Production line key to Kia quality

First, 43,013 people applied for the initial 1,200 jobs at the Kia plant in West Point.

Then, 11 months after starting production in November of last year, Kia launched a second shift after hiring another 900 workers from 44,507 applicants.

Stuart Countess

Stuart Countess

And now, with the third wave of hiring just beginning, Kia already has received more than 11,000 applications for up to 1,000 new jobs. Tens of thousands of more applications are expected.

Kia is flooring it, moving from one to three shifts and from producing one to three vehicles faster than West Point execs thought it would.

At the same time, the growth has not affected production quality — if a recent Consumer Reports survey is to be believed. The West Point-produced Kia Sorento (V6 model) placed first in owner satisfaction and second in overall scoring among the 24 SUVs in the survey category.

Given the explosive growth, I wanted to find out how quality was being maintained, especially since many companies, including Toyota, falter when sales grow rapidly. I went through the plant with Stuart Countess, director of quality, to see how Kia is attempting to avoid production missteps.

Here’s what Kia is doing:

– First, given the tens of thousands of applicants, the company is able to hire highly qualified workers — and then put them through extensive training. There’s a training facility on site and more than 1,000 workers have to be sent to Korea for additional training.

– From the beginning, doing each production job by following an exact procedure, step by step, is repeatedly stressed.

– Managers continually solicit ways to improve production. But suggestions are carefully evaluated. Until a change is approved, everyone follows the existing procedure.

– There are four daily quality meetings — two on each of the two shifts right now. Leaders from quality control and the four production shops (stamping, welding, paint and general assembly) go over key indicators from the previous day.

“We always have to take something back and improve on it,” Countess said.

– “Keepers” of production quality are positioned along the assembly line. After a car goes through a number of steps, a keeper inspects what has been done up to that point.

“You don’t want to ship a defect all the way down the line because it can get covered up,” Countess said.

– There are yellow pull cords along the line. If a worker pulls it, a light goes on and a team leader rushes over to see what’s wrong. Often, the line continues moving while the team leader fixes the problem, as the line worker completes the other tasks. If that can’t be accomplished, then the line stops until the problem is fixed.

– All cars — not just some — go through a test drive on a special course outside the plant. The goal is for the driver to detect any noises that can indicate a problem.

– Large signs, such as “Do it right the first time” and “Drive defects to zero,” are prominent throughout the plant, which Countess regularly walks.

“You can’t build a car from my desk,” he said. “I find out so much information by just talking with the people on the production line.”

That’s where quality lives or dies.

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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14 comments Add your comment


December 14th, 2010
5:55 am

Hats off to Kia. Any Georgian considering a new vehicle should look at the Sorento.


December 14th, 2010
8:40 am

All done without UAW labor.


December 14th, 2010
8:42 am

Excuse me, all done without greedy UAW labor.


December 14th, 2010
8:50 am

America needs to be researching and studying on how to successfully bring manufacturing and jobs back to America. Kia and Hyundai would be very good places to start with this research.


December 14th, 2010
8:57 am

We love our Hyundai Sonata and were surprised by the quality as well as low cost.


December 14th, 2010
9:00 am

You said it Hank. The UAW destroyed US automobile production and competitiveness. Paid not to work, paid for bad production, go on strike if production quota exceeded. I work for the UAW not the company mentality.


December 14th, 2010
9:01 am

My mother-in-law just bought a new Sorento. It seems to be a nice car and she was happy to buy a vehicle made in Georgia. The Hyundai Santa Fe is going to be built there (moving from Montgomery, AL) as well.


December 14th, 2010
9:10 am

Hyundai and Kia are definitely onto something! Major kudos, Kia!
And you did it without the thug unions! Outstanding- keep it up and I hope your commitment to excellence and incredible business model catches on!

Buzz G

December 14th, 2010
9:12 am

It is amazing what can be accomplished without government bailouts. It is especially amazing what can be done without the UAW.

GM, Ford and Chrysler employees, wake up. Get rid of the UAW before this country gets rid of you.

Craig - The real Criag

December 14th, 2010
9:39 am

My wife and I just bought one and LOVE IT! We were able to buy a really nice Sorento with leather, double sun roof, back up camera and a really nic engine for about 5K less than what a bare bones GMC, Chevy or Ford would have cost us. Plus the people at Ed Voyles treated my wife wonderfully when she was scouting vehicles, and that is rare in the car dealership world.


December 14th, 2010
10:19 am

Buzz– that Kia plant got a lot of tax payer assistance in the form of economic development grants and tax abatement. I think those tools can be a good thing if used wisely (ie don’t throw more than you need to) to recruit businesses and jobs to Georgia- but everyone needs to be aware that these plants have received stimulus/startup funds to operate here- so they took handouts just like GM and Chrysler.


December 14th, 2010
11:38 am

Macarolina, you are correct. It took a lot of tax payer assistance to persuade Hyundai/Kia to put that Kia plant in West Point. Just like it took a lot of Tennessee tax payer assistance to bring VW to Chattanooga. And, just like it took a lot of Alabama tax payer assistance to bring Honda, Mercedes and Hyundai to Alabama. Globalization has created an environment of hyper competition and because the U.S. and its states have created an environment that is really anti-business (i.e., taxes, fees, regulations, controls, unions, work force issues and government beaurocracy) we (tax payers) have to pay through the nose to get work and jobs.


December 14th, 2010
3:16 pm

Was it the UAW or management giving in to the UAW that was the problem? But if the U.S. automakers had adapted more quickly to the changing marketplace sales wouldn’t have dropped so drastically. Let’s throw a little blame the designers and the engineers way, as well.

But make no mistake about it, it was the whiz kids on Wall Street that put the final nail in their coffins. Unemployed folks can’t afford and don’t need new automobiles. In case you haven’t noticed, it wasn’t just the U.S. automakers that suffered.


December 14th, 2010
4:35 pm

Well done Kia – they deserve all the praise they are getting and I am thrilled they are in Georgia. All the quality practices mentioned in the article, however,are examples of world class manufacturing managment, and you will find them at most modern auto plants regardless of nationality or union representation. Kia is operating a first-class facility, and we should all be happy about that.

For the union-bashers, the UAW is certainly an easy target – we can only hope that both management and union leaders have learned the lesson of teamwork. By the way, the unionized autoworkers of Korea are some of the most militant in the world!