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A Fresh Perspective on Collision Repair

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When Tony Garris was hired as the manager of Fred Beans Collision Center in Doylestown, Pa., two years ago, he brought an impressive 30 years of experience with him. The only catch: None of it was in collision repair.

Garris began his career in the automotive industry in 1979, starting in the parts department at a Toyota dealership and eventually moving to the service side. He intended to stay there, too, until Fred Beans intervened. Beans initially talked to Garris about a service manager position at one of his dealerships (the Fred Beans Family of Dealerships sells 20 different automotive makes throughout Pennsylvania), but ultimately talked Garris into another job: managing the company’s flagship 45,000-square-foot collision repair center.

Beans, who had researched lean and Six Sigma principles, had already switched to PPG and sent five employees to its MVP Green Belt training. He was looking for a manager who could energize employees while implementing big changes. Garris’ people skills and businesslike demeanor impressed Beans. “I thought Tony was the kind of guy who could look at the big picture,” he says.

It was a positive change for Garris—and the collision center. With the objective of restoring the shop’s profitability by improving efficiency and productivity, Garris and his 45 employees, along with Fred Beans corporate fixed operations director Greg Thrasher and PPG consultants, have revamped and refined every step of the repair process. In doing so, the shop—one of four collision repair centers that Fred Beans owns or co-owns—has seen a 300 percent improvement in cycle time (from 23 days to 6.4) and hours-per-day measurements (from 0.9 to 3.2), a 35 percent increase in tech productivity, eliminated more than 15 positions from the payroll without sacrificing customer service or repair quality, and expects a net profit increase of $500,000 this year over last year.

Getting Buy-In, Getting Started

Following PPG’s standard approach, Garris and Mark Mueller, senior manager for PPG’s Business Solutions Group, started with Value Stream Mapping and process mapping to identify problems and inefficiencies, and then empowered employees to create solutions. 

“Successful change is driven on a shop floor,” Mueller says. “It’s done in such a way that the people [who] are doing the job have ownership of the job, and have a lot of input into the changes that happen.”

Getting buy-in at every level of the organization is what Mueller considers the biggest challenge in implementing the Green Belt program. The collision center was primed for it, though: a few years earlier it had created a guiding coalition of employees from all levels of the company to collectively identify issues and work toward solutions, a key step in their transition to greater efficiency. And Garris, Mueller says, “has been very effective in guiding his people and keeping them engaged in the improvement process.”

A Better Teardown

The changes started with the shop’s repair planning process. “It’s crucial that you tear the vehicle down quickly to get as complete an estimate as possible, and identify 100 percent of the damage on the vehicle and order the parts before the next tech starts to work on the vehicle,” Garris says. But in order for one tech to tear apart the vehicle and another to put it back together, the teardown process has to be careful and well organized.

Initially, a team of techs did different levels of repair planning at the shop. But with Garris and Mueller’s guidance, the process was reconfigured: Four teams, each consisting of four bodymen and one repair planner, were formed, which improved communication between the techs during tear down.

Last year, another change was made and a separate team of repair planners was created. Now, two former techs do repair planning for the entire shop—a process that encompasses a set of preproduction processes that focus on eliminating delays and roadblocks—and are responsible for dispatching the work out to the teams. And even more recently, a “rack system” was implemented for each team’s repair orders, with sections that identify where each vehicle is in the repair process. The system helps the repair planners keep tabs on each team’s workload, and allows them to dispatch the work evenly, so no one group gets all of the ‘gravy work’ or all of the train wrecks, Garris says.

Excel at Scheduling

Once repair planning was addressed, scheduling was identified as another problem area. “We’d bring 30 or more vehicles in on a Monday, a few on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then none Thursday and Friday,” Garris says. “We’d end up with a big back-log in paint in the middle of the week, and then deliver 30 vehicles at the end of the week, which was chaos. We needed to put a process in place that would control that.”

A new process put control in the hands of customer service reps, who then gave estimators the available dates that customers could bring vehicles in. An Excel spreadsheet lists and tracks jobs by size. Each day, the shop can bring in one ‘red’ job (one requiring more than 40 hours of work); four ‘yellow’ jobs (those requiring between 20 and 40 hours); and seven ‘green jobs’ (those requiring less than 20 hours). As jobs are scheduled, they’re plugged in to the spreadsheet; once a day is full for a particular type of job, the customer service reps let estimators know the next available day. The result is a reduction in stress that has boosted morale. “Every day [employees can] expect that the volume of work will be consistent,” Garris says. “And it helps us mix up the size of the jobs.”

“We asked everyone in the collision center to list the three biggest problems that they felt held them up. We then ranked all the responses and formed three teams to attack the three biggest concerns.”
—Tony Garris, manager, Fred Beans Collision Center

Continuous Improvement

Improving those two major processes helped the collision center run more smoothly and with less frustration. But everyone agreed there was still work to do, and as a result, Continuous Improvement Team Meetings were initiated.

“We asked everyone in the collision center to list the three biggest problems that they felt held them up,” Garris says. “We then ranked all the responses and formed three teams to attack the three biggest concerns.” Those were: the supplement process, which wasn’t followed consistently; the initial parts order process, which was inconsistent; and mirror matching parts, which was not happening consistently.

Employees from the affected departments were invited to join the four- to five-person teams, with Garris serving as moderator for each team’s weekly meeting.

In week one, the teams produced Value Stream Maps of the current processes in order to identify the deficiencies in each process. In week two, they identified the causes of the problems. In subsequent weeks, those causes were narrowed down; solutions were brainstormed and selected, and finally, implemented.

“As the meetings progressed, we modified the processes and created updated Value Stream Maps to better visualize the process and continue to identify areas of waste,” Garris says. “The members of each team were specifically responsible for implementing the updated processes and holding people accountable to follow [them]. In the following weeks we met to discuss the progress and continued to monitor the solutions’ efficacy.”

Specific solutions included putting a time stamp on supplement sheets and then hand-delivering them to the estimators—who then knew they had exactly one hour to get to the shop floor and examine the vehicle. (Previously, supplement sheets were put in a box at the parts counter and could sit for hours before an estimators even knew about them.)

With the parts process, parts would arrive that were either incorrect or damaged, “and we wouldn’t notice until too late in the process,” Garris says. That meant waste, delays in the repair process, and angry customers. Now, the day that parts arrive, the parts person puts them on a parts cart, matches them up with the existing parts for the vehicle, and gets the tech to verify that everything is correct and a mirror match.

Quality Paint

One of the last departments to undergo the improvement process was the paint department. As an hourly rate shop, rather than flat rate, one challenge the collision center faced was that “you have people being paid if they produce or don’t produce,” Garris says. “So you need to have the process set up so that they almost have no choice but to produce.”

To jump-start that production, the number of paint techs was cut in half—from 12 to six—and processes were put in place, with the help of PPG, to improve flow. “The way our shop is designed is not very conducive to [efficient] flow of work, so we had to maximize the way it’s laid out,” Garris says. “PPG came up with a very specific, efficient way of getting vehicles from priming to completion. Before, it was chaotic, we had vehicles being primed and sanded in the same area.”

There were other changes regarding staffing efficiency, as well. One example: When Garris started, the collision center had a quality control person who was responsible for doing a final quality check before a vehicle was delivered to a customer. But that position was eliminated when, with PPG’s help, Garris came up with a Quality Verification Process that made employees directly responsible for the quality of their work at every stage. Today, a yellow sticker is affixed to a vehicle’s windshield with check boxes for every step of the repair process.

Employees are required to sign and date their repairs; then the sticker is given to Garris for review. “It makes people a lot more accountable for their work,” he says. ‘[Employees] don’t want to sign their name to something that’s less than quality work.”

Fine-Tuning for the Future

Today, Garris and his employees continue to meet in the spirit of continuous improvement—although less frequently now—to identify areas of concern and implement solutions. “We’re fine-tuning, not changing the channel altogether,” he says.

Fred Beans says, “Change is pain.” But his collision repair shop is benefiting from another axiom: No pain, no gain. Thanks to its new efficiency, productivity and profits are up at the shop.

“All of these improvements and changes have made a difference [in the business],” Garris says, “but the biggest change is in attitude and culture. Everyone here has really embraced the changes we needed to make in order to make this collision center profitable again.”

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