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What Happened To Mercedes?
When Quality Meets Complexity
By Donald P. Ladew Staff Writer
Norman Taylor & Associates
There was a time when German engineering was the envy of the world. It used to be the best. If you wanted precision, and durability, you paid a little extra and you bought a Mercedes. It said to the world, you were someone who made it, or already had it. The quality of its products justified engineering and production arrogance. Not any more. And lest we shake our head and long for the good old days, let's remember that arrogance unsupported by excellence is fine for the French. It's expected. We want more from the German industrial sector. The following is extracted from an article in the Wall Street Journal:
Mercedes Sees Rankings Slip In Satisfaction, Quality Tests
- New Car Buyer Survey (February 2002): Mercedes quality rating is below that of GMs Opel unit.
- J.D. Power (October): In German customer satisfaction survey, Japanese brands win every category; Mercedes ranked just above average.
- Consumer Reports (November): No Mercedes model makes magazine's recommended list. Norman Taylor & Associates has taken many Lemon Law cases on behalf of clients with Mercedes vehicles. Even in this area it's not a quality process. It is not a good sign when a car company fights with a consumer over whether they tightened the gas cap properly. Confidence, as Jack Palance said in a popular advertisement, is very sexy. Confidence coupled with integrity and well-made automobiles make it unnecessary to abuse an owner who simply wants a car that runs as advertised.
On the process of maintaining quality, Aristotle said it well.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
Has Germany lost the quality habit? This is doubtful. Countries don't lose the habits of centuries. There have been significant socio-economic changes in Germany over the past ten years that have arguably had profound effects on German manufacturing. Indeed, these changes have been felt all across Europe. Not the least of these changes has been a tremendous influx of foreign workers, workers who often don't appreciate or understand the passion for manufacturing perfection.
Irrespective of the causes of this phenomena, saying it isn't so, denying that their products are defective, shows a lack of courage, and an inability to do the right thing. It does not bode well for the future of Mercedes Benz. I for one would be happy to see this trend change. In their time, German cars were something special indeed.
Now it is 2004 and the 2005 model year vehicles are entering the queue. The handwriting for this fall from grace has been on the manufacturing wall for some time. This isn't just a Mercedes problem. We selected them because they certainly had enough engineering know how and experience to have seen the current quality disaster coming. To continue the metaphor, Omar Khayyam the Persian poet wrote a thousand years ago, "the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on." Yesterday's hero is today's goat. Individuals and corporations cannot live on past glories.
Warren W. Rother, in an article in Automotive News, defines the problem clearly. To abbreviate what he said; quality couldn't keep up with complexity. Did Mercedes really need to be able to compute Martian Orbits to be competitive? Probably not: Mercedes recently announced that they were removing 600 electronic functions from new model vehicles. They discovered the hard way that software test and validation is both time consuming, difficult and expensive.
Mercedes made a nice car but it's not the Space Shuttle. Military and space software engineers have long since learned that for every operational test, every safety test, user's will initiate some combination of vehicle use that the manufacturer never imagined could occur. Military engineers know that for every two dollars spent on hardware three dollars or more would be needed to produce safe and reliable software. They budget for it accordingly.
What was the result of insufficient quality testing of Mercedes computers - software and hardware? What we call, dead brain (Engine Control Unit) and other computer failures. We have seen many of these failure modes here at Norman Taylor & Associates. The manufacturer and its agents the dealerships replace one component after another, none of which were defective. If you suggest that Mercedes quality is in the tank your comments are treated like sacrilege. This is not constructive.
It is past time that the Mercedes organization and other auto manufacturers got their heads out of sand, faced realities and built features that are fully tested. Those who insert their head in the sand with their hind end in the air present a fun target for the competition.