Perhaps the most significant change in the automotive industry from the perspective of operations management has been the large-scale transition to Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a quality assurance protocol that is especially useful in the manufacture of complex products such as automobiles (Sokovic et al., 2006, p. 96). Over the past 50 years, Six Sigma has evolved significantly. However, it is not a dramatically new way of doing things. Rather, it has been more of an evolutionary process that has altered the way automotive components are assembled. Both Japan and the United States automobile makers have benefited enormously from the practices of Six Sigma (Folaron, n.d., internet).
In a nutshell, Six Sigma is a conceptual framework built around the idea (and the ideals of continuous improvement in any complex industry (Sokovic et al., 2006, p. 96). After World War II, in an effort to re-build Japan, the United States shared some of its manufacturing principles, especially those related to quality control, with Japanese automobile manufacturers. The Japanese, at that time, were especially interested in the American application of statistics to management operations (Folaron). However, statisticians soon became isolated experts from the rest of the manufacturing layers. Thus, the second wave of continuous improvement began in the mid-1950s with the concept of "Big Q", a more active engagement of management and ownership in the quality control component of auto manufacturing (Folaron).
The revolution of continuous improvement was underway. In the early 1970s, long lines at gas pumps spelled out a golden age for Japanese carmakers, as they were able to dedicate resources to continuous quality improvement and overall manufacturing potential (Folaron). The Japanese, especially Toyota, were about to grab a huge share of the automobile market because their carmakers quickly adapted to increased gas prices. Smaller, more efficient Japanese cars suddenly became more desirable, and less costly to run, whereas large American autos became dinosaurs -- gas hogs that were costly to fuel and operate (Folaron).
In 1987, a new international standard of quality control was established, ISO 9000 (Folaron). This new quality standard applied to almost all sectors and industries, and was almost a guarantee against product variations. In 1994, the so-called Big Three American automobile manufacturers added another layer to the ISO 9000 standard, the QS-9000 standard (Folaron). The QS-9000 virtually ensured quality parts from automotive suppliers. The QS-9000 provided an additional focus on business planning, statistical methods, supplier management, as well as failure mode and enhanced effects analysis (Folaron). Since then, the competition between Japanese and American automakers in the area of continuous improvement has greatly increased. The Japanese, especially, have taken Six Sigma to another level, utilizing root cause identification and elimination -- showing off Japanese automakers' dedication to continuous improvement Folaron, internet). However, the Japanese are slowly learning that Six Sigma is evolving too quickly, and becoming too complex of a feature of operations management in many plants.
In addition, it takes money and time to invest in continuous improvement, as well as the statistical prowess to determine whether the costs outweigh the benefits. Six Sigma has probably not seen its demise, but automakers are realizing its limitations (Folaron). The odds are that Six Sigma will evolve into another practice with another fashionable name (Folaron). I do not think that this is a bad thing, either, as evolution and adaptability reveal that Six Sigma is a strong application of continuous improvement for international automakers (Munk, 2013). However, its principles of process-oriented thinking with respect to continuous improvement will always remain a vital, necessary component of quality control in the management of automobile manufacturing operations (Folaron).
Folaron, J. (n.d.). The evolution of Six Sigma. Retrieved from http://asq.org/pub/sixsigma/past/vol2_issue4/folaron.html
Munk, J. (19 Dec, 2013). How Six Sigma has improved the automobile industry. Six Sigma Daily. Retrieved from http://www.sixsigmadaily.com/how-six-sigma-has- improved-the-automobile-industry/
Sokovic, M., Pavletic, D. & Krulcic, E. Six Sigma process improvements in automotive parts production. Journal of Achievements in Materials and Manufacturing Engineering, 19:1, Nov, 2006: pp. 96-102. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/publication/41757993_Six_Sigma_process_improve ments_in_automotive_parts_production