Whoever said "be careful what you ask for, you might get it" must have been thinking of QS-9000, the U.S. Big Three automakers' first attempt to standardize quality standards for its Tier 1 suppliers.

Suppliers have been asking Big Three purchasing departments to unify their quality requirements since 1988. Vendors currently submit various engineering reports, manufacturing quality reports and other documentation to automakers. This process becomes even more time-consuming and cumbersome when working with more than one OEM. Suppliers then provide the same information to OEMs in different and sometimes conflicting formats.

The problem is compounded for second- and third-tier suppliers, who also must meet additional requirements of their Tier 1 customers. "We asked for what we needed, and the OEMs supplied it," says Timothy Sheppard, director of quality for Dana Corp.'s North American operations, who was involved in writing the new standard.

QS-9000 is billed as a "harmonization" of Big Three vendor quality requirements. It will replace Chrysler Corp.'s Quality Assurance Manual, Ford Motor Co.'s Q-101 program and General Motors Corp. North American Operations (NAO) Targets for Excellence program.

But it falls short as an across-the-board standardization. Section III of the QS-9000 manual includes customer-specific requirements for each automaker and six heavy-duty truck manufacturers. Frieghtliner, Kenworth, Mack, Navistar International, Peterbilt and Volvo GM also have adopted QS-9000 as their basic quality system.

These additions rankle some suppliers. "With the customer-specific sections of QS-9000, the Big Three might as well have stuck to their own programs," says one supplier source.

Stephen C. Walsh, Ford's supplier quality requirements manager, says he agrees in theory that the manual should be completely standardized. "But we realized that we could never, ever 100% agree," he adds. "It is the first major leap." Ford suppliers still need to achieve Q1 certification in addition to QS-9000.

Regardless of what suppliers think of it, QS-9000 compliance is mandatory for continuing business with the Big Three beginning in 1997. Chrysler suppliers must have a so-called "third-party" registration (by an independent registrar) by July 31, 1997, and GM requires the same by Dec. 31, 1997. Ford has not issued an edict for third-party registration.

"We're not going to impose deadlines," says Mr. Walsh. "Suppliers must, however, be compliant using a self-analysis." He adds that vendors must present a plan to fix areas not in compliance and present certain documents upon request.

QS-9000 is based on ISO 9000, an international standard for industrial quality. It adds Big Three interpretations and supplemental quality system requirements including the production part approval process (PPAP), detailed plans for continuous improvement (CI) and manufacturing capability, which covers facilities planning, equipment and process planning, tool design, fabrication and tooling management.

Supporters say QS-9000 has the potential to substantially reduce the Big Three's own quality audits, termed second-party audits, with significant cost savings and improvements in efficiency for both the automakers And their supply base. "It's the elimination of all forms of waste, which directly impacts profit," says Edward Lawson, vice president of quality assurance at Aetna Industries Inc. "It's the consistent application of common sense."

Gary Kraybill, quality manager for DuPont Automotive's finishes business, says one set of quality standards will ultimately trim a lot of wasted energy. He adds that QS-9000 builds the quality and defect-prevention system into the manufacturing process. "It gives you a pathway back to the development process when you get to the (manufacturing) line," says Mr. Kraybill.

Critics of QS-9000 say they expect the new manuals to become "door stops and footstools," and call it "the quality program of the week," "a scam" and "a financial boon to lots of pompous, pontificating, paper-shufflers."

There's no question of the financial impact to the quality registration, consulting and training industries. Numerous companies hawk their services at industry events such as the Automotive Industry Action Group's (AIAG) Auto-Tech '95 and the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) Automotive Div.'s Jump-Start QS-9000 conference.

"The amount of junk mail that we get in the course of a day with QS-9000 on it is incredible," says Joseph Corace, president of sunroof manufacturer Inalfa Hollandia Inc. (IHI).

Once the mail is sorted, the first thing suppliers need to begin their quest for QS-9000 is the 108-page QS-9000 manual. To support that, vendors need new manuals for statistical process control, measurement systems analysis, advanced product quality planning and quality systems assessment. If you supply GM, you'll need 16 customer-specific procedures documents. And each automaker has its own guidelines for parts packaging. "The registrar will make sure you're up to date for all of your customers," says Dana's Mr. Sheppard.

Before a registrar even sets foot in a supplier plant, much needs to be done to prepare a company for the QS-9000 third-party or self audit. Most experts agree that a positive attitude and strong management backing are absolutely critical in the quest for QS-9000.

"You'll fail to realize the benefits of QS-9000 if you view it as a project or something to get through and move on," says Aetna's Mr. Lawson. "If you do it just because a customer tells you to, you'll be as frustrated as ever."

"You cannot over-emphasize the management commitment to QS-9000," says Russell M. Jacobs, Ford's manager of supplier quality planning.

A. Schulman Inc. and DuPont quality managers boast strong management support of their QS-9000 efforts.

"Our management has shown its support by forming a top-level executive team that meets monthly, and by investing in resources, including an outside consultant," says Ron Andress, plant manager at A. Schulman's Bellevue, OH, facility. Mr. Andress also is responsible for implementing QS-9000 at his company's six North American plants. He says he expects all of the facilities to be registered by the end of 1996.

"Our management has been leading the continuous improvement process from the start," says Mr. Kraybill, adding that DuPont's top management meets six times a year for two-day meetings at which one of the two days is dedicated to quality and continuous improvement.

With that kind of commitment in hand, those charged with spreading the gospel of QS-9000 in their companies need what Aetna's Mr. Lawson calls a "structural approach" to implementation.

The first step in this approach is an assessment, or "gap analysis" as it's called in the trade. This initial internal audit gives a company a look at where it currently stands against the QS-9000 requirements. Some companies are hiring consultants to perform this duty.

IHI and DuPont decided to take matters into their own hands, for different reasons. "I felt that we had to be self-audited first," says IHI's Mr. Corace. "It'll have more impact if we do it internally. It may not be as fast, but it'll have a bigger impact on our people."

DuPont says it's not using an outside consultant because it has had quality and continuous improvement programs for 15 years, says Mr. Kraybill. "What we see in QS-9000 is an extension of that work."

The next move is to develop a plan to implement QS-9000, which in essence will bring into compliance any areas that fell short in the initial internal audit. Mr. Lawson says the key to this step is putting the right people in charge of each element of QS-9000 and establishing realistic timing for completion.

The first few elements of QS-9000 address management responsibility and organization, contract review and design control. But those who deal with QS-9000 on a daily basis say the documentation and data-control segment of the standard is the biggest challenge.

Under QS-9000, every supplier must have a written quality manual, an operations/procedures manual, specific work instructions for each plant task and an accurate system of records to make sure the manuals are being followed.

"Maintaining adequate records is the basis of the whole registration process," says Mr. Lawson. "And the No. 1 reason for failure."

"Initially, the most difficult thing was getting together the documentation. Operators just can't deviate from the written instructions," says Art Cashin, director of Freudenberg NOK's Nonwovens' consumer filtration group.

Dennis Bates, contracting agent and QS-9000 champion at Lucas Industries Inc., says that "Providing documentation to match procedures, and training employees to use the system" are the biggest challenges his company is encountering on the road to QS-9000. To comply, many companies are forced to redo their entire documentation process.

Bob Baker, a lead assessor at Entela Inc., an accredited QS-9000 registrar, says that some companies are a bit casual about how they amend their quality manuals and how they post work instructions, which must be readily available for worker reference to be in compliance.

"All documents have to be signed, dated and approved," explains Mr. Baker. "Changes have to be approved using a formal process, and yellow sticky notes are creeping into the process on machines and in manuals. This is not in compliance."

Siemens Automotive's Newport News, VA, fuel injector plant is one of the most recent facilities to be QS-9000 registered. With ISO 9000 certification in hand, the plant had a relatively smooth transition to QS-9000.

Yet, says Jim Kearns, the plant's director of quality and reliability, there was a slight problem with documentation. While all changes to the system were made according to formula, he says the old procedures were left in the book, which caused auditors to throw a penalty flag.

Although suppliers appear to struggle with documentation, Dana's Mr. Sheppard says there's actually less than before because there's only one set of standards rather than three.

Another area of concern, says Mr. Baker, is the product identification and traceability element, which requires everything in a supplier facility to be marked. "There's always one (welding) gun or one box that is missing a tag or a label," he says.

"Workers need to follow the written instructions explicitly," says Mr. Baker of QS-9000's process control segment. "And they are getting chopped or shortened all the time." He adds that the last problem area he sees is the inspection, measuring and test equipment element. "We're always finding a gauge that's out of calibration or that hasn't been calibrated on schedule," he says.

Full implementation of QS-9000 requires the company to be self-auditing, particularly those that do business with Ford. A. Schulman's Mr. Andress calls internal audits the most critical part of the process, since they'll give us good, consistent measures of what we're doing."

Mr. Lawson advises companies to look at auditing as "identifying opportunities for positive changes, not pointing the finger of fault."

Although most suppliers look at QS-9000 as beneficial to their overall business, it does come at a cost - somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000, depending on the size and operations involved at each site being registered.

The cost usually covers a pre-assessment, document review, registration audit and three years worth of semi-annual follow-up visits. In addition to cost and services, experts advise suppliers to select a registrar based on its knowledge of the industry and the specific product involved, its proximity to the plant and the chemistry between the companies.

Mr. Bates of Lucas says the average cost to register his company's 19 plants will be $26,300 per plant for a three-year cycle. He expects all to be registered by January 1997.

Mr. Cashin says he expects registration to cost Freudenberg Nonwovens in the $50,000 range. "It's the right thing to do for our business. But the audit is the tip of the iceberg." There also are the man hours to change procedures, write manuals and perform internal audits, he points out.

"It's very difficult to calculate all the costs, especially the internal hours," says A. Schulman's Mr. Andress. "It's very expensive, no doubt about it."

Both suppliers and automakers seem to agree that the biggest benefits of QS-9000 will come when the standards trickle down to the second and lower tiers of the supply ladder.

"It's up to the Tier 1s to make it happen by deploying (QS-9000) consistently to the rest of the supply chain," says R. Dan Reid, GM's manager of supplier quality development. Tier 1's have the wherewithal to get certification," says IHI's Mr. Corace, "but I think there will be pain and tears when the second and third tiers get involved. We gave our suppliers a goal of January 1997 to get certified. And we're helping them get certified."

DuPont already has a supplier improvement process that currently is being made more compatible with QS-9000 "so they'll be ahead of the game," says Mr. Kraybill.

Further assistance for smaller suppliers, including minority suppliers, could come from die automakers, Tier 1 vendors, AIAG, various minority and small business groups, the federal government or a consortium representing each. Big Three QS-9000 officials say a program to assist these suppliers is in the early stages of development.

"The whole industry will benefit when we all start to get certified parts," says Mr. Corace.

DuPont's Mr. Kraybill sums up his experience with QS-9000 by saying, "It's easy to say, not so easy to do." Putting QS-9000 in perspective is Eduardo Flores, an industrial engineer at GM's Delphi Packard Electric Systems in a letter to WAW. He writes: "Quality is a state of mind, a personal conviction that has to come from the inside. Any quality effort has to be directed to the soul of the worker. (QS-9000) is a very good step, but not 'the answer'."