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Workflow is critical to profitability. Establishing a solid workflow allows cars to be repaired in the most efficient manner, at the lowest cycle time, with as few supplements and comebacks as possible. So how do you optimize workflow, and how do you measure its success?

FenderBender asked John Sweigart, a principle of The Body Shop@ and developer of The Star Linked Certified Collision Repair System—which draws on the Toyota Production System lean manufacturing principles—for practical, real world advice on improving a shop’s workflow.

Flow is a tool to identify systemic problems. Fix those, and all aspects of your business improve. Think this way: if your employees joined hands and raced 10 blocks, how fast would they get there? As fast as the slowest employee, right? Flow shows you the slowest of all areas. Improve the slowest, and the whole thing gets faster. Businesses don’t satisfy a customer or ring the register until all pieces finish. What’s most important in any business is not the efficiency of any part, rather how parts relate to each other and function together. When you assess workflow, the thing you want to look for is the lack of flow.

My observations in the collision repair industry show that our lack of flow is primarily driven by administrative failures. The vast majority of constraints to flow begin at the estimate. We get paid to fix the car, but we don’t get paid to write the estimate, take the photos, or write the supplements. The greatest waste is generated by the office. Rarely on the shop floor does work stop; it’s administrative work that prevents a technician from fixing a car.

Cycle time is a great primary indicator of workflow. If work flows better, it must move faster. Cycle time ties all metrics together. Most important is the relationship between speed and quality. Quality is the process you use to get to the perfect car in the parking lot. The quality can’t be better unless the flow is faster, and the flow can’t be faster unless the quality is better.

People function best somewhere between happy and challenged. People [need to know] they’re important, that what they say matters, that they have each other’s back. There has to be a vision for the organization, and everyone in that organization has to support the vision. What you believe equals how you behave. That kind of culture is 180 degrees from where most organizations are today.\

Flow means people subordinate to flowing vehicles. Originally, the Toyota Production System was referred to as respect for humanity. It’s a very emotional business model. In most companies, you’ve got MBAs and business-minded people taught practical methodologies for making metrics happen. There are all sorts of mathematical equations. Where this whole thing started with Toyota is understanding what makes people function well—and that’s emotional, not mathematical.

Attempting to flow is just telling the truth about your business. Flow shows you the problems. Think of it this way: If I stand on the scale every day and find that I have gained one pound, I can fix that problem easily. If I wait six months, and find that I have gained 50 pounds, I have a big, big problem. But some people would rather not stand on the scale.

Optimizing workflow means you are making systemic improvements; all your metrics will improve. Cycle time reduction, resource reduction, quality improvement, profit—a high tide raises all ships. Actually, optimal flow is never achievable. It is only the pursuit that matters. It is continuous improvement. Always be chipping away at this new challenge. If it’s achievable, you don’t have enough of a vision. Set a direction and take one step. Don’t kill yourself trying to figure it all out. Just take another step. If you can make tomorrow better than today, you’re good.

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