Worker Proficiency: Starting Over

In late spring of this year, automakers in the United States began ramping up production after a nearly two-month shutdown to contain COVID-19. By then, the virus had sickened millions and killed thousands of Americans and forced businesses across the traumatized nation to close.

Automakers like Ford, GM, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda and others and their suppliers spent those months cleaning and sanitizing their facilities, stocking up on personal protective gear and setting new protocols aimed at keeping their assembly teams and staffers safe from COVID-19 infections while on the job.

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But what about the manufacturing process? With an extended shut down and the real possibility of some assembly workers in the future having to quarantine because of the virus, many quality managers, whose job it is to ensure that their plant manufactures excellent products consistently, face daunting challenges, according to J. Scot Sharland, CEO of the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), a nonprofit based in Southfield, Michigan.

“If you’re starting and stopping and starting and stopping production,” says Sharland, “that generates a lot of rework, errors and waste. It’s a recipe for poor quality.”

So earlier this year, stakeholders with AIAG came up with an idea to help quality managers make sure that after a shutdown, plants would once again achieve predictable manufacturing outcomes and that products rolling off the assembly lines would meet industry standards.

AIAG’s big idea was to issue an Industry Restart Package for Quality, making for the first time its Core Tools Assessment, Core Tools e-learning and e-documents available free of charge to companies in the automotive supply chain through the end of 2020.

“So, like muscle memory, if we have the time we can go back and do a refresh on what’s important in terms of the processes and the basic knowledge needed to understand how we achieve more predictable manufacturing outcomes,” says Sharland, “and, by doing so, help companies — with an emphasis on the mid- to smaller-sized companies — make sure they hit the ground running when they flip the switch.”

Quality core tools are the methods, standards and techniques that professionals in the auto industry use to ensure quality in manufacturing processes across the supply chains. They are the methods OEMs generally require their suppliers to use.

The core tools taught in the Industry Restart Package for Quality include Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), a procedure for identifying the potential for failure within a process or manufactured part; Statistical Process Control (SPC), the method of using statistical analysis to monitor manufacturing processes; and Measurement System Analysis (MSA), which involves determining the level of accuracy and precision of a measurement system.

Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) and Control Plans, and Production Part Approval Process (PPAP) are the other e-learning courses in the restart package.

AIAG opened in 1982, the brainchild of “visionaries” from the big three North American automakers: General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.  AIAG’s aim has been to create a “neutral, legal and professional forum” where stakeholders in the industry, including automakers, parts suppliers, service providers, government agencies, academia and others could team up to formulate innovative ideas for making processes more efficient and keeping costs down in the supply chain.

Today, AIAG publishes industry standards, hosts trainings and educational conferences taught by subject-matter experts in the industry and offers resources like the Industry Restart Package for Quality. The nonprofit has more than 3,800 member companies across the United States, Mexico and overseas, and more than 900 volunteers from those companies collaborate to come up with new guidelines, recommendations and best practices for the auto industry.

Individuals who obtain the AIAG Industry Restart Package for Quality start out by taking a 75-minute online self-assessment test to benchmark their basic knowledge of the core tools.

Once they identify the basic core tools they need to study, they can go online and take e-learning courses, one of which gives students an overview of the core tools. Another, the “Quality Core Tools – Connect the Dots” course, shows how all the core tools work together in manufacturing while another lesson examines how to apply principles of statistical process control to production. The other e-learning courses teach students how to implement MSA, PPAP, FMEA and SPC, as well as an APQP control plan.

Furthermore, students can access the e-documents that supplement the lessons.

After completing their studies, people can retake the self-assessment to see their progress, says Sharland, as long as they wait at least 30 days from the first time they took the test. People, however, can take the test as many times as they want.

“Like most training, this is a journey and not a destination,” says Sharland. “You start here, strengthen that quality or supply chain management muscle and then move on to the next one. It’s not a zero-sum game or a one-and-done game. This focuses on continuous improvement.”

People can eventually choose to further their studies by signing up for live virtual training for quality core tools. They can also study for a core tools certification.

So far, more than 500 companies, primarily in the United States and Mexico, have engaged with the free AIAG Restart Package for Quality program, he says.

Besides the core tools Restart Package, AIAG offers free access to its industry best practices resources covering topics like business continuity planning, cybersecurity and pandemic planning.

“We worked with our volunteers — subject matter experts from our member companies — to develop a free webinar, presentation and check list to provide suppliers a road map to help them organize and prioritize their operational restart activities,” he says.

Sharland says suppliers with workers just entering the industry or workers reassigned to new positions and in need of more experience will find the Industry Restart Package for Quality to be particularly useful. And the package is especially needful these days as an increasing number of older workers retire out of the auto industry.

“Their experience is really hard to replace,” he says. “If we don’t have a process by which we capture that experience and codify that, we’ll have a problem. Who’s the next person to step up and fill those very large shoes?”

But for now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Sharland says one could safely predict that regional contagion hot spots will continue to randomly emerge, triggering immediate and public health containment reactions that will cause intermittent supply interruptions, including shutdowns and employee quarantines.

“Right now, we’re in the midst of the great unknown in terms of when we’ll ever get back to any semblance of normalcy,” he says. “So AIAG is here to serve, and my commitment is that we have to start with our most important resource and asset and that’s our people and make sure they have access to the information they need to be successful in the jobs we need them to fill.”

Gail Allyn Short is an Alabama-based freelance contributor for Southern Automotive Alliance. This article recently appeared in the 2020 annual Southern Automotive Alliance issue.

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