Ford vs. Mazda Transmissions: Why Does Quality Matter?

Published by on December 22, 2015 at 5:09 pm.

In the 1980’s Ford owned roughly 25% of Mazda (then known as Toyo Koygo). Ford had Mazda manufacture some automatic transmissions for cars sold in the United States. Both Ford and Mazda were building the same transmission off of the same specification and both had 100% specification conformance. However, the Ford transmissions were receiving more customer complaints about noise and were having higher warranty repair costs. This led Ford engineers to investigate and they found that the Ford manufactured transmissions utilized 70% of the available tolerance spread for manufactured parts, while Mazda used only 27% (AC 2012-4265: Promoting Awareness in Manufacturing Students of Key Concepts of Lean Design to Improve Manufacturing Quality). The Ford engineers began to realize that the Mazda transmissions were higher quality than the Ford manufactured ones. It turned out that Mazda was using a slightly more expensive grinding process than what Ford was using. This raised Mazda’s manufacturing costs, however the full lifetime costs were higher for the Ford manufactured transmissions.

This story is a prime example of why it is important to think about quality. Too often we tend to focus on other metrics and neglect quality, or we use a single metric to define quality. Ford experienced this by focusing on a “Zero Defect” policy, thinking that if there were zero defect in a transmission that would produce a quality transmission. Mazda expanded on this policy and took the whole lifecycle cost and experience into consideration as they developed their transmissions. With this holistic view, it is easy to see why engineers need to think about quality all across a program’s lifecycle.

Building Quality into The Lifecycle

If the goal of an organization is to deliver a quality product, engineers at all stages need to think about how they can add quality into the system. An easy way to think about how to add quality, is ask yourself: “What are the extra details, the extra effort, the extra care that can be put into the product?” When these extra efforts are applied to a properly defined system, the output is often a quality system. To a program manager all the extra effort sounds like a fair amount of extra cost. This is true, however it is important to weigh the short term cost increase against the potential long term costs savings. Below are two examples of how to add quality in the lifecycle.


One of the first steps of the design effort is requirement building and unfortunately having a requirement like “system shall be of a quality design” does not cut it. Never mind that this requirement violates nearly all the good requirement rules, it fails to take into account the characteristics of a quality system. Is it the “spare no expense” engineering efforts of high end audio systems or is it the good quality for the price factor of Japanese manufactured cars in the 1970s? It is important to identify how the customer and market defines quality. Having this understanding informs choices going forward and prevents a scenario where the market doesn’t value the added quality efforts.


The procurement/manufacturing phase of the lifecycle is where quality efforts are the most visible. As parts are being ordered it is important to be thinking about how the whole supply chain thinks about quality. This involves reviewing the supplier’s suppliers to verify that the parts being delivered do not have a poor design or a possible defect that could be hidden through integration. For internally manufactured parts, is extra effort being added to check that the solder on pins is clean and will not short other sections under heating? Extra thought and care should be given to the human interface of the system, as this normally plays a major role in determining the quality of a system. For software, do user interfaces make sense, do they flow, are they visually appealing? These are the kinds of questions that should be asked to help guild engineers to building a quality system.

 “Quality Is Our Top Priority”

All too often I find a Scott Adams’ Dilbert comic strip that highlights a common problem that engineers face. In the comic below we have a perfect example of Pointy-Haired Boss directing Dilbert, Alice, and Wally to focus on quality.


DILBERT from Sunday March 28, 2004


What Pointy-Haired Boss fails to realize is that quality and the rest of his priorities are not mutually exclusive and can be done concurrently. A quality system is one that is safe, that is law abiding, and is financially viable. Quality should also be added to these factors, making sure that the extra bit of design work is worthwhile. All of these factors when properly combined together with good design and engineering produce a quality system.