Running a Shop Operations Cycle Time Management

Clear Up Your Communication

Order Reprints

I recently stopped by a repair shop that was caught in an awkward dilemma. A customer’s car damage had been completely repaired and repainted, at least so it seemed. Then it was discovered that some small prior-damage dents on an adjacent panel had not been repaired, but had been painted over. From the adjuster’s point of view, this was fine. Those dents were not part of the collision damage the customer’s insurance company was paying to repair. The only problem was the owner of the shop had promised to fix those dents at no charge, but this fact hadn’t been communicated to the production people, so it was never done. Re-doing it after it had been repaired and repainted meant many hours of unpaid work plus materials costs.

Philip Crosby, author of several books on quality control including Quality is Free, and Quality Without Tears, says manufacturing companies spend 25 percent of sales revenue making mistakes, and service company errors cost closer to 40 percent. What percentage of revenue in your business would you estimate is lost due to mistakes? Even if you’re well below these averages, that lost revenue is money you could devote to growth and profits.

Studies on quality control have found that most mistakes are the result of misunderstood communication, communicating incorrect information, or simply not communicating at all. The prior damage error was the result of no communication at all to those who needed it. The problem of inadequate communication in companies has been known about for many years, and systems have been put in place to try to solve the problem. The best systems resemble an electrical circuit. We know that for electricity to flow, there must be a complete circuit. The word “circuit” comes from “circle” and refers to a closed path that always returns to the starting point. We know that a “circuit breaker” is a switch that stops the flow of electric current in an overloaded electric circuit.

In a business environment, the flow of communication is the energy flow that brings in new customers, gets customers to buy, gets orders assigned to the right personnel, and purchase orders for needed materials to the right suppliers. Communication gets every transaction completed and the money collected that keeps the business thriving and growing. A “circuit breaker” on any of these flow lines will interrupt the circuit and stop the flow.

Typically a circuit breaker is activated when a circuit overloads. Failing to get a response or an answer is like flipping the circuit breaker switch and interrupting the flow of electricity. The lights go out and the power is cut off. In communication, a response or answer completes the circuit and allows the flow to continue. Many of the errors that arise in a shop come about as a result of communication overload. In some shops, half the week’s work comes in on Monday morning. Unless a good communication system is in effect, mistakes will be made. A good circular system demands that a reply or response be given for every instruction, every order, and just about every communication that calls for some action to be carried out. If the instruction to repair the prior damage on the adjacent panel had been written in duplicate, with a copy on the owner’s desk in a “waiting for a response” basket, it’s unlikely that error would have occurred.

In giving instructions, the best practice is putting it in writing and requiring an acknowledgment. One speaker I heard recently used the example that communications are like marbles that you have in a jar on your desk. Every time you send out a communication, it’s like taking out a marble and sending it somewhere. Your marbles are like little pieces of your attention. When the marble leaves, that little piece of attention is tied up waiting for an answer. When you don’t get an answer at the expected time, it leaves you distracted, lacking in total attention. The speaker noted that you simply “don’t have all your marbles.” Or perhaps it’s more like lending someone a hundred dollars. A little piece of your mind is on it until you collect it back. As the responses come back, you put the “attention marbles” back in the jar. With every communication answered or rescheduled, you have more of your total attention free to do your job, with no distractions.

Body shops are really fast-flow enterprises when business is good. Verbal instructions are faster than written orders, but the potential for mistakes is many times greater. A system that requires written orders and a response when completed may help managers find, at the end of the day, that they still have all of their marbles.

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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