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A Winning Team

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Resting above Big Sky Collision’s repair floor is a scoreboard—the kind of scoreboard you’d find in a high school basketball gym.

Big Sky Collision’s daily opponent is “The Market.” On most days, the Big Sky crew can be found performing better than the statewide length of rental market average. And if they’ve fallen behind, you can be sure all 30-plus employees will work together to pull ahead.

Call it strange, call it crazy, call it gimmicky, but at Matthew McDonnell’s shop, it’s all about teamwork, and the scoreboard represents a gigantic cultural shift that completely reshaped a disorganized repair process, reduced waste and unified the Billings, Mont., shop into a single unit working in sync to beat the market average.

When McDonnell discovered his shop didn’t allow for efficient inter-departmental interaction, which created a culture of singularity that killed workflow, he knew he’d have to motivate employees to buy into a team system and manufacture a unified culture that, in the end, took the shop’s cycle time from 18 days to six—in just four months.

KEEPING SCORE: Matthew McDonnell updates the shop’s scoreboard daily with his team’s cycle time, compared to the average length of rental in his market. A snowstorm temporarily increased the shop’s cycle time (pictured) in December.THE BACKSTORY

Established in 1978 by McDonnell’s father, Matt, Big Sky Collision has gradually grown from a four-bay garage to a 22,000-square-foot facility since McDonnell took over eight years ago.

With an increased focus on marketing— improving the shop’s SEO and establishing his Shar Pei, Raisin, as a local celebrity mascot—work started to flow in like never before. As customers poured in, the staff grew from a handful to over 30 employees, and McDonnell even established another location in Bozeman, Mont.

But with the shop’s expansion came growing pains. As the building and staff size increased, the repair process remained stagnant. What had worked before—which involved one body tech and one paint tech taking on a vehicle—was suddenly killing Big Sky’s workflow and slowly increased cycle time to 18 days.


Because of the shop’s setup, work not only created a bottleneck in the paint department, but also a disjointed culture.

The body shop was split into 24 vehicle stalls for eight body technicians. Each tech would receive three vehicles at a time, and those vehicles would be pushed to the paint department. Different severities of repairs and different skill levels between the eight technicians meant vehicles would leave the body department at will, on to six painters splitting time between two booths, creating the bottleneck.

As McDonnell puts it, the layout created “eight miniature body shops” within one big one.

“Techs were running their own shops. We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it was,” he says. “Each one was capable of doing the repair, but they weren’t enabled to work together efficiently.”

The lack of communication carried over to estimates, as well. Estimators would receive notes from the customer, but rarely notified technicians of a change.

“We’d do a super good $5,000 repair. But the customer walks out, sees a dent he asked us to fix and asks, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’” McDonell says. “That voids out this wonderful repair we worked so hard on.”

After visiting lean guru Aaron Marshall’s shop, Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis., McDonnell realized Big Sky’s “miniature body shop” system was not only killing communication, but also creating excess waste (each technician had tens of thousands of dollars worth of parts stored in their separate stalls).

The new idea? Consolidate the stalls, get more hands on a vehicle at once and focus on pushing out one vehicle at a time.

“Eight times three—that's 24 cars jammed in our body shop,” says McDonnell. “When we really started working on this repair process, we asked everyone: ‘How many cars can you touch at one time?’

“We heard five, we heard three—but no. The answer is one. We wanted to establish and set up a way to make it efficient for touching one car at a time.”


Since employees were so used to their individual repair stations, the communal “buy-in” became essential. That’s why, instead of preaching Marshall’s lean philosophies, McDonnell flew his technicians to Waukesha to see the process.

“The techs came back, and they had drank the Kool-Aid,” he says. “They had completely bought in. It wasn’t something they were forced into—they were ready to start right away.”

The new system (implemented in January 2014) involved splitting the entire shop into two teams, with each team comprised of techs with very specific duties. Stalls were no longer occupied by one technician performing several duties, but instead by several technicians performing a single duty.

“There were guys that were very skilled at putting in quarter panels, or very skilled at doing high-level repairs, or maybe their skill was in some type of electrical repair,” McDonnell says. “We had this mix of all these different people, and what we decided was to split it up into two team systems that focused on individual strengths.”

Each team is made up of two A techs and two B techs working on a vehicle. Typically, McDonnell says two technicians will tear down a vehicle and then partner with one of the shop’s three estimators, who makes notes on the repair order, and one parts employee, who gathers a list of parts to order.

As the vehicle moves into body repair,structural repair technicians work on the vehicle. If a specialized task is required, the corresponding technicians perform the task. The shop has designated technicians who specialize in bumper repair/plastic welding, maintenance and running diagnostics.

Both groups of body techs are partnered with one A tech and two B techs in the paint department, where paint, prep and masking duties are split between three painters.

Throughout the process, visual indicators are key for nonverbal communication between departments. Repair orders are marked with one of five colors (green, yellow, orange, red or blue) to indicate the severity of the repair. The repair order contains a checklist of different parts for the vehicle, and each step (teardown, body, primer, prep, paint and buff) is coupled with a blank space for notes.

In addition, customer service representatives, estimators and technicians will make notes on the vehicle and relay changes between departments.

“We really have to set up a system where people have to talk to each other, almost like a repair order,” McDonnell says. “If I know I won't be the guy to put this back together, I better leave the 1-2-3 step for this process. We break the system down and communicate within our departments to deliver a good product.”


Improved communication has made the repair process more efficient. After four months, McDonnell’s new team system had reduced the 18-day cycle time to six days. Revenue climbed by over $1 million (it now sits at $5.5 million) and each team averages 74 cars per month, up from the previous storewide total average of 110.

Those changes came just in time, too: In May 2014, a giant hail storm hit town, and Big Sky was able to clear $1 million in a single month.

Between teardown, body and reassembly, technicians would discover new problems and order new parts. But with several eyes on a vehicle at once, supplement orders went down instantly.

Staff camaraderie is also at an all-time high. The A techs are not only more productive with the added help, but are also able to mentor the B techs in a more nurturing environment.


For McDonnell, it’s all about the buy-in: How do you unite your employees to work toward one common goal?

“Our philosophy is, ‘We do things with you, not to you,’” McDonnell says. “It was important that management formed a process with employees as opposed to introducing a new idea out of the blue.”

And that scoreboard on the wall? McDonnell updates it each day with the shop’s average cycle time (the goal is 7.5 days), compared to the market average for length of rental (often above 10 days), so the teams know where they stand. It's now a daily reminder of the shop's new mantra: When the Big Sky team succeeds, they do it together.

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