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Navigating Your Shop Into the Future

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Last year, my wife and kids bought me a “discovery flight” as a Father’s Day gift. After years of loving motorcycles and cars and having adventures on-road and off, they decided the next logical place to motor was up. I still remember climbing in the cockpit for the first time of this small plane. After getting over the initial round of claustrophobia and reminding the pilot several times that this was my first time in a small plane, and that I had a family and business to look after, we were ready for flight.

As we rolled down the runway at about 90 mph he said, “Now gently pull back on the yoke,” and just like that, the plane lifted off the ground and we were flying. It was like riding a motorcycle or driving for the first time. All of the familiar feelings came rushing back.

I signed up for a few more lessons. Early on, the most important thing I learned was the importance to keep this order in mind: aviate, then navigate, then communicate. One day at about 5,000 feet, it dawned on me that these principles, ordered in this way, also applied to how I lead my shop:

Aviate: doing what is needed to keep things running.

Navigate: knowing where you’re going and steering the operation toward that goal.

Communicate: checking in with advisors who can make sure you get to where you’re going intact.

As shop owners, it’s easy to get stuck in the “aviate” part of our shops. We have to make payroll. We have to pay bills. We have to get cars assigned to techs, then get them to paint and delivered. We have to write estimates and supplements. We have to answer the phone and deal with customers and adjusters. These and many more are the daily tasks that we cannot ignore if we want to keep flying.

At some point, though, you develop systems and processes for many of these routine tasks, so you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel or overly focused on the day-to-day operations. Once those things are running relatively smoothly, its time to navigate.

Where is your shop going? Where do you want it go? Where are you right now in terms of financial performance? How do you rank compared to other shops in terms of speed, quality and service? What goals do you have for the upcoming month, quarter, year or even the next five years?

These are the questions of navigation and they can only be answered after some research and reflection. If you’re wondering who has time for that, then you are still focused on “just” flying. That’s important, but navigation needs to be added in sequence. First we aviate, then we navigate and communicate. First we run our shops, then we figure out where we want to take them and make sure we stay on course. 

Here are few ideas I’ve picked up about planning:

Be clear on vision and values first. Spend some time thinking about what is important to you. Remember why you got into this industry in the first place. Reconnect with the core of what drew you and how it contributes to your life, your family, even your dreams.

Planning starts in solitude, but moves toward collaboration. It’s important to run ideas by others. Your spouse and other managers are a good place to start. And if you have them—and I recommend you do—run them by your mentors or business advisors.

Our short-term goals tend be too high and our long-term goals tend to be too low. For short-term goals, you want them to be meaningful and challenging, but attainable. If not, you’ll just be frustrated and disappointed. On the other hand, keep in mind that momentum increases over time, so if you set off in a certain direction, you might be moving faster than you can imagine now. Let your 3–5 year goals be more aggressive. Dream a little. Or a lot.

As the adage popularized by author Stephen Covey goes, “Begin with the end in mind.” Build backwards. Use your imagination to project into the future of what might be, what could be, then ask yourself, “What would need to happen to get there?”

Keep it simple. You do not need a long business plan. I like to keep things to one page. If you can’t articulate your vision, values, goals and direction on one page it will be hard to communicate it to others in a way that will keep them interested.

Use a process like mind mapping to get started. You can start by putting the word “vision” in the middle of a blank page and just let the ideas spill out.

Just as aviating, navigating and communicating are crucial when flying a plane, following those steps are equally important when running a shop. Get hung up on one, and you’re going to crash or get way off course. Follow them all, and your shop will be soaring safely into a prosperous future.

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