the See Ya is approaching perfection. Just how is Alfa attaining this success? The company attributes its good fortune to hard work, training, team building, listening to the customer, and using what works. “We are familiar with all of the quality tools out there,” said John Nelson, Alfa’s quality assurance director, “but we’re not impressed with buzzwords or fads. We use what works for us.”
Alfa’s team-based quality approach
Steve Wishek, Alfa’s general manager, put it this way: “Our success is based on a company-wide continuous-improvement philosophy, with quality responsibilities shared by all of our team members. Engineering, Sales, Purchasing, Manufacturing, and Quality Assurance all have key roles. It’s this integrated team approach that drives the process. Anybody who thinks that quality only belongs to the QA department just wouldn’t fit in here.”
Sales: speaking for Alfa’s customers
Alfa’s drive for perfection starts with the sales organization, which might seem an unusual place, but it makes perfect sense to Alfa. The company’s sales group defines what the customer wants, and this influences everything that follows in Alfa’s design, build, and customer support processes. The sales group attends rallies and shows, meets with customers and dealers, reviews sales to define customer likes and dislikes, and represents the customer to the rest of the Alfa organization.
The above process defines what customers want, but the sales involvement does not end there. Alfa sales personnel evaluate every Alfa coach after it has been through the manufacturing, test, and inspection processes. “[The] Sales [Department] represents the customer,” Mr. Wishek said. “We look at these coaches as if we intended to personally buy them. Any findings, whether cosmetic or functional, are aggressively attacked. And we don’t just fix the coach with the defect. When we find something we don’t like, we go upstream and examine every coach in the line to determine if it has the same problem, and we fix any we find. Then we take it one step further. We find out how the defect crept in, and we kill off the cause.”
Does this process work? Alfa officials believe it does, and the quality metrics support that conclusion. Today, about half of all the coaches presented to the Sales Department are literally perfect, with no defects of any kind. Coaches in the other half typically have only one or two defects (and these tend to be cosmetic, non-repetitive anomalies, Mr. Nelson explained). “The goal is for all coaches to be defect-free when they leave the assembly line,” Mr. Wishek noted. “We are very serious about this.”
Engineering great coaches
After the Sales Department has defined what the customer wants, Alfa’s engineering group makes sure these requirements are met with designs that are both producible and offer high value. “Our job is to make the connection between what the customer wants and the products we create,” said Ron Brown, the company’s engineering manager. “We design both the product and the process so that we have a highly producible coach responsive to market needs.”
Alfa’s engineering organization is somewhat unusual in that it is difficult to distinguish the engineers from the rest of the people in the factory. Alfa’s engineers spend more time in the factory than they do at their computer-aided design terminals. “We live with the guys on the production line to see what works and what doesn’t,” Mr. Brown said. “We build prototypes on the production line to find areas in which the design can be tuned up, and that’s a critical part of our design process. We design it right so our folks can build it right. There’s no sense in making a prototype in a laboratory when you know you have to build it in a factory.
“We also design our coaches with high value in mind,” Mr. Brown said. “Our philosophy is ‘Alfa gives you more.’ We have higher ceilings, bigger slideouts, more floor space, and more standard features in our coaches.”
Alfa’s engineering organization doesn’t focus solely on new product development. “Once a coach is in production, we bore in on making it better,” Mr. Brown continued. “Our engineers look for improvement opportunities; we study and act on field data; and we have a very active employee suggestion program. Many of our best design features and value improvement concepts come from employee suggestions. It’s amazing how brilliant our shop folks are.”
Quality: the manufacturing focus
Much of Alfa’s existence revolves around its manufacturing organization. A widespread view throughout the company is that giving the manufacturing group what it needs to make great coaches is everyone’s job. Everyone at Alfa is quick to point out that while quality is a shared responsibility, the manufacturing organization feels as though it owns quality. With approximately 500 employees, Alfa’s manufacturing managers and supervisors clearly enjoy being asked how many inspectors the company has. The usual answer is “about 500.”
“We set up our processes with a small number of workstations,” said Richard Olivas, production manager at Alfa’s Motor Home Division. “It makes it easier to focus on the coach and harder to move defects on to the next station.”
“We also focus on how easy we can make it for our people to do their jobs,” Mr. Olivas continued. “Our workstations are designed so that people don’t have to do work in awkward positions. We try to do work as early as possible in our manufacturing process, and to do as much subassembly work offline as we can. That way, we can test it, make sure it’s right, and install known-good components on the coach as it moves down the line.”
Alfa uses illustrated, bilingual job cards that define every operation performed by each manufacturing technician, a technique that was created by Johnnie Crean, the company’s founder and president. This approach clarifies who does what and in what sequence, and it allows the foremen to allocate work in such a way that assembly personnel are not overloaded. Alfa also has illustrated workmanship standards that define acceptable work in each workstation. “Training is key to our success,” Mr. Nelson said. “We train our technicians on all aspects of their jobs, with a sustained emphasis on quality. We don’t use slogans or posters. We define what’s acceptable, and train to the standard.”
Alfa’s management team has a “no-fault” philosophy regarding technician error. The basic assumption is that if an operation is performed incorrectly, the fault lies with management. When defects are uncovered, Alfa supervisors and managers are charged with finding and correcting the tooling, lighting, training, or other factor that allowed the error to occur. “We find that this helps our guys not to be afraid to point out things that they are doing wrong because they don’t have the right tools, or the design is wrong, or they haven’t been trained how to perform an operation,” Mr. Nelson explained.
Alfa sets incentives for quality along with productivity. The company’s hourly incentive compensation program is based on performance to labor standard and quality. After the company determines its efficiency based on performance to labor standard, it then deducts the cost of any rework. Alfa management explained that quality improved measurably after the company added a rework deduction provision to its weekly bonus computation.
Buying from the best suppliers
Alfa knows that its quality is dependent on the quality of the products it buys, and the company rigorously monitors supplier performance. Alfa prefers developing long-term relationships with its suppliers, but when we find that a supplier is not meeting quality expectations, we are quick to act. The preferred approach is to work with errant suppliers to resolve quality deficiencies, but if problems are not quickly corrected or if they continue to occur intermittently, Alfa has a history of finding new sources.
The quality assurance mission
With customer satisfaction indices and internal quality measurement data showing high customer satisfaction and low defect rates, one might anticipate a large Quality Assurance Department at Alfa. Actually, the QA group is quite small, consisting of just a few in-process inspectors (who assess compliance and perform some of the inline functional testing during the manufacturing process), and two quality engineers (who are essentially internal quality improvement consultants to the rest of the organization). Most of the inspections and tests are actually performed by the manufacturing technicians and supervisors as a normal part of the manufacturing process.
“We like checking our own work,” said production manager Richard Olivas. “We get good input from the Quality guys, but it’s really our job to make the product right.”
“One of the techniques we find useful is to use quantitative data,” said Mr. Nelson. “We collect and analyze warranty data, test data, and inspection data, and then we focus on fixing the big hitters.” A walk through all of Alfa’s plants shows that this data is not gathering dust, nor is it only being reviewed by management. Weekly charts showing quality progress and dominant improvement opportunities are present in every workstation, and the people in the workstation know what they mean. Driving the defects down means larger paychecks, and everyone knows this.
The bottom line
“The bottom line to all of this,” Steve Wishek explained, “is that good quality makes good business sense. For example, we established aggressive targets for our warranty reserves, and we are finding that our aggressive quality stance is resulting in surprisingly few warranty claims. We have been consistently and significantly under-running what we felt were tight warranty reserves. That’s money that goes right to the bottom line. We spend very little on advertising, because our product’s designed-in and built-in quality sells the coach for us. That’s money that goes right to the bottom line. People who buy our coaches are happy campers; they tell their friends about their positive experiences with their Alfa, and we sell more. We are very proud of our coaches and the great quality they offer.”