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Culture Shock

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There is a saying, and I have no idea where it came from, which basically says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you always got.” Now I know it’s a bit simplistic and clearly logical, but isn’t that our industry, in many ways to a tee?

We keep repairing cars in almost the same way as we’ve always done, and wonder why not much has changed. I remember back to when I sold my first shop in the late ’80s and life was pretty good. We had a labor rate that was only a few dollars less than what we are repairing vehicles for today. We had no courtesy vehicles, costs were much lower and business was significantly easier. The business dynamics have changed, but the way in which we repair the vehicle, manage workflow and deal with staff is very much the same.

Under such difficult trading conditions, don’t we need to rethink the way we are doing things? We know we have to change in order to scrape a profit, but change to what? I am sure, that like most shop owners, you have looked at the details of your business—reduced costs where possible (so as to not hemorrhage output or flexibility), looked at staff performance, tried up-selling and the raft of other tweaks you feel you need to do to increase output.

But why do we seem to come against this wall whereby we seem unable to significantly make the improvements we desire? Why, despite every effort at looking at the detail do we not seem to be able to increase throughput consistently, or bring cycle times to where we, and our customers, want them? And why, when we make a change, do we seem to get resistance from people within our organization?

The answers are relatively simple, yet seem so far away. In order to see any improvement in business, we need to make changes. However, it is possible to make changes and see no improvement (that’s what makes people cynical). The question is what change, and how to implement it.

The problem is that we don’t know the correct questions to ask. We haven’t had the exposure to other areas of industry where many of the problems we face have been all but eradicated. We believe that the methods of management and our past decisions, especially those in crisis situations, will help us out in the future. This is called “culture.” There is a culture ingrained in all of us.

But in many cases, our culture, or experience in repairing motor vehicles, actually hinders us in many ways in achieving our goals. Combine this with long-term habits and resistance to change, and you now have a very difficult animal to convince about possible new processes, let alone putting those processes into action.

Once you start to understand TOC (theory of constraints) methodology, things start to become clearer. Typically, our behavior tends to focus on detail, in departmental silos. We look at the minutiae and try to deal with specific areas in order to speed them up. This behavior may seem like the correct thing to do, but it rarely has significant effect. Why?

Because the efficiency gains from those actions are at a departmental level, rather than being carried out as a holistic approach. They rarely consider the effects on bottlenecks (which determine output), and can often add to work-in-progress, transparent costs, and create more queuing, increasing cycle times.

In order to make the improvements you need for your business, it is vital to look at the process as a holistic effort, and its impact on overall throughput. If you make a change that adds speed to the process and is upstream of your primary bottleneck, then you will more than likely add in far more cost and waste than you attempted to take out.

When I mentor body shops, we have to discard all of the traditional beliefs as to how a body shop functions, how it is measured and what impacts performance. That in itself is a challenging task, because all objections to change come from a traditional standpoint—one which is naturally very hard to shake off.

Once you start to really understand what determines throughput in body shops, it starts (after much discussion) to make sense. For many people there is a “eureka” moment, where all of the pieces of a complex jigsaw suddenly make a picture. It’s a fundamental culture change, one that this industry needs to embrace to really move forward.

Jon Parker is managing director of the Byteback Group, a U.K.-based information technology and services company aimed at advancing the collision repair industry.

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