October 17, 2013
Being quality chief at a major automaker used to be fairly straightforward: Try to figure out what broke, study the part and every move on the assembly line, then change the part or the way people or machines work to fix it.
The process might involve investigating a glove-compartment door that inadvertently pops open. Or tracking down a trunk rattle. Or analyzing a misaligned panel. Or launching a probe into sticky power windows.
Today, however, life is far more complicated for executives such as Alicia Boler-Davis, who was named three months ago to the post of senior vice president, global quality and customer experience for General Motors (GM). That's because customers' definitions of what constitutes quality have expanded.
"People don't define quality as things breaking anymore," she explains over breakfast at a hotel here.
That more nuanced definition of quality might include instrument panel knobs that work just fine, but people don't like the way they feel in their fingers.
These issues now land on the lap of Boler-Davis, 44, a veteran GM executive who rose to the job from running an assembly plant less than two years ago.
Her duties now run from the stamping of the sheet metal to customer experiences at their local GM dealer. She has worldwide authority, making sure the same quality procedures are being carried out in China as they are in Detroit.
To make the task somewhat manageable, she has set two overriding priorities:
Drive quality. She wants customers to feel better about how well a vehicle rides, sounds and handles. You can't just ask them what feels best, she says. "Customers don't always know what they want."
New technology is helping set those benchmarks. For example, evaluating ride quality traditionally was pretty much up to the judgment of a chief vehicle engineer. Now, there is sophisticated testing equipment that can decipher the stiffness or squishiness of a ride. "We're taking the subjectiveness out of ride quality," Boler-Davis says.
In-car connectivity. Across the auto industry, customers have complained loudly—and downgraded makers in quality surveys—over the lack of ease and intuitiveness in the operation of the sophisticated navigation and entertainment apps going into cars, controlled by voice or touch-screen. Boler-Davis says trying to deal with them is her "biggest challenge."
But GM placed near the top in this year’s J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study, while rival Ford Motor, which touts its MyFord Touch connectivity system, took it on the chin for complaints about the infotainment system.
One way that she hopes to handle such issues: GM has created a pool of 50 "in-vehicle technology experts" who can troubleshoot customer problems in 85% of the United States.
Boler-Davis is an engineer—a chemical engineering graduate from Northwestern University who went on to a master's in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She joined GM in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer for midsize cars.
Though she held a variety of positions over the years, she caught the attention of CEO Dan Akerson when she took on not only the job of managing the Orion Assembly and Pontiac Stamping plants in Michigan, but as executive in charge of the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact, which is made at Orion.
Sonic was a particular challenge because it marked the first time in decades that GM would try to profitably build a subcompact in the United States.
She comes to the job while GM is on a roll when it comes to quality. Consumer Reports magazine, the non-profit that for years has criticized GM vehicles compared with their Japanese rivals, named the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala as the best sedan in the United States—better than Mercedes-Benz's, BMW's or Lexus' offerings. It also named the redone 2014 Chevrolet Silverado as top pickup.
And GM rose markedly in J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study this year, one of the industry's most closely watched quality barometers. Boler-Davis says she's pleased that when she talks up GM quality, people don't just have to take her word for it anymore.
Even though it's finally a good time to be GM's quality chief again, Boler-Davis says she recognizes that quality is a moving target.
"We need to anticipate based on the trends."
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