Even if cars of the future drive themselves, it takes a lot of people to make those cars safe. The people at TRW Automotive work hard to make cars as safe as possible, no matter what type of car it is, or who is driving it.

The company supplies safety systems for braking; steering and suspension; and occupant safety, including airbags, seat belts and steering wheels. TRW supplies more than 40 major vehicle manufacturers, and had sales of $16.4 billion in 2012. The Fowlerville, MI, facility, built in 1995, provides a glimpse of the success the company has had worldwide.

“I’m proud of Fowlerville,” says Bryce Currie, vice president of quality, program management and business excellence. “They have, from the start, from the early ‘90s, been a very good plant making good product, in any way you measured it, in delivery performance, in quality performance, but the people there have been very, very good. They make that plant hum.

“To run a good plant, I don’t care if it’s a 100 year old plant or it’s a 10 year old plant, you have to have good systems and good discipline to following the processes and the leadership and the people on the floor at the cells,” Currie continues. “Fowlerville not only does that but continuously is looking to improve.”

TRW’s Fowlerville, MI, was named our 2014 QualityPlant of the Year, for its impressive commitment to quality, safety and continuous improvement.

Learn from Every Plant

Although TRW’s Fowlerville, MI, plant received the award this year, credit should be shared with its Fenton, MI, sister plant. The two facilities, which are about 30 miles apart, both manufacture slip control braking systems and share a management team, including Plant Manager Bob Holman and Quality Manager Donnie Pressley. Between the two plants, they had 2012 sales of about $360 million.

 “Fowlerville could not be where they are,” Holman says, “or achieving what they are without Fenton being just as strong.”

These sister plants typify the TRW belief in sharing between plants. As Holman says—very appropriately for an automotive company—there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, management encourages employees to share ideas and success stories between plants.

To that end, Holman will be taking a trip to Mexico this month. Along with other plant managers and staff, he will be visiting several different facilities to see what he might bring back to Michigan. This is a regular occurrence—he visited a Portland, MI, facility in September—designed to help staff share ideas.

“Any plant you go into,” Currie says, “you should always come away with something you’ve learned, either good or bad.”

And with about 185 locations worldwide, TRW staff has plenty of learning opportunities. But at every plant—whether it is here in the U.S. or not—some things are nonnegotiable. All TRW plants focus on four areas: best quality, lowest cost, global reach and innovative technology. In addition, visitors at any of the plants will see the same color-coding quality system to track mistake-proofing and continuous improvement initiatives. With locations from Brazil to the United Arab Emirates and dozens in between, visitors only need to follow the color-coding system.

World Class Quality

All of TRW’s plants have a visual management system, allowing anyone to see what’s going on at each plant in just a few minutes. The charts show the past 24 hours of production and the goal vs. actual production.

Green indicates a process is on track, while red indicates an issue. Although it may be tempting to hide issues, that would defeat the purpose of this system. As Luke Van Dongen, director of quality, global braking, told me, the system calls for “the courage to be red.”

By bringing issues to the surface, potential problems can be addressed before they ever reach a customer. And Fowlerville customers, including GM, Ford, Chrysler and Mercedes, benefit. The plant also ships to other TRW locations, including Mexico, Germany and China. So in order to continue pleasing customers around the globe, it is important to have strict internal metrics.

“Not everyone wants to put the results of internal audits on a board for everyone to see,” says Pressley. “But how else to improve?”

And in order to improve, the plant does regular Six Sigma projects, kaizen gemba projects and lean implementations. They also take good care of their equipment: many of the machines are twenty years old, but because of good upkeep and preventative maintenance, they are still working well. The facility also includes a lot of clear explanations with work instructions and the color-coding quality system seen at every facility.

“Our strategy for our quality system has really stayed to be world class in quality,” Currie continues. “Now the end game is always changing because what was world class in quality in 2000 and 2005 is not world class in quality today, as evidenced by quite a few customers having moved from measuring in parts per million to parts per billion.”

Getting Better All the Time

When Holman joined the plant in 2004, the scrap rate as a percent of sales was about 1 to 2%. The team was able to reduce that to lower than 1%. The main way of achieving this was doing a teardown on 100% of product that failed mainline assembly cells, a practice they have been doing for about the past six years.

And creating quality parts with low scrap rates is a complicated business. As Holman points out, since Fowlerville deals with 20 million components a month from its supply base, suppliers are critical to the plant’s internal quality and scrap rate. One way the plant strives to improve quality is through the Back to Basics program.

With this quality initiative, the staff carefully combs through the data from processes. “We typically say that it talks to us,” Holman says, “and tells us if things are drifting or varying. We monitor that closely now. We’ve been monitoring our processes for variation for a long time, but the Back to Basics initiative shortened the time intervals that we look at the process. Instead of a day or week, now, it’s more hour by hour.”

And for other plants looking to improve, Holman says that it is important to measure what’s important to you. This approach has lead to a focus on safety, and of course, quality. It’s something everyone focuses on, no matter where they are located.

“Quality is our backbone,” says Currie. “We’re dealing with people’s lives. It has to work.” 


TRW Automotive


TRW has more than 65,000 employees in more than 185 locations worldwide.

The Fowlerville, MI, plant has 250 employees.

It is certified to ISO/TS16949 and ISO 14001 and has been named a Clean Corporate Citizen of Michigan.


A Look Back

TRW and its founding companies have a long history in the automotive industry. The company produced wooden wheels for the Ford Model T in 1909, parking brakes for Ford in 1928, and many other automotive innovations since then. In the last five years, the company has developed a new integrated electric park braking system and recently launched a new version of its slip control brakes.

 Careful readers of Qualitymay already be familiar with TRW from its appearance on our Quality Leadership 100 list. Fowlerville also made Industry Week’s list of “10 Best Plants” in North America in 2004.