Auburn Hills, MI (Detroit Free Press) -- A few weeks ago, Chrysler quality chief Doug Betts opened a package that a quality engineer from a plant in Mexico gave him and found a scorpion inside.
It wasn't alive. But it's real.
"If you look at it, it might give you the heebie-jeebies," Betts said earlier this week as he pointed to the scorpion now mounted on his office wall.
The scorpion was sent to Betts partly as a joke by Chrysler's management team in Saltillo, Mexico -- where Chrysler makes Ram pickup trucks -- because Betts has been pushing them to "chase the tail of the scorpion."
Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president of quality, adopted the phrase about five months ago to communicate that every plant must reduce sporadic, unexpected malfunctions and defects that occur in plants.
When Chrysler's quality problems are graphed on a chart, they look to Betts like the tail of a scorpion. Sometimes the problems are minor, such as a Laredo badge going on a Jeep that isn't a Laredo. Sometimes they can be more noticeable, such as gaps between a door and the closest pillar of the vehicle's body.
Betts said all these issues can be avoided in the plants.
"We've got the plants very engaged to the point where the guys in Saltillo went out and caught a scorpion and sent it to me," Betts said.
While Betts laughs about the scorpion, he is serious about stamping out quality and reliability problems that continue to haunt Chrysler despite heavy investments in worker training and more consistent manufacturing processes.
Chrysler's scores on quality and reliability surveys have improved but often still lag the industry average. Some of the problems are traced to vehicles produced years before the company's 2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Thursday that it plans to expand an investigation into more than 5 million Jeep Grand Cherokees, Cherokees and Liberty SUVs built before 2005. Last fall, in Consumer Reports' reliability study, Jeep was ranked as the most-reliable domestic brand. Still, the magazine declined to recommend other Chrysler models.
In February, Chrysler's four brands -- Ram, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler -- finished at the bottom of J.D. Power and Associates' vehicle dependability study, which measures long-term performance of vehicles. That study measured cars and trucks from the 2009 model year.
Chrysler's quality will face another test Wednesday when J.D. Power releases its annual initial quality study. Last year, Chrysler's Dodge brand finished last among all brands, and all Chrysler brands were below the industry average.
While Betts declined to provide any predictions for Dodge or other Chrysler brands for this year's study, it is reasonable to expect that scores for its brands will improve. A year ago, the redesigned Dodge Charger and Dodge Durango were too new to be included.
"The big volume for Dodge last year was Caliber and Nitro" for the Power survey, Betts said. "You add the two of those together, and it was more than 50% of Dodge's total volume."
Production of the Caliber and the Nitro -- both traditionally poor performers on quality surveys -- ended last year.
"Whenever we stop building a car I call them immediately," Betts said of Consumer Reports, "because they can change their Internet site -- and take it off."
Chrysler is just now launching the 2013 Dodge Dart, which will replace the Caliber. A redesigned Ram pickup comes in September, and a new Jeep Liberty will arrive early next year.
All those vehicles will help Chrysler continue to improve its quality scores, Betts said.