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At Ford Racing, Quality (Control) Is Job One
The Nascar season kicks off this weekend in Daytona, Fla., and Ford Motor Co. is hoping to return to championship form. Ford has a competent stable of drivers, with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth among them, but its title chances may very well rest with a 57-year-old former middle-school teacher named Mary Ann Mauldwin.

Her official title at Roush & Yates Racing Engines is director of operations, but what she really does is look for waste and inefficiency. Hired five years ago by Ford's primary Nascar-engine builder, Ms. Mauldwin has overseen a complete restructuring of the business, changing everything from inventory control to how the engines are put together.

"We were a good engine-building company," said CEO Doug Yates, who grew up in the sport working for his father, the legendary team owner and engine builder Robert Yates. "Mary Ann has made us a world-class engine-building company."

Ms. Mauldwin is also part of a larger trend in Nascar. For decades, the sport was dominated by mechanics and crew chiefs whose primary qualification was the grease under their fingernails. Today, Nascar teams are increasingly dependent on a bevy of engineers and technicians who never see the race track. Often it's the reams of data they generate during testing and simulations that are the key to winning.

Ms. Mauldwin, who has degrees in mechanical engineering and English and had a successful career as an operations management consultant before coming to Roush & Yates, couldn't have arrived at a better time for Ford. The company reported a $2.7 billion profit for 2009, and is the only U.S. auto maker not to take government bailout money. But its performance in Nascar has been anything but stellar of late. General Motors drivers have won 16 of the past 20 Nascar championships, and Ford hasn't won the coveted manufacturer's title since 2002.

When Ms. Mauldwin first came to Roush & Yates, she was met with skepticism. After all, what could a woman tell these men about building engines?

"I didn't know a piston from a connecting rod," she admits.

She didn't help herself when she told the good old boys that building engines was no different from making athletic socks, one of the many manufacturing consulting jobs she'd had before coming here.

"That was a mistake," she says now with a chuckle.

But slowly, she won the engine shop over to her way of thinking. She started by conducting a complete parts inventory. The result: Only 48% of the parts were accounted for. So she created a new inventory-control system that's been audited five times and been 100% accurate every time.

Next, she looked at the materials used to build engines and organized them into a standard bill of materials, which helped her forecast inventory demand and cut the time it takes to gather parts from four hours to 45 minutes. Today, instead of walking to the parts window every time they need something, engine builders take parts out of bins that are ergonomically positioned next to their work station and replenished automatically by a system that's also used by Toyota on its assembly line.

She required engine builders to submit an engineering change form if they wanted to alter anything in the building process. She worked with suppliers to improve the quality of the parts Roush & Yates was getting and revamped the used-parts business. The company had been selling old parts for scrap at pennies on the dollar; today it has a lucrative business selling refurbished parts to other race teams and fans. And she brought some processes in-house. Today, Roush & Yates makes about 100 of the 600 parts that go into an engine.

In short, Ms. Mauldwin has completely changed the culture of Roush & Yates. The proof came when she proposed that employees start taking the same operations-management classes she took and now teaches. About 75 of the company's 100 employees signed up immediately, forcing Ms. Mauldwin to create a second class.

Mr. Yates, the CEO, also started to see improvements in the quality and the consistency of the company's engines. His five primary engine builders had each put an engine together a little differently. After Ms. Mauldwin standardized the process, "we were turning out nearly identical engines in terms of performance and reliability," he said.

That's particularly important when Mr. Yates is building engines for a number of Ford teams and doesn't want to be seen as favoring one over the other.

He also saw his bottom line improve. By cutting costs, Mr. Yates was able to plow more money into research and development. His reputation also earned him new business. Today, in addition to Nascar, his shop builds engines for sprint cars, dragsters and smaller stock-car series.

The big test for Ms. Mauldwin and Mr. Yates will come this season. Over the past four years, they have been the primary designers and builders of a new engine Ford has developed specifically for Nascar. If a Ford driver wins the season-long championship, it'll be with one of these engines.

Mr. Yates has his eye on one more accolade. Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Chevrolets for defending-champion Jimmie Johnson, has won the coveted Engine Builder of the Year award the past four years. Mr. Yates last won the award in 1999. He'd like to change that, too. Wall Street Journal

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