Meeting Manuel!

Meeting Manuel!

I have terrific news for fans of Fawlty Towers! Manuel is alive and well … and working in the Mercedes-Benz Vito plant in Spain!

Okay I am taking a bit of journalistic licence here. The chap at the Vito plant is not actually my most loved waiter in the entire world. He’s not chaotic and probably doesn’t hail from Barcelona. His name isn’t even Manuel (although, for the purposes of this article, I’m using this pseudonym).

By now, I know exactly what you’re thinking: why am I waxing lyrical about “my” Manuel in SHEQ MANAGEMENT? Well, because Manuel from Mercedes-Benz is one of the most passionate fans of quality that I have ever encountered. He loves it almost as much as Manuel the waiter loved his hamster (which was actually a rat).

I met Manuel the Merc man in the city of Vitoria, which is where the Mercedes-Benz Vito is assembled – and it was a truly wonderful experience. I travelled to the region to drive the marvellous new Vito (which comes to South Africa next year) and also to visit the plant, which is located in the heart of the Basque region in north-western Spain.

While it certainly doesn’t show its age, the factory is quite old; it’s celebrating its 60th anniversary as an automotive production location this year. The first vehicle rolled off the assembly line there in 1954, when the plant still belonged to the Auto Union company.

The former Daimler-Benz AG acquired the plant in 1981. Today the plant site covers a total area of 600 000 m². It has a production space of around 370 000 m² and manufactures about 80 000 vans annually for export to customers all over the world. The Vitoria plant is the second-largest Daimler van production plant in the world.

Manuel the Merc man works there as a manager, and he was tasked with taking a group of journalists (including yours truly) around the final assembly section of the factory. The tour (which, truth be told, I was dreading) was a revelation – because of Manuel’s huge enthusiasm. In between apologies for not speaking superb English (he spoke just like Manuel the waiter; I loved it), our tour guide eagerly showed us around each nook and cranny of the plant.

Unlike the “I know nothing” waiter, our guide was extremely well informed about the intricacies of the facility. He shared lots of facts and figures with us – such as the news that Mercedes-Benz Vans had recently invested €190 million (roughly R2,7 billion) in the plant. The money was mainly spent on the modernisation and reorganisation of the plant’s body shop, paint shop and assembly area.

Examples of these investments in production include: a new coordinate measuring machine, which measures bodies-in-white extremely precisely to within one millimetre; a new optical measuring device for checking body components; a new waxing facility; adapted assembly lines; numerous automation processes and more efficient laser systems.

The Mercedes-Benz Vitoria plant is Daimler’s second largest van plant. After the body is coated with paint, employees in the paint shop inspect the quality.An army of new robots was also acquired and they’re utterly fascinating to watch. In addition, more than €8 million (about R116 million) was invested in Vitoria to provide the employees with around 300 000 hours of training, to prepare them for the new model series. Naturally, these investments were made in order to bolster quality.

There are numerous other moves afoot to ensure good quality too. Just one is a daily meeting of the most senior managers. “It no take place in fancy meeting room though. It take place right here; on the line. Then action can be fast. This is a good idea, sí (yes)?” Manuel the Merc man noted with a huge grin. We all agreed immediately. It really does make sense – the managers stand around a meeting table each day, and discuss various quality issues. Then, if something needs to be addressed, they go straight to the line and deal with the issue immediately.

I witnessed one of these meetings and, in some respects, it’s as daft as your average scene from Fawlty Towers – everyone has to stand (which isn’t wonderfully comfortable) and it’s also really noisy, but, according to Manuel, these meetings work wonders when it comes to maintaining and improving quality.

Emilio Titos, head of the Vitoria assembly plant, concurs. “Our team does top-notch work, and we are very proud that we build the new Vito in Vitoria in top quality. As a result, Vitoria continues to be the competence centre for mid-size vans within our global production network. Together with all of the other participants, we are now looking forward to the new Vito’s success story,” he told SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

I have no doubt that the vehicle will be a success – because of that quality. One of the greatest factors contributing to that success, however, won’t be the investment in fancy equipment or even the millions spent on training. Personally, I think the sense of pride – as epitomised by our guide – probably has an even greater impact on quality.

During our tour, we encountered a special display of the new Vito, and I swear I saw tears in Manuel’s eyes (and, for a change, they didn’t come from being hit over the head with a frying pan). “Look!” he urged. “This (is) our new baby! She beautiful! Sí?”

Oh, yes she is! But so, too, is the company’s passion for quality … I would love to bottle that passion and dish it out liberally. It would end many companies’ quality woes.

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