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The Downside of Arbitrary Orders

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The word “arbitrary” is generally defined this way: Determined by whim or caprice; based on or subject to individual judgment.

“The first thing to know is that controlling the work process means control of the work and not of the worker. Control is a tool of the worker and must never be his master.” . . . “It should always be remembered that control is a principle of economy and not of morality. The purpose of control is to make the process go smoothly, properly, and according to high standards.” 

This quote is from Management Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, an 839-page book written by management guru and legend Peter F. Drucker. I believe Drucker’s insights are especially applicable in the collision repair industry today. Owners and production managers from the “old school” frequently enforce arbitrary, inconsistent control on technicians and other staff.


The pace of technological advance in the automotive field has almost moved to lightning speed as the demand for lighter, more efficient vehicles is driven by fuel prices. This has forced the average collision repair shop to demand more of technicians. They need to know more and produce more quickly. Introducing lean procedures into a shop environment can temporarily create a more chaotic environment. Even the simple process of rearranging an office can put the entire operation in disarray until the new order is in place. In this environment, the more chaotic the condition, the more the manager or supervisor needs to provide calm, consistent orders and leadership until the dust settles and the new structure of things has been completed.

A newer book called Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, along with two other leadership researchers, addresses the “commanding” or “coercive” style in management. They note that “the number one reason people cite for quitting is dissatisfaction with the boss.” When workers feel orders are arbitrary and based on emotion rather than high standards, they will rarely give their best effort.

In a tough economy like the one we’re experiencing today, shop owners and managers may feel they need to tighten up production and this may mean exercising tighter control, but Drucker suggests real control comes down to focusing on high standards and economy. When a technician understands that an order relates directly to painting, welding or body repair standards, he or she will usually willingly perform at peak efficiency. But then there is the issue of “economy.” The tighter control usually focuses on costs. As Drucker says, “control is a principle of economy and not of morality.” When an order puts an emphasis on saving paint or body materials, as long as it doesn’t require the technician to sacrifice “high standards,” chances are the tech will go along with it. When “economy” means using substandard or unreliable materials, a conscientious technician may take offense. And ultimately, this practice also puts the shop at risk for claims of faulty or even hazardous repairs.

While Drucker addresses the basis of control, Goleman addresses the emotional element. At some shops a common attitude is “Beware the boss’ mood.” When business is down, anxiety and depression can trickle down. Goleman suggests that “putting on a happy face” rarely will convince anyone. Employees, whose livelihood depends on keeping a job and pleasing a boss, are quick to read subtle changes in the boss’s emotional attitude. This is the time for a manager to take a page out of Drucker’s manual, and base orders on controls that only “make the process go smoothly, properly, and according to high standards.”

Can a shop owner or manager who has used “old school” methods of supervision for years now suddenly shift gears and allow the workers more latitude? After all, a well-trained technician who has recently completed some training may have a better grasp of the more efficient procedure than his or her boss. I have visited numerous shops in which technicians were regarded as little more than robots expected to carry out orders. When the tech is denied recognition for knowing his or her job and for having the ingenuity to find better ways to get it done, it’s not surprising that the tech will simply do whatever he or she is told.

It would seem that the key to moving beyond arbitrary, inconsistent management practices is to simply provide enough training so that every technician is the master of his or her trade. Then arbitrary instructions are not only unnecessary, but usually detrimental to the production process.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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