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Managing Time In The Shop

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I recently had a conversation with a shop estimator about time management in the shop. He told me, “In the shop, you don’t manage time; it manages you.” I could see his point of view. After all, when a customer or a prospective customer comes in, he has to drop whatever he’s doing and either write an estimate and try to sell the job, or simply sign in the arriving customer to get the job started. Whatever else he was doing has to wait.

Does that mean even trying to manage time in the shop is hopeless? Perhaps not.

Time is a major commodity in a body shop. Motor and Mitchell guides specify the appropriate time for most parts replacement actions and many repairs. If the book calls for three and a half hours to replace a fender and the tech can do it in two and a half hours, the shop has technically gained an hour. And the emphasis now on lean processes should increase production time greatly.

Does this also mean the issue of “time management” is well taken care of? Once again, perhaps not.

My estimator friend, who suggested that time manages you, says that it’s nearly impossible to be proactive. Most of what you do is reactive; you have to react to the demands of the job or prospective job at hand. In actual practice, I’ve observed that some of the best shops anticipate upcoming situations and proactively manage them. One shop had a phone call back-up person for every estimator. All he or she did was call to schedule appointments, keep customers informed of progress on their vehicles, and immediately advise them of unexpected circumstances that could affect the delivery time of their vehicle.

This freed up the estimators to focus 100 percent on estimating jobs and getting approval to start repairs. At this shop, being forced to be reactive was kept to an absolute minimum.

Now obviously this was a very busy shop with an abundance of business, but what about the smaller shop owner who can’t afford niceties like a back-up team? Since we’ve had access to the Internet and Google, an abundance of time management tips can be found all over the place. But the best time management books were written in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Alan Lakein’s 1973 book, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life established what I call the “selective neglect” rule. No one can possibly tend to every aspect of life or read every important document. OSHA rules alone run to dozens of pages. Reading an insurance policy can take an hour or more and still not be fully understood. From moment to moment, one must decide what must be attended to and what can be neglected. Lakein created the A, B, C drawer system. He said put urgent actions in drawer A, vital actions in Drawer B, and the rest in Drawer C. Then, periodically empty out Drawer C and throw it all away.

By 1980, the focus of time management had shifted to highly personal styles. Psychologist Dru Scott wrote of “the secret pleasure of mismanaging time,” in her book, How to Put More Time in Your Life.  She brought a keener focus to the question, “how can I decide what must be attended to and what can be neglected?” Typically a decision-maker compares alternatives before deciding. Scott says this can often lead to indecision, which can lead to long delays. She says a better approach is to more thoroughly clarify your objective and then compare it to each alternative.

For example, a local shop owner was trying to decide what would most advance his shop in the coming years. He had choices like buying precision aluminum frame and welding equipment, getting employees certified for a particular dealership’s vehicle repairs, or remodeling the shop’s office and exterior to create a better first impression for prospective customers and referral sources. Because he didn’t have the resources to do it all, he couldn’t make up his mind. More than a year of inaction had already passed. When pressured into finally deciding, he realized his top objective was more dealership business. The high cost of equipment needed for new high-end vehicle repair had led him to think of less expensive alternatives. But clarifying his objective helped him to bite the bullet and make this important investment.

Several of the authors point out that it’s important to delegate more tasks to subordinates. Many owners have a lack of trust or simply the belief that “no one can do it as well as I can.” One consultant I once worked with says 90 percent of the time, it all works out OK. For executives, delegating is the number-one time saver. In the body shop, it’s an art form that should be seriously pursued.

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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