Editor's letter: Why Alfa is happy not to let cars leave its factory

Alfa Romeo Tonale 2022 front quarter tracking

Under Jean-Philippe Imparato, Alfa Romeo is targeting a reputation for reliability in the long-term

How a delayed shipment of Alfa Romeo Tonales exemplifies the brand’s new approach to quality

Last Friday, a boat was docked in Naples ready to take around 200 Alfa Romeo Tonales to Japan and Australia. Instead, customers there will be waiting at least another 45 days for the next boat to depart as Alfa boss Jean-Philippe Imparato put the blockers on releasing the cars from the nearby Pomigliano plant because of a quality issue over just one part.

“It was a microchip on a headlight,” he said. “We could pass it on. I could have sent the parts by plane. But no. Do it, you’re dead.”

This is the all-in quality push from Alfa Romeo in action. It is the number one priority for Imparato, who has returned Alfa to the black and secured its future over the past couple of years. 

The numbers of cars affected by Imparato hitting the big red stop button were small and in the grand scheme of things unlikely to make much difference to Alfa’s bottom line, no matter which month they’re delivered in. Yet in doing so, he has sent a message that the ‘Never receive, produce or pass on a defect’ mantra that adorns every wall and dominates every conversation in Pomigliano leads to actions rather than words.

“The decision cannot be yes,” he said, on whether the cars could have been released. “It is not possible, ever. If so, Pandora’s box is open. I want to kill the idea of ‘hey guys, we’re Italian…’ [the inference being that such standards are expected] and the best way is to demonstrate it. You start with standards, and respect.”

With Imparato’s words ringing in our ears, so begins our tour of Pomigliano. Here, most time is spent in the inspection bays and quality control to emphasise the point that this is a very different Alfa Romeo.

The inspections are carried out by workers independently appointed and trained by Alfa owner Stellantis rather than by Pomigliano employees, to remove any notion of bias or pressure to get the cars out. 

On the day we visit, the factory is still waiting to release the new plug-in hybrid version of the car as it tries to sort out the geometry of the offside rear door now fitting properly into the rear quarter.

Cutting-edge laser tools are used to check this, and the problem is interrogated to try and find – and then solve – the root cause, be it a part issue, supplier or in production. Other recent fixes include a paint blemish above the rear offside tail-light, and a mounting issue with the same light. “Analyse the issues, find the root cause, then rectify,” says Imparato.

The approach has worked on the non-plug-in versions of the Tonale that have already left the factory: to date, it has proportionally the fewest problems per car anywhere in Stellantis. This in turn reduces warranty claims and improves brand loyalty. A true virtuous circle.

Imparato spoke warmly of the problem-solving ability of Alfa workers when he arrived, but said that before then there were no real processes in place to stop such problems occurring in the first place. 

“We needed more discipline to reject [moving through] milestones as a consequence of quality…Don’t hide. Don’t bullshit. It won’t bring any positive results. Don’t hide the way you measure, or the speed of resolution or results. Accept being under pressure. I have pressure on my shoulder. If it’s not at the right level [quality], don’t release the car.”

The quality push has short-, medium- and long-term benefits for Alfa. Short term, it gets them back on stable footing and can start to transform their shaky reputation. Medium term, it leads to better profits and brand loyalty.

Long term, and the real play, is that when the world goes electric, Alfa believes there will be far fewer differentiators between brands, particularly on the dynamic front, where it has always made its name.

Thus, developing a reputation for rock-solid reliability and dependability now, at the start of the electrification era, will make it a winner. As so many early electric cars are suffering from software and reliability issues, among them cars from the previously unstoppable Volkswagen Group, Alfa’s plan is ingenious as well as necessary. 

Alfa known as industry leaders for quality and reliability? Stranger things have happened, and this one is perhaps already on its way to happening.

Source: Autocar

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