Maintaining quality on customized trucks is all in a day’s work for this year’s Quality Plant of the Year winner, Daimler Trucks North America Cleveland Truck Manufacturing Plant.

Give customers exactly what they need most. That can be a tall order for some companies, but for the Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) Cleveland Truck Manufacturing Plant (CTMP) in Cleveland, NC, it is all in a day’s work.

Plant Manager Mike McCurry jokes that his plant is the Burger King of trucks-you get it your way.

CTMP builds five different class 8 truck Freightliner models-Argosy, Columbia, ST, Cascadia and M915A5 military. Each of these models can be ordered with different configurations based on the customer’s application. Unlimited options include cab type (day cab or sleeper), cab height, drive train configuration, and even the paint color-there are more than 10,000 colors to choose from, including about 200 different shades of white-and scheme.

In addition, CTMP supplies trucks to the NAFTA, Australian, New Zealand, Chile, South African and U.S. military markets. Each of these markets requires that the truck meet different exhaust emission standards. These standards dictate the engine model and exhaust configuration. Adding one more piece of complexity, the Australian, New Zealand and South African trucks are built as right-hand drives.

Realistically, each of the approximately 60 trucks being assembled on a given day could be a different specification.

“It’s amazing the different set of expectations customers have,” says Brian Smith, cab assembly manager. These differences are generated around the variations of applications and customization of the product.

In order to give the customer what he wants, CTMP gains an understanding of what the customer wants well before the truck is built.

Quality Manager Chris Harris explains, “Normally, when we prepare to build a fleet for a customer, we’ll conduct a pilot review with the customer by building one of their trucks about six weeks prior to the fleet starting. The customer will come in and review the build quality and truck specification. The purpose of the pilot is to make sure all of the specs are correct and everything is the way they want it.”

In one instance, the customer was not able to make it to the plant, so CTMP took the truck to the customer-six hours away.

“Without that customer interaction, we can build a truck to the expectations that we think it should be, but without that you never know if you’re truly building it to what the customer wants unless they come and tell you, ‘OK, this is what we see,’” says Smith. “And it’s really what we calibrate off of and then step up to the next level and raise the bar.”

McCurry says that customer perception and the quality of the trucks is better than ever.

Best in Class

McCurry says that the Cascadia is the best Class 8 truck in the market and the growing marketshare proves it.

To make the best truck possible, DTNA made a conscious effort to design the new Cascadia the right way from the beginning. They talked to customers and went to trucks stops and asked drivers, “What do you want to see?”

The production workers also worked with the design engineers from the beginning to get the process right.

Of the approximately $80 million invested in the Cascadia line, nearly half of the investment was in automation, says Rod Rayl, cab in white manager.

Automation provides several advantages when it comes to quality. Robot processes are repeatable and can be designed to detect problems. For example, the cab assembly robotic cells are designed to prevent operator error by having a built-in Poka-Yoke. The assembly process will not start until the system has verified that all parts are placed correctly in the fixture, a check accomplished with proximity sensors.

Also, the cab assembly process contains an automated vision inspection cell, ensuring that the cab is dimensionally correct and that it is built per the cab specification.

In addition to the robotic assembly processes, CTMP uses DC or pneumatic torque-controlled tools throughout the assembly process. By using torque-controlled tools, the likelihood of having loose components is greatly diminished over the life of the truck. Also, by installing fasteners to correct torque, the potential for damaged components from overtightening is prevented, reducing scrap at the plant.

But not all of the work is automated. Human interaction check points have been inserted throughout the process to make sure things are put together correctly, because if it was all automated and something broke in the beginning, you would never know it, explains Rayl.

Harris adds that defined quality gates have been installed throughout the plant where some are staffed by quality control and others are staffed by the responsible production department. Cab in white, Rayl’s area, is one of the areas where they do their own inspections.

“By using standard work and the defined quality processes, the operators know what they need to do, and what should be coming to them from the previous station,” continues Rayl.

TOS in Detail

“When I first became a quality manager, I thought the whole process should be about building quality,” Harris says, “but after meeting with the customers, you realize it’s more than that. They want the trucks on time and they want us to reduce cost. Quality is more than how you build a truck; it’s the whole process of how you build a truck.”

With nearly a trailer-and-a-half of parts to build one truck and endless customer customization possibilities, how is quality maintained throughout the process with so many possible variations?

The process has been made easier by implementing a truck operating system (TOS). The TOS is the CTMP’s foundation to develop and live within lean processes and continually improve.

TOS contains “the know what” and “the know how” to continually improve within a lean culture. CTMP has succeeded in improving quality by creating a lean management system to drive the production system. In other words, the lean management system uses the appropriate tool within the production system to achieve the desired result.

CTMP uses a variety of TOS tools to continually improve quality: quality feedback loops, standard work instructions, production process assurance, quality alert andon systems and problem-solving processes. Each of these tools has an individual purpose that can improve quality, but when they are used in conjunction, the result is world-class quality.

Quality feedback loops. The quality feedback loops start at the team member level and extends to the end customer.

Each of the quality feedback loops is intertwined so that information flows from the customer to the team member. Also, processes have been created within each loop to improve quality and address issues quickly.

Worker self control. The goal of worker self control is to build quality into a station and prevent a defect from reaching the next station. At the team member level, standard work instructions (SWI) define the process steps and quality checks to complete each assembly job safely.

Smith says, “Because of the complexity and the customization in these trucks, you have to give [team members] a standard and a process to follow.

“Someone may be on vacation or a job transfer may have occurred, so you have to have a starting point [standard work] for our team members,” Smith continues. Standard work provides the detailed instructions for performing the processes so that the level of quality is not compromised in these situations.

Harris comments that not only are the standard work instructions to work by, but they are also to improve by.

Smith continues, “As the process changes, we’ll either update it or completely change it. It’s a living, working document all of the time.”

If the team member encounters a problem or question while performing his job, he activates his andon-a battery hooked to an alarm-to notify his team leader. Because some work areas are larger than others, the alarm serves as a way to attract the team leader’s attention, no matter where he may be in the work area. The true intent of the andon system is to let the team member announce they have an issue before the problem actually impacts them.

When an issue arises, the first question asked is “What is the standard?” If a problem exists, it comes down to three things-the process does not have a standard; the standard is incorrect; or the standard was not followed.

If for some reason the issue could not be corrected, the team member records the discrepancy on his production process assurance form (PPAF) so that the issue is repaired downstream. The PPAF is used throughout the production process and is a permanent record kept with the truck file.

Quality gates. Quality gates manned by inspectors have been established throughout the production process to control first-time quality and to ensure that no defects leave the production area. The inspector verifies the customer’s sales order to the truck specification while inspecting workmanship. The inspector also has a defined standard for inspection within the quality gate.

The inspection standard is defined by an inspection checklist, which includes standard items and dynamic items that are checked on each unit. The dynamic items are added to the checklist based on internal and external customer feedback. When an inspector finds a discrepancy, the defect is noted into a database of the truck history. Reports can be generated from the database to highlight repetitive problems. The problems then can be added to the inspection checklist or the SWI as a quality check.

In-line production audit. An in-line production audit is staffed by quality department auditors who audit the product and the production processes. Their purpose is to ensure that the product released from the production areas meets engineering standards and customer expectations.

The process auditors verify that the assemblers are following manufacturing work instructions and proper tooling is used. They also verify that tooling is functioning correctly. The product auditors have extensive knowledge of the engineering standards, but they also have been trained to see the truck through the customer’s eyes. The product auditors have acquired this perspective by reviewing feedback from customers and by conducting consistency reviews with customers and field service.

By having the balance of knowledge between engineering build standards and the customer’s expectations, the product auditors ensure that the truck is built with world-class quality.

To distribute this knowledge into the manufacturing processes, one truck per shift is pulled from the end of the main assembly line (EOL audit) for a customer perception audit. Any issues noted during the audit are fed back to the team responsible. These issues also are added to the inspector checklist for the quality gates. The EOL audit focuses on first-time quality and demonstrates how the quality feedback loops are intertwined to flow information from the customer to the team member.

Assembled product audit. The assembled product audit focuses on the customer. This feedback loop encompasses all external feedback such as warranty, dealer feedback and direct customer communication. The assembled product audit, or APA, mimics the EOL; however, APA focuses on trucks ready for delivery to the customer where EOL focuses on trucks within the production process.

In addition, the APA includes the dynamic vehicle test (DVT). Each day a DVT is performed on one of the APA trucks. The DVT is a loaded 50-mile road test which tests the complete operation of the truck from the driver’s point of view. The same product auditors perform the APA, DVT and EOL customer perception audits.

Also, the same feedback process is used to feed information back to the team level. The main benefit of the APA process over the other external feedback loops is the timeliness of the information. The APA gives immediate feedback from the customer’s perspective to the teams.

The TOS is clearly working for the plant. The hours per unit to build a truck has decreased about 20% since 2008, and warranty costs are approximately one-third of what they were two years ago.

In addition, DTNA has a corporate auditor who conducts three unannounced quality audits per year. CTMP’s scores have improved about 75% from just a few years ago.

Continuing Quality

But quality does not stop just because a truck rolls out the door. The plant continues to improve using what it calls a Blue Sky initiative. The Blue Sky is the plant’s 5-year vision, which helps ensure that everyone in the organization is driving toward the same goals. Each year the plant measures itself to the Blue Sky to determine the improvements needed to achieve its vision.

Some of the quality metrics targeted for improvement within the quality process include achieving zero defects, winning a J.D. Power and Associates award and reducing warranty costs.

Of course, those goals cannot be achieved without some forethought. Each year the plant puts together a tactical implementation plan (TIP). TIP has been created for safety, quality, delivery, cost morale and environmental.

TIP sets forth the steps and timelines for initiatives to be improved or implemented. It also is used for accountability and indicates which areas may need additional resources.

Another way that CMTP strives to hit its goals is that there is no hierarchy in its quality production meetings. Management’s influence needs to be transparent throughout the organization.

“You have to want to improve more than you want to be right,” says Veronica Hobbs, continuous improvement manager.

Employee Engagement

No matter how good the process is, it is nothing without a team to buy into it and support it.

Year after year, engaged, empowered and enthusiastic employees make the Quality Plant of the Year stand above the rest.

It is the employees’ never-ending commitment and dedication that helps a company lead the pack. The day before Quality visited CTMP in January, the finish cab line went down. Rather than wait an estimated three hours for the system to be back online, employees manually pushed the Freightliner trucks off the line to keep production moving.

The employees seem to understand that they are part of something special and, McCurry says, “The enthusiasm in the plant is infectious.”

Employees are truly empowered. Last year the 1,000 production workers suggested almost 12,000 improvements, 85% of which were self-implemented.

Most of the production workers have been at the plant an average of 18 to 20 years, and turnover is less than 1%.

“Most of the people in this plant really enjoy dealing with the customers,” Harris says. He adds that the production workers are not afraid to go up to the customers visiting the plant and ask, “How can I do it better?”

Smith adds, “Mike [McCurry] has said it before, the employees on the floor can sell a truck just as well as the dealership.”

As with many companies, the economy affected the Freightliner plant. Today the plant runs on a single shift, considerably less than in its heyday of three shifts. Despite the economic conditions-or because of it-employees made a record number of donations to the United Way this past year. The employees realized that the donations were helping their own.

McCurry likens it to the largest “family business” out there. A family business that anyone would be proud to be part of.