Ergonomics Is Driving Quality

By Fernberg, Patricia M. | Occupational Hazards, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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Ergonomics Is Driving Quality

Fernberg, Patricia M., Occupational Hazards

Automobile manufacturers NUMMI and Ford view ergonomics as a means toward reaching their corporate goal: making quality vehicles without lost time, lost expertise, and lost resources.

Venerable Ford Motor Company and New United Motor (NUMMI), a 15-year-old joint venture between General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Company, appear to have little in common, but both see ergonomics as pivotal parts of their business philosophies and their manufacturing processes - and reap the rewards.

As Bruce Hettle, manager, Global Final Assembly, Vehicle Operations at Ford's Dearborn headquarters, puts it: "The moral side and the financial side of business don't have to be at odds. There's the idea in business that ergonomics costs a lot of money, but it is cheaper to do things right the first time. When you involve everyone in the process, you get a more optimized outcome. Beyond that, there's a specific moral responsibility relative to the ways that employees are treated. People are our strongest asset, and we walk the talk. That's the bottom line."

NUMMI, the California producer of Toyota Corollas and Tacoma trucks and Chevrolet Prizms, won't argue that philosophy. "Ergonomics is, and always has been, a win-win situation: employees don't get injured, and manufacturers get better quality," says Joe Enos, UAW coordinator at the plant. Rita Kapoor, an ergonomics specialist at NUMMI, says ergonomics is an integral part of NUMMI's corporate spirit of kaizan (continuous improvement).

Noble intentions don't necessarily translate into shop floor reality, but at NUMMI and Ford, ergonomics is part of the way workers and managers operate every day.

It starts at the senior level. Both plants consider the costs of ergonomics and safety, in general, as part of the production budget. Those expenses are as real as those of workers' compensation claims, injuries, scrap and slowed production - all losses that have been stanched by implementing a corporate ergonomics program.

Like many manufacturers, Ford Motor Co. and NUMMI experienced some losses in terms of time, medical claims and time-intensive processes. But when customer expectations of quality and competitive pressures to compress the production cycle placed new demands on both companies, which were approaching scheduled model year changeovers and union contract negotiations, it became clear that all losses had to be managed.

Changing Philosophy

Ford management and UAW representatives began their ergonomics dialogue in 1984, calling in experts from the University of Michigan to help define the company's ergonomic needs and the best approach to take in addressing these needs.

Pilot studies of advanced manufacturing technology development indicated that integrating ergonomics into the conceptual design phase, rather than at product launch, would eliminate problems and costly redesigns downstream. As a result, the decision to incorporate ergonomics upstream was motivated by a desire to manage costs and optimize resources.

"We can't afford to make the same mistake twice," says Hettle, noting that Ford's research showed that each ergonomic problem affects an average of four people and that each downstream ergonomic fix cost the company almost $5,900 and 20 weeks to effect. "We would rather not spend [the money] to fix a problem that should not exist, and we'd rather not spend 20 weeks to fix it. That's too long," he explains.

Although an effort to define ergonomic needs at NUMMI began in 1987 with an evaluation and redesign of jobs and some training for supervisors, limited resources and knowledge, communication barriers between labor and management and the absence of ergonomics as a corporate priority challenged attempts to benefit from ergonomics. When production began on the new 1993 models, injuries increased. A change in vendors brought changes in the quality of parts, some of which had to be forced into place.

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