When the Ford Motor Company designed the new Tempo and Topaz cars, it turned to assembly line workers for ideas. It got more than 650 suggestions on how to change designs so that the cars would be easier for the workers to manufacture. And most of the ideas were used.
''Their suggestions led to practicality, which led to better quality,'' says Howard Freers, chief engineer at Ford.
For the past few years, quality has been a top management concern for the Big Three automakers here. Now the commitment is filtering down to the rank and file. ''They (the workers) believe this is the real thing, that it's not just an alert,'' comments Don Douglas, president of United Automobile Workers Local 594 in Pontiac, Mich.
And according to analysts and auto executives, the quality gap between United States and Japanese cars is closing rapidly.
''There is no comparison of the quality of (Detroit's) cars today with last year - or two years ago. It's tremendously improved,'' comments David Cole, director of automotive transportation study at the University of Michigan.
Consider these signs of improvement:
* Car warranty expenses at Chrysler are down 44 percent from the 1978 level. And George Butts, Chrysler's vice-president for quality, says it looks as if 1983 will account for 24 percentage points of that decrease.
* And automakers no longer rush new models to meet launching deadlines. Ford's new Tempo and Topaz missed their deadlines because the company spent more time getting them up to par. The same thing happened with General Motors' 1984 Corvette. And GM's new ''C'' cars - the luxury lines for Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac - didn't make the target production date, either. GM is correcting some ''undesirable, though not catastrophic,'' problems, says Alex Mair, vice-president for engineering at GM. Later this year the cars will be produced at two brand new plants - ''the best (plants) in the world,'' Mr. Mair asserts.
* At Ford, the quality index for cars has improved 59 percent since 1980, points out Joseph Forgione, director of quality assurance for Ford's North American operations. The index tracks the number and kind of problems consumers have with Ford cars.
Quality ''wasn't always No. 1 (at GM),'' recalls Mair, but ''since foreign competition, it has become No. 1.'' He explains that GM has come to realize that emphasis on quality brings other factors into line: With quality comes productivity; with productivity comes cost reduction; with cost reduction come higher profits.
At GM's Cadillac engine plant in Livonia (its show plant when it comes to quality and productivity), Robert Stramy, the manager there, says the 1984 budget will manage with 20 percent less than the '83 budget.
Quality improvement systems are in place throughout the industry. Engineering departments now work with manufacturing to make sure they design products that can be manufactured easily. Parts testing occurs much earlier in the new-product process. Competitors' cars are stripped down and analyzed to an extent never done before. Robotics, statistical analysis, and tighter inventory control have made astonishing inroads. Less variance in parts and fit is allowed. Worker quality circles are starting up everywhere. And manufacturers are insisting on quality from suppliers. Chrysler, for instance, has started holding five-day workshops with suppliers to pass along what has been learned about improving quality.
But these systems don't have their full effect until ''the whole quality mind-set'' pervades the entire company, reasons Mr. Forgione at Ford. He says that Ford's ''initial (quality) thrust was at engineering and manufacturing'' but that ''the thing now is to make it a total, companywide effort.''
That's a tough job. At the Ford Escort plant in Wayne, Mich., huge banners spread the message: ''Quality is job one.'' But slogans aren't enough, and this plant, like other Ford plants, is trying to get its employee involvement program (EI) off the ground. All 3,200 employees at the plant will eventually go through a one-day seminar about problem solving, quality issues, communication, and the goals and competitive position of Ford. Assembly and office workers meet weekly in teams to discuss quality and work life issues.
But the people managing the EI program are moving ahead with caution and deliberate slowness. ''The skeptics are just waiting to take one good shot at us ,'' says Martin Kennedy, coordinator of EI at the plant. Mr. Kennedy admits some people in the plant think the whole program is political and don't trust management.
Macon Bomar, a bargaining committee member of UAW Local 900 in Wayne, says that ''workers are still skeptical. Something that existed over many years just doesn't change overnight.''
At the same time, Mr. Bomar believes more workers are receptive to EI. ''Poor quality was what caused us to lose our jobs . . . and more employees think the involvement system will lead to quality.'' He thinks Ford is ''committed'' to quality but fears the company may turn its back on it if demand really picks up. Making the rounds through the plant, this veteran of over 40 years at Ford comments that ''there's no comparison'' of Ford quality today with a few years back. The repair section for defective cars, for instance, has been almost entirely eliminated.
Management has found that worker interest and participation differ from plant to plant. Spreading the quality atmosphere through whole plants is easier when you start from scratch, says Mr. Stramy, eating lunch in the brightly colored employee cafeteria at the Livonia Cadillac engine plant.
Two years ago engine production switched from a Detroit plant to the new factory at Livonia. Together, workers and management established a plant philosophy of communication, trust, individual and company growth, and quality. They set up business teams for weekly reviews of quality, safety, and work area problems, and of the plant's financial status. Workers and management share the same cafeteria, lockers, and dress codes.
The plant also runs a unique program called pay-by-knowledge, whereby workers increase their base pay and rotate jobs as they learn more skills within their team unit. One assembly worker in the program says: ''I did the same job for 10 years. It was a real drag. I was subject to slacking off . . . I'm still a common laborer but at least now I have a chance to challenge myself every day.''
Of all the quality methods at the plant, ''the team concept is the greatest advantage,'' Stramy says. Every statistical indicator that workers use to keep tabs on quality ''is going in the right direction,'' he adds. He also attributes low absenteeism, a reduction in scrap and repair, a drop in manpower cost per unit, and worker-initiated quality improvement to the fact that ''management is not repressive here - workers have freedom to contribute.''
Despite all these efforts - and recognized improvements in quality - Detroit still has a bad image. In its annual auto survey, Consumer Reports magazine this year rated several 1983 US cars as average or worse than average in product reliability. ''You have to deliver quality, you just can't say you've got it. You have to earn the trust of the general public,'' comments Mr. Cole at the University of Michigan.
Alex Mair at GM figures it will be about five years before GM can ''fully'' gain that trust. ''You've got to remember,'' he says with a smile, ''that already 80 percent of GM buyers think we're great.''
In George Butts's opinion, the auto industry will spend more effort trying to change the public's perception of US auto quality. How does Chrysler do it? ''We wake people up,'' he shouts. ''We tell people that we're so confident about our quality that we'll guarantee them five years or 50,000 miles.'' But to get consumers to spread the word means ''we have to build and deliver. The image will change through time by having it in the product.''
And will time deliver for the US automakers?
Says Robert Knoll, head of the auto test division at Consumer Reports and the man who may influence American buyers the most: ''The bottom line is they are getting better. . . . In the showroom, the cars are looking very good, but the more important step is how their cars will hold up in two or three years, and the jury's out on that.''