Anne Asensio draws an imaginary triangle with her fingers, designating each corner with the three primary elements of developing a new vehicle: cost, time and quality.

“Everybody understands that each has equal value,” says General Motors Corp.'s executive director of the design staff's brand character center. “But it can be low cost — cheap — and not out on time. You need a nice balance, but I put quality right at the top. Quality is the issue today — total quality management.”

A French native who studied sculpture and industrial design in Paris and at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Ms. Asensio, 38, joined GM last October from Renault SA, where she was a key designer in developing several popular vehicles including the Scenic midsize minivan, Clio subcompact and Twingo minicar.

At GM she's responsible for future designs for all seven GM vehicle lines: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer.

Based on GM's less-than-stellar showing in most vehicle quality studies and surveys, partly related to how its vehicles look and feel — the “perceived” part of the equation — she faces a hefty challenge. And her imprint and that of her designers and others on GM's quality bandwagon aren't likely to have a great deal of impact for several years as it completes scores of programs already in the works.

Achieving world-class quality — read that the Toyota Motor Corp. variety — won't come from the design side alone. It'll take the combined efforts of everyone involved in the process: engineering, manufacturing and suppliers. In short, a team approach.

Ms. Asensio, however, will focus on design quality from a new perspective. “There are three kinds of quality,” she says. “There's technological quality, perceived quality and cultural quality. The way you perceive quality is different in France and Germany and the United States” and it might be added, Japan. “What we know is, if you don't improve durability, dependability and perceived quality, you die.”

Paying strict attention to design details up front may be the lifesaver, she suggests. “If you put changes in at the last minute, you might says ‘oops,’” she says, covering her mouth with her hand, “and that means you didn't do a good job on quality in the first place.”

U.S. automakers have been wrestling with defining what constitutes “quality,” and developing and producing cars and trucks that exude those features, for more than 20 years as Japanese automakers, with Toyota and Honda in the forefront, have notched up customer expectations. More recently, European automakers have closed the gap with the Japanese while the U.S. Big Three have struggled to keep in the running.

“If you put changes in at the last minute, you might says ‘oops.’ And that means you didn't do a good job on quality in the first place.”
— GM design staff exec. director Anne Asensio

Foreign automakers have one big advantage: They can refine their vehicles at home without the glare of embarrassing recalls that have constantly plagued the Big Three, then get them right before shipping them to the U.S. Once the processes are nailed down, they can then produce higher-quality vehicles in North America.

But that's only part of the story. Customers overseas generally are tougher on quality issues, and that includes aesthetic quality — the kind Ms. Asensio is charged with delivering. It can range from interior materials and appointments to emotionally exciting, pleasing exteriors.

The flood of new models and new niches surfacing as automakers fight like never before for market share compounds the situation. There's no room for missing the mark, because you don't get many second chances in a crowded market where speed in satisfying buyers has become the latest paradigm.

Quickly changing trends can create myriad quality snafus. As large Tier 1 suppliers take on more responsibilities, for example, the Big Three have less direct control over the components and subsystems in their vehicles. The rise in modular systems where Tier 1s pull together major subsystems using smaller suppliers has the potential for quality glitches. Even a tiny bolt or fastener that doesn't perform as specified can raise havoc — and has.

Moreover, this is new stuff for many Tier 1s. They now not only engineer components and systems, they have greatly expanded purchasing and parts and systems verification roles. Indeed, many complain they are not being compensated for these additional overhead costs that, they say, previously were borne by their automotive customers.

Then there's the price issue. The Big Three routinely hammer suppliers for price concessions to keep their profits from sliding or to escape spilling red ink. But where does the buck stop? Faced with falling in line or losing the business, suppliers — who also need acceptable profits to stay alive — are forced to cut costs themselves with a domino effect down through the chain, and this can be a recipe for a disaster on the quality side.

Assembly line workers often feel the brunt of criticism on quality issues. Their input and dedication are factors, yet as has been demonstrated repeatedly, assembly problems almost always can be traced to up-front engineering and processes. That's why American workers at Japanese plants can build superior vehicles or why British workers turned around Jaguar's poor quality image almost overnight in automotive terms. Ford Motor Co. adopted Toyota's processes at Coventry, and Jaguar now rates high in J.D. Power & Associates quality surveys.

Similar success stories abound worldwide. But despite their efforts in everything from adopting global quality standards and, partially, Toyota's practices, total quality still remains an elusive target for the U.S. Big Three.

Until they finally get a handle on it, they'll continue to lag in the polls and pay the price in shrinking market share. It's that simple — and that complex. They could start by agreeing that the apex of Ms. Asensio's triangle is where it's at.