DEARBORN – Ford Motor Co. should dial back the reliance on Six Sigma and everyone should emulate Toyota Motor Corp. and Delphi Corp. when it comes to lean manufacturing, in the opinion of the man behind the annual Shingo awards that recognize manufacturing excellence.

Ross E. Robson, associate dean of business relations at Utah State University and executive director of the Shingo Prize, is a lean appraiser of the state of manufacturing in North America. He pulled no punches in comments to an industry crowd here at the inaugural AutoMan global conference, organized by Automotive Mfg. Solutions of the U.K.

Ross Robson

Robson sees three competing paradigms when it comes to manufacturing: mass production, quality/Six Sigma, and, finally, the Toyota Production System – the grandfather of lean manufacturing.

Mass production is passe, he attests, as evidenced by the number of companies abandoning it for lean and flexible means of assembly. Robson cites Delphi for transitioning from mass to lean manufacturing “faster than any major company in the world.”

Quality programs such as Six Sigma are excellent tools, “but shouldn’t be an umbrella,” Robson says.

Ford has embraced Six Sigma with dogmatic rigor. It says it is the only OEM to deploy the data-driven initiative through all its operations globally. Last August, Louise Goeser, Ford vice president-quality, reported Six Sigma had saved $1 billion worldwide in one year, with another $400 million in savings from waste elimination for the first seven months of 2003. (See related story: Six Sigma Still Racking up Savings)

The outspoken Robson tells Ward’s: “If Ford spent as much money on lean (manufacturing processes), as on Six Sigma, it would be 10% better down the road today.”

Robson applauds Six Sigma and black belt teams for their ability to ferret out quality problems in plants, using training in statistical and problem-solving disciplines. Improved quality saves money through reduced waste and warranty costs.

But in the case of Ford, Robson sees evidence of overkill.

“Overall, Ford trained too many people. It was too detailed and too costly and too statistical.”

In Robson’s mind, the clear winner is manufacturing based on the Toyota system, deemed best-in-class. The result is a company with greater market value than General Motors Corp. and Ford combined, he notes.

“When will the rest of the companies wake up and follow their example?” Robson asks, apologizing to the partisan domestic industry crowd.

Key to Toyota’s success is its ability to duplicate its system anywhere in the world. “Toyota does it the same way in Thailand, the U.S., U.K., China, wherever they go,” Robson says, with seemingly little trouble instilling its culture. Toyota has proven successful, despite being behind its competitors in technology such as IT flow and intranet use, he adds.

Regionally speaking, Mexico is a shining star in Robson’s opinion, attributable largely to culture and attitude.

“They tend not to think they are part of the industrial world so they don’t suffer from the problem of arrogance,” says the associate dean.

“The U.S. suffers from knowing it is rich and powerful, so it sees no need to change.”

Mexican culture tends to be more group oriented, a mindset Robson feels contributes to continuous improvement. That is in contrast to the competitive “cream rises to the top” mindset in the U.S.

The difference, as Robson sees it, is if the workforce at a Mexican plant is asked to consider something, they will be receptive and, six months later, will have completed their deliberations. A similar U.S. plant may think about it forever.