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Improving the Flow of Information

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Your shop management system is the nucleus of your shop, says Jim Byron. The more efficiently you process information, the more efficient you will be.

“People talk about lean processes and improvements in their shops and mention moving around equipment in the shop and how or when a technician touches a car. That’s a part of it,” Byron says. “But the nucleus of it all is the management system, whether it’s computer based or manual.

“None of your procedures or systems or setups or equipment mean anything if you don’t have the proper information with the right people throughout the process, and it’s easy for them to find.”

And it was a little more than six years ago that Byron noticed the information breakdown in his Patterson, N.Y., facility, Patterson Auto Body.

He had systems in place for blueprinting. His technicians did thorough disassembly work. The estimators wrote thorough reports. And all that information springboarded the repair process for the rest of the shop—when it was finally ready, that is.

Byron watched, day after day, as his estimators and service advisors spent hours doing data entry, switching between the shop’s estimating system and its overall shop management system. Parts orders were stored in one system; receipts for parts were separate. The overall repair order was separated from the estimate. Photos of the blueprinting were stored separately from all of it.

“Nothing felt connected,” Byron says. “And we were doing a great job with these processes in the shop, but we just didn’t have the information flow to truly support it. So, it came down to the issue of how can we find a way to streamline our information in a way that we cut out all these issues?”

Byron decided to re-evaluate his shop’s nucleus.

The Backstory

It’s continuous improvement, not change.

Change can be a scary word, Byron says. It insinuates a problem. It places blame. It sounds difficult and time consuming. And it’s going to be disruptive for those involved.

“We want to improve things—to make everyone’s lives easier,” Byron says. “Change is easy to reject, but making your life easier? That sounds pretty good, right?”

Byron has spent the past 31 years trying to make the collision repair process easier, simpler, more efficient and more profitable for his team at Patterson Auto Body. Lean operations was the focus in his shop long before it became a trendy buzzword in the industry. And he takes a meticulous approach to analyzing each detail in his business, looking for bottlenecks to be widened.

Lean isn’t something new, says Byron. The Machine That Changed the World has been sitting on his bookcase for almost 25 years, and he’s incorporated the lean concepts the book highlights in his shop ever since.

The shop grew organically throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as did his two-location mechanical repair business. By early 2008, Patterson Auto Body was pulling in $2.4 million in annual sales out of its 8,000-square-foot facility.

The Bottleneck

The shop wasn’t struggling, and, actually, Byron was pleased with its overall efficiency. Key-to-key cycle time on all vehicles was a respectable 5.5 days. He felt his staff worked well and produced at or above expectations.

It was just that nagging feeling that things could still be better.

INCREASING EFFICIENCY: Jim Byron, here with office manager Michelle Sblano, says the computer system at Patterson Auto Body has been a key to increased efficiency throughout the shop. Photo by Jane Haslam

“You just look at it all, and you know you have good people in place and they’re doing things the right way, the way we have them set up,” he says. “But we’re looking to go to a different level and be even more efficient in how we do things.”

The log jam in the front of the shop and lack of centralized information was holding Patterson Auto Body back, Byron says, and he began to break down exactly where the problem started.

He spoke to his team to identify their biggest complaints with the current system and the processes that went with it.

Their thoughts seemed to mesh with his own: At the time, the shop’s electronic management system did not allow for seamless integration with other products (like the shop’s estimating system) or have options for attaching files, photos or documents to a specific repair order. Everything was separated, and it forced his documentation to be incomplete when different team members looked at the repair order. It caused delays with ordering parts, it stalled the body technicians from getting into a job, and it made adding a supplement an extreme hassle.

The Strategy

The goal was to find a way to have one, central repair order for each job that included all documentation needed for the repair, from start to finish. Photos, the estimate, repair notes, parts orders, paint needs—it all had to be in one place at all times. 

Byron began shopping the market for a new management system that could accommodate those specific needs. After a thorough search, he decided Summit CRS (formerly Summit Software Solutions) would meet his needs. The program, Byron says, had the same functionality of his previous one, plus it integrated with his estimating system and had options for attachments in specific work orders.

“The simplest part was picking the system,” he says. “We simply wanted a program that had everything existing in our current one and had the additional functionality that we were lacking.

“The harder part is implementing the new system, and changing the way our team was doing things.”

But, because he and his team identified the issues together, they were already set in finding a new solution to streamlining the process. Byron sat down his team and demonstrated how the new system took into account the issues they each had. Sure, it would change their processes, Byron explained, but once everyone gets the hang of it, everything will be
more efficient.

In mid-2008, Byron and his team installed the new program and went about adjusting their work processes to accommodate its new features.

The Result

Something as drastic as a shop management switch takes time, Byron says, and he and his team worked to tweak their standard operating procedures throughout the entire repair process.

It took them roughly six months to fully integrate the management system into their daily operations. The result was a simple, more streamlined workflow:

1. Blueprinting. The technician blueprints the job and records his findings on a standard printout. He documents each aspect with photos. After finishing,  the technician uploads the photos directly to the job in the management system and hands the report off to the estimator.

2. Estimating. The estimator then creates the estimate in the estimating system, which automatically populates into the shop management system. The estimator can also make notes as requested by the insurer.

3. Parts Procurement. Byron bought a second monitor for his parts manager, who now opens the management system on one screen and his invoicing system for parts on the other. He orders all parts and attaches all the documentation, including receipts, into the management system.

4. Job Goes Live. The job then goes to the body technician and the paint team. The technician can see all required work to be performed and any notes left by the estimator. The paint team gets notification of the colors needed and anticipated quantities and starts mixing/matching so the paint is ready when the vehicle arrives to their station.

5. Job Completion. Because everything is in one place, neatly organized by each team member, the finalization of the job is simple for the front desk team when the repair process is completed. Everything is in one place, and the service advisor simply prints out the necessary forms for payment and delivery.

Byron says that overall cycle time has been reduced by 40 percent since 2008. The shop separates its cycle time into two categories now: fast-track jobs, which have a 1.4-day cycle time, and undrivable vehicles, which have a cycle time of 6.3 days.

Efficiency has improved drastically in each department, perhaps nowhere more than with Byron’s parts manager. Since implementing the new system and adding the second monitor, the parts manager’s efficiency has increased by 20 percent.

“With everything together in one repair order,” Byron says, “we’re able to look up anything we want in seconds if there are questions from insurers or from the parts vendors or customers. We have everything we need in one place.”

In 2013, the shop topped $3 million in sales for the first time.

The Takeaway

Creating efficiencies and decreasing cycle time isn’t about appeasing insurers and direct repair program managers, Byron says. Continuous improvement needs to be the focus of every shop, whether it’s procedures in the shop or the computer systems that manage them.

“Lean is a continuous process, where you’re always looking for ways to improve,” he says. “You need to be able to look in every area of your business to identify the areas you can improve.”

“Having a successful business depends on the people you have in place, but those people can’t be successful if we don’t have the systems in place to put them in the right positions,” Byron adds. “Your management system is at the heart of that, and it’s something you have to keep evaluating.” 

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