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Maximizing Efficiency in the Paint Department

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The way Mike Hamilton sees it, the paint department is the backbone of any collision shop. As the lead painter at ARA CARSTAR Everett in Everett, Wash., Hamilton has been entrusted with complete control of the paint department, implementing new processes to boost efficiency, cut costs, and create a smooth flow throughout the entire shop. Hamilton, who regularly maintains efficiency levels between 250 and 300 percent, explains why communication and ongoing training are key to a flawless repair process.

Painters should try to facilitate and be the anchor of a shop. When vehicles come down, you have to try to catch things. You want to try to be that last line of defense to collect that vehicle’s repairs, make sure it’s cool and ready to go before you bring it into the paint shop. So when it comes out, it’s back in business. You really facilitate the flow of that vehicle.

I got into the industry in high school while working for my friend’s dad, who owned a body shop. I went to technical school and worked in the industry before going to college and studying economics. Eventually I started working in the trade again, and I’ve pretty much been hanging out in the paint side ever since.

I’m still a working painter but now I also manage paint shops while I work in them. I like the action of a paint shop. I like the versatility of being a part of the whole shop. We build teams. It’s fun to build a team. It makes it less boring and gives you some more action.

My boss has given me a lot of faith to allow me to make my area my own. It’s still within his parameters, but the paint shop is almost like a business within a business. That’s something where I had to earn his trust to be able to do that. But once we got that trust, it’s allowed him to apply more of his time to other places in his business. I do implement my own ideas but, ultimately, it has to work for him. He may say, “That’s great,” or, “You didn’t think about it from this angle.”

Having good communication is so important. We usually start off the morning with a shop meeting, but I like to have a planning period every morning with the paint department. That’s something I strongly believe in. We need to have goals. We have goals for our life, so why shouldn’t we take 10 minutes to set a short goal for our day?

Even though we set a goal, there’s going to be variation. So we have to make adjustments throughout the day. In the paint shop, what we try to do is look at things logically and work to be efficient and use your time as efficiently as possible. You need to have standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place and put those in position so you can work very intelligently. The goal is to work as seamlessly as a team with our body men, the managers, the preppers, the detailers and the painter. It’s choreographing the vehicle in its most efficient manner to run it through your shop. I like to think of the flow of the shop like a bunch of little inner tubes floating down the river. You need to bring them all down together.

We have SOPs in place and we are consistent in those SOPs. If you get systems in place that are effective, then you’ll be consistent with those systems, which will make it easier for employees to emulate and work within those systems. But if you’re very random and constantly change and you’re not having a team meeting from time to time, then you get a lot of people working against each other, sometimes without even knowing it.

“You’re going to have problems and make mistakes; you have to accept that. It’s how you build off them and look at them.” 
—Mike Hamilton, lead painter, ARA CARSTAR Everett

One of the most important SOPs for us is the location of tools and equipment in the paint shop. Everything has its assigned place. When people get done with equipment, it really doesn’t require any more energy to put it back than it does to leave it out willy nilly. We never want any employee to look for anything, because anytime spent looking for something is time lost. It might sound extreme, but every minute is valuable. I’ve divided down every minute and assigned a dollar value to it. It’s more of an example, but I can say to one of my guys, walking around trying to find a battery pack just cost us $18.

I always try to motivate and push people. You want to have a balance. The truth is, you want to be part leader, part trainer, part servant and part teammate. The way I see it, it’s kind of like a pie. In that pie, there’s so many pieces, and you want to be a little bit of everything.

I’ve changed my managerial style a lot over the years. You have to work on being mentally cool. That’s something that’s taken me a while to get there. I’ve gotten a lot of help from my boss, Kevin Parsons, who is the owner of ARA CARSTAR Everett, on that. That’s his biggest piece of advice: You know you’re doing well. We might have a bunch of problems right now, but let’s not be emotional about this. You’re going to have problems and make mistakes; you have to accept that. It’s how you build off them and look at them.

You’ve got to be willing to fail and then you have to be willing to assess your situation and figure out why you failed. When I work with guys, we try to assess the problem in a nonemotional, logical way. We want to figure out why it went wrong, discuss it, work together to talk about it, try to give some tips from a guy who’s more experienced, and then apply those tips. You’d be surprised: You can fix just about anything.

The word I like to use while working is “pliable.” I like to be pliable and I like my guys to be pliable. The vehicle repair process changes every five years, they say. It’s changing so much that any shop that’s not continuing with some kind of education will never be able to keep up. Cars are like technology: Everything’s moving so quickly; so if you choose not to keep up, you will fall behind.

I take advantage of every educational opportunity possible. You need to stay continually open-minded Sometimes you need to stick with what you believe and retain the core values of what makes anybody successful, but you’ve also got to be open-minded to learn the new styles of vehicle repairs.

We have someone from Verifacts come in monthly for ongoing education and data on the new repairs, the new steel, the new paint. I take advantage of BASF ongoing education, which I like because it relates exactly to the paint that I’m using in-house.  I got certified with waterborne four years ago, and BASF sent out a representative who worked with me to provide day-to-day help until I was ready to be on my own. That was a huge help, and it’s something we provide as a training center now. We help train new guys who are coming into waterborne. Now that we have some experience and confidence with waterborne, we do demos for other businesses that want to switch.

Here’s how I sum up waterborne: Do I think it’s fantastic? I certainly do. I used solvent for 12 years, and, after a month of using waterborne, I just would not have wanted to go back to solvent. With everybody I’ve known, I tell them, “You’re going to love it. You just don’t know it because you’re nervous right now.” We try to show them that there’s so little change here, if you just give it a shot.

I would say one of the most crucial parts of becoming efficient with waterborne is purchasing the initial setup tools that are needed. Sometimes employers don’t want to buy those tools, but if you don’t, you’re going to be slower than you were before making the switch. Of those tools, I think the blowers are the most important for achieving the highest level of efficiency.

The biggest thing you have to overcome is the stress of switching. It’s hard when, day to day, you’re comfortable with the process and you know it works. It’s like my dad used to say, “You don’t want to fix what ain’t broke.” But sometimes you have something that may not necessarily be broken, but you may be able to improve it nonetheless. We want to alleviate that stress and show them, this stuff isn’t hard; you’re going to pick it up quickly. 

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