Valencia, Spain — Ford Motor Company, which has been building cars in Spain since 1976, is testing a new worker-autonomy program designed to sharply improve the quality of its cars and eliminate waste. ``A few years ago we were telling the operators not to touch the machines because only the maintenance department can work on them,'' explains E. Lago Badia, manager of the engine plant here.
``At that time we were very rigid, unlike today. We also told workers not to touch anything involving quality because it was up to the quality-control inspectors to inform the boss about the quality that was being produced.''
All that may be starting to change, however. Mr. Lago says that for the past year he's been testing a waste-reduction idea at the Ford engine plant in Almusafes, near Valencia, next to the car-assembly plant. Why not give the workers a larger say in how they do their job? Why not let them make minor adjustments or repairs to a piece of equipment? Why not try to give more diversity to a particular job?
After getting top-management approval for a test on a single engine line, the plant manager put one person in charge at the superintendent level. Under him he put the engineers for quality control, process, tools, production, etc., with all of them reporting to the superintendent. Then the workers were trained in quality control, minor maintenance, and inspection.
``We want each man versatile and responsible for performing more than one operation,'' Mr. Lago asserts. ``Also, we want all of the workers to have the same objective and be as self-sufficient as possible.''
The workers are urged to ask themselves: What did I run yesterday and what can I do today to reduce the scrap of yesterday?
To begin, Mr. Lago asked each worker to eliminate all scrap for eight hours. ``If all the people do the job correctly and the same way, then we won't have any scrap,'' he says. ``Our objective was to get one day without scrap.'' In less than a week, he had his scrap-free day and, at this writing, the plant had run 34 days without scrap.
The point, however, is not only to reduce scrap and save money, but also to humanize the operation so that the people don't see themselves as automatons in the plant.
When Ford began producing cars in Spain, ``many people came in from the farms,'' explains Claus Siegle, director of manufacturing, ``many of whom had never worked in an industrial plant before. Our job was to make them aware of what we wanted to achieve at the plant -- and we had to keep after them every day.''
While the plant is now comparable to the quality that is produced at Saarlouis, West Germany, he declares, ``it will take several years to get it to where I want it to be.''
If the plant management accepts Mr. Lago's report on the reduction in waste, it should move the plant farther along the quality route. Indeed, the entire engine plant could switch to the system by the end of the year. Further, the engine-plant manager says he has increased the training budget sharply in the last several years.
``By making the workers more knowledgeable is another way to develop a sense of involvement by the people,'' he explains. ``We also try to interchange jobs so as to help the people avoid getting tired of the same activity for eight hours a day.''
By spicing up the jobs, Ford hopes to cut down on absenteeism, which, in the engine plant, is running at about 6 percent.
In line with the latest production-line buzz phrase, Ford has hundreds of quality circles in its Valencia plant, with 73 percent of the workers involved. The Japanese, Lago reports, now have about 1 million quality circles in operation, ``which means about 10 million workers are meeting, discussing, and improving everything -- the product, the organization, the system.''
Among the 9,000 workers in the Ford plant, 1,400 work in the engine facility and 159 are on the salaried staff.
Building cars in Spain is not an easy task. ``The Spanish worker is fantastic in that once you find a way to awake their willingness to help you, they respond,'' Lago says. Yet the Spanish government keeps a tight leash on what a company can and cannot do. A company, for example, can only work overtime up to a limit -- 2 hours a day, 15 hours a month, and 100 hours a year.
Beyond that limit, it becomes illegal and a company can be fined. Some well-known ones, in fact, have been fined very heavily for working more overtime than they were legally permitted.
``The unions say that if you need overtime, then you should employ more workers,'' according to Juan Manuel Rodr'iguez Jado, head of export operations for SEAT, Spain's government-owned automaker. SEAT does not pay overtime, he explains, but ``we compensate with time off. The policy of the government obviously is to create more jobs.''
``Labor laws in Spain are not tailored for today,'' complains Ford's Mr. Siegle. ``We do not have the flexibility. What we want to do sometimes, the law says we cannot do it.''
``If the laws are not changed, and Spain joins the Common Market, then we are going to have major problems down the road,'' suggests Guillermo Rey Urbez, director of industrial relations at the Ford plant. ``It would be quite a handicap for Spain as the law now exists.''