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Four Steps for Building a Better Shop Culture

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Over the course of 20 years, Steve Schaefer tried nearly every payment program he could come up with. He paid employees hourly. He tried salaries. He even used a team-based system. None of them provided the level of efficiency he wanted to see from his staff.

This was in 2006, and Schaefer Autobody Centers, the company Schaefer founded in 1985, was growing.

“The impact the systems had was pretty small,” he says. “To attract good people, you have to pay them well, and you have to keep them motivated to produce. It’s about motivating them.”

And the issue, Schaefer found, was more about creating a new culture within his shops.

“Pay is a part of it,” he says, “but, overall, people need reasons to be motivated, and they need to see a reason that when they succeed, the company succeeds, and vice versa.”

Shops need a “winning” culture, he says, one that promotes efficiency and ensures that employees stay motivated on a daily basis.

A new focus on culture has helped Schaefer grow his business to seven locations with 130 employees in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and crafting a high-performance company culture is nowhere near as complicated as it might seem.

Answer the Question

Like many great ideas, a lot of Schaefer’s concepts for improving his company culture came from a book, The Game of Work: How to Enjoy Work as Much as Play by Charles A. Coonradt. The book focuses on ways to improve the work environment, mainly in terms of employee satisfaction and motivation.

Collision industry veteran Jeff Hendler has taught concepts from the book at countless seminars worldwide, and he says everything revolves around one simple question: “How can I win at work today?”

It’s the people who are “winning” every day, Hendler says, that are going to be successful in your shop.

“It’s a mindset,” he says, “and you, as an owner, better have an answer to that question. Employees need to come in every day asking that question, and it’s management’s responsibility to provide that answer.”

Without a clear path to succeed in their roles, Hendler says, employee effort falls. “It goes from, ‘Why try?’ to, ‘I quit,’” he says, and that can mean the employee leaving your shop or, worse, showing up and putting in subpar effort.

There is a four-step process shops can take to ensure that employees come every day with the right mindset, and that management is prepared to lead them once they do.

1. Measure, Analyze and Observe

It’s pretty simple: How can you know how to improve your shop if you don’t know all the ins and outs of your daily operations? Schaefer and Hendler both stress that managers, owners and operators need to start by carefully tracking all aspects of the company.

How many cars do you repair in a week? What’s your average cost of a repair? How much of that is labor? Parts? What’s your gross profit on each job? Do you make more on Chevys or Fords? There are many, many questions to ask yourself, Hendler says.

Once you have answers and understand your business, Schaefer says, you can understand what works for you and what doesn’t; you can start to see where you want—or need—to be as a shop.

2. Set Objectives and Goals

Schaefer has always kept a close watch over his shops’ key numbers. That’s why they began focusing on improving efficiency in 2006.

“When you know your business, you can look for those areas to improve,” he says, “and you can begin to set goals. We have long-term goals and daily goals in our shops.”
Essentially, this is the starting point in letting employees understand what they have to do to win each day at the shop.

Set specific goals that employees can achieve on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, Schaefer says.

“You have to let them know what expectations are,” he says.

3. Create a Pathway

Now you need to let employees know how to win each day.

Thorough, written and strictly enforced standard operating procedures are a must, as are position contracts and performance requirements.

Everyone needs to understand their roles and daily tasks, as well as those of the people around them, Hendler says.

“All these things lead into ‘This is what I need to do, this is what you need to do, and if we all do our jobs, this business will be successful,’” Hendler says.

Still, it’s important to make sure employees realize that when the business succeeds, they succeed. Having some sort of incentive program is critical. Bonuses, additional vacation days, pay raises—all or some can be applied to this.

Schaefer took this a step further in 2006 and switched all employees to a flat-rate pay system, where the staff is paid based on their level of work and experience.
“Everyone knows what they need to do, and they understand what they receive if they do it,” he says.

4. Keep Score and Reward

The process comes full circle in this step, as shop owners go back to the metrics of success in their shops. But, unlike in the first step, managers aren’t the only ones watching the numbers. Hendler suggests making sure all employees know the numbers that lead to them “winning” each day.

Post results in the break room, or keep a scoreboard in the workshop, Hendler says.

He’s seen shops post it daily for everyone to track and see.

“It starts to become a game, almost,” he says. “Suddenly, everyone’s involved, everyone’s trying to improve, and pretty soon the shop’s going to be succeeding.”

And when it comes time to issue the incentives, don’t be shy about it, Hendler says. Making presentations and acknowledging exceptional work only perpetuates the winning culture. 

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