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What Are We Trying to Do?

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Although we keep ourselves and our staff very busy, when we stop to ask what it is that we’re trying to do, the answer is elusive at best. Sure, we may have some clear short-term objectives like “hit the monthly sales goal for the month,” “improve cycle time,” “reduce supplements,” etc. 

These are outcomes, but they are inter-connected, which means an improvement in one can lead to sliding back in another if the entire work system itself isn’t considered when changes are deployed. Failing to respect the interdependence of each step is why, when we push hard to drive a metric in one area, the often uncorrected root causes pop up in some other area. It can feel like we are constantly chasing our tails. We get cycle time where Insurer “A” wants it, but CSI for Insurer “B” suffers. We fail to address the underlying issues and focus on the more outwardly apparent symptoms (cycle time, profit, rework, etc.)

When steps within the value delivery system (sales, estimating, parts, repair, refinish, assembly, etc.) are treated as independent silos—responsible for their own metrics—improvements within one won’t necessarily translate to improvement of the whole, which is what both customer “A” and “B” really need. (We cut the time it takes to paint the car in half, but it still can’t leave if the tail lamp is wrong.) 

Because of variability, the connectedness of the aforementioned components is hard to see. Compare that to something simple like assembling parts carts in five steps, where each operation has specific pieces to attach (where the time for each step was balanced equally). Low variability processes are easy to understand. Defects are obvious, and easy to understand. We need to take our very complex, abstract process, and re-engineer it to be visual and less variable. Attempting this will quickly demonstrate that we need to create standardized ways of doing the work at each step so outcomes are predictable and reliable for dependent downstream operations.

In future articles, I’ll describe some of the most critical areas in the collision repair process that need to be re-engineered to work better, and some basic activities that, if done reliably, can have a measurable effect upon the speed (quality) of the entire system. However, for them to have any chance of sustaining, leadership needs to look differently at its role in facilitating and sustaining such activities. Traditionally, responsibility for these outcomes has been subordinated to technicians, estimators and production managers, none of whom have the time, the perspective to imagine how a connected process would look, or the authority to direct the necessary changes in how the staff actually does their work. This is the work of the business leader. If the staff is to understand what it is “that we are trying to do,” leadership must first be clear about it themselves, and remove obstacles the traditional model left behind.

So lets try on a few “what are we trying to do’s,” and see how they rank when tested against owner, customer, and employees. 

  1. Increase profits for shareholders. This is good for the owner, not as inspiring for employees, and suspicious for customers. 
  2. Be the best at what we do. What does that mean? What if we are only a little better than the next best, in an industry where the bar for delighting customers is so low that being number one may not even be recognized by the person paying the bill? 
  3. Be the employer of choice. Good for the staff. The customer might wonder, “Will I be sent to voicemail if they’re all having a team-building moment?” 
  4. Shorten the time to produce a defect-free product or service in a measurable manner every month. Hmm, the customer is likely to engage with an organization that thinks this way. It works for the staff (who incidentally will repeatedly go out of their way to do right by the customer, in spite of the boss’ rules and crappy systems that get in the way). It works for the owner, as shorter cycle time means more repairs with the same resources. 

It’s natural for us to want to jump right into “doing, changing” something and I enjoy explaining clever tools and systems we’ve created that deliver a repaired car with less stops in much less time. However, I have seen many of the attempts to deploy such tools and systems in many industries revert back to the old way because leadership was itself unclear about what exactly it was that they were trying to do. 

Aaron Marshall manages Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis. He can be reached at

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