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A Study in Lean Problem Solving

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Lean isn’t about having a neat and tidy shop, Greg Lobsiger says. It isn’t about having a re-organized workflow, parts carts, or blueprinting stations.

Buzzwords like pull production and concepts like Six Sigma or 5S are just that—concepts, words.

All of these things are part of it, Lobsiger says, and they’re ideas that he uses and talks about daily in his Bluffton, Ind., shop, Loren’s Body. Shop But they’re still just concepts.

“What lean is really about is fixing problems,” Lobsiger says. “We want to streamline everything we do, and identify and then eliminate bottlenecks and issues that come up. Everything we do is about finding solutions.”

That mentality has led to a number of improvements in Lobsiger’s operations. But just a year into his “lean journey,” he says he’s found that the solutions don’t always come easily. Managing workflow, overcoming his facility’s size limitations—there aren’t always available products or systems to implement as a fix.

For three specific issues that surfaced in the shop’s lean transition, Lobsiger had to rely on his and his team’s creativity and ingenuity to truly build solutions from scratch.

The Purpose

A long stretch of Midwestern highway is often a good place for soul-searching and contemplation, if for no other reason than the lack of towns, cities and people that distract from reflective solitude.

And Lobsiger took full advantage of the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Waukesha, Wis., back to Bluffton, Ind., to just soak it all in.

He’d just spent the weekend getting a crash course in lean operations from Aaron Marshall of Marshall Auto Body, touring the expansive, if not overwhelmingly impressive, facility just outside of Milwaukee.

This was June of 2012, and Lobsiger says it was the turning point for his business’s future.

SIDE BY SIDE: Lobsiger and his team have worked together to come up with many of the shop’s lean solutions. The six-person team has pushed the shop to an improved and less hectic workflow. Photo courtesy Loren's Body Shop

PRECISION SCHEDULING: Lobsiger and his staff developed this scheduling board to give a clear, color-coded visual of the shop’s in-process jobs. Photo courtesy Loren's Body Shop

“I’m driving and just thinking, ‘You know, I’m not as smart as Aaron, but I’m just as determined,’” Lobgsiger says of Marshall, considered by many to be one of the premier shop operators in the country. “I was tired of the flat-rate world, tired of the independent contractors in our shop. They were efficient but it was hell running the place.

“I saw Aaron’s shop and suddenly everything clicked for me: I needed to look at the shop as an overall system, not a bunch of individuals doing their jobs.”

Lobsiger wanted to replicate the environment of Marshall’s shop at his own—a self-sufficient team, working efficiently to produce more work, but in a less chaotic environment.

The Process

In the four years prior to his road trip epiphany, Lobsiger had turned around a struggling business. The shop, founded in 1951 by his grandfather, Loren, did just $540,000 in sales in 2008 out of 6,500 square feet.

He began working with a consulting firm and joined a 20 Group. He started focusing on numbers, religiously tracking the metrics that his business decisions should’ve always been based on. Efficiency improved, marketing became a fixture, and Loren’s topped $1 million in 2012.

So, when Lobsiger went about overhauling his operations a second time, he was armed with a much better understanding of running his shop.

Through his paint vendor, Lobsiger was introduced to renowned lean guru John Sweigart in the fall of 2012, and the two began transforming Lobsiger’s shop.

Lobsiger adopted a new focus on pull production, reorganized his shop and team into departments, and switched his pay system to salary.

He “pulled the trigger” on the new production system last July, and the problems started right away.

Problem No. 1: Unorganized Workflow

Everything in Lobsiger’s pull production system is predicated on customer demand; that is, the billable hours of work his team has available to them each week. Taking from his 2012 numbers—the shop’s best year to date at that point—Lobsiger was able to gauge that his shop had 280 hours worth of work available from its customers each week. That includes what was a pretty healthy backlog at the time. Broken down to the day, Lobsiger’s team had 56–58 hours of work that could be pulled through the shop.

“That was an eye-opener, and it was like, ‘Great, we have this work, how in the world do we schedule it out to make sure we hit those marks?” he says.

Like many shops, Lobsiger had followed a simple push method: They’d schedule nearly all appointments on Monday or Tuesday. Cars would be dropped off early in the week, and the goal would be to get them out by Friday.

“What would happen was we’d spend Monday and Tuesday doing all the administrative work, and maybe getting 50 hours total through the shop,” he says. “Then, we’d be hustling on Thursday and Friday trying to get 200 hours done. Normally, you can’t get through that, which is where the backlog came in.”

Loren’s needed a new workflow system.

Solution: Lobsiger and his team developed a “scheduling board” that now sits at the front of the shop, coded with a simple system—if you understand its intricacies.

The board is stripped into six sections (Repair Confirmation, Waiting Parts, Parts Ready, Body, Paint, and Build) to identify the stage the vehicle is in. Then, Lobsiger uses color-coded cards for each job, differentiated by how big the job is: blue (0–7.9 hours), green (8–19.9), yellow (20-39.9) and red (40 and above).

The team tries to keep a job (or a card) in each section throughout each day, while having the total number of hours add up to 56, and they keep score on a daily and weekly basis at the bottom of the board.

Problem No. 2: Cramped for Space

As one would imagine for a 63-year-old shop that has never moved locations, there are some quirks to the Loren’s facility: It’s split into two buildings—the main one that features the office, blueprinting station and paint booths, and another that houses build and body.

A SIMPLE FIX: Lobsiger’s blueprinting bay was too cramped to easily maneuver a mobile cart, so he built a permanent station. Photo courtesy Loren's Body Shop

THINKING VERTICALLY: Lobsiger’s technicians built a point-of-use cart with no flat surfaces that can be easily stored and moved throughout the shop. Photo courtesy Loren's Body Shop

Inevitably, space is tight, and when Lobsiger went lean, he adopted the use of parts and equipment carts. It saves space in some areas, but it created an issue with his blueprinting station. He set up his teardown area in a single bay, and moving an estimating cart and a separate point-of-use cart for tools and equipment was extremely difficult.

“It was just cramped, and made me want to reconsider my whole setup,” Lobsiger says.

Solution: He consulted with Sweigart on the issue, and got a blunt reply.

“He asked me why I would need my estimating cart to be ‘mobile’ if I only planned to do blueprinting and estimating in one spot,” Lobsiger remembers. “It was a rhetorical question; the only reason I would need that is if we’re not doing a good enough job blueprinting and have to bring that equipment to other areas of the shop later.”

Lobsiger hung a shelf-like desktop in the corner of the bay, mounted a monitor to the wall and set everything else up on shadow and quark boards, so that they were off the ground and easily reachable.

Problem No. 3: Lack of Mobility and Agility

Soon, Lobsiger noticed that his traditional carts were a bit cumbersome for his space as well, or at least the amount needed clogged up walkways. And, because the carts came with flat surfaces, they were constantly getting messy.

“A big trick in lean is to eliminate flat surfaces, get rid of the opportunity for waste to build up,” he says.

Solution: Lobsiger gave the job to his technicians: Create a point-of-use cart that fits their needs, but has no flat surfaces. His team brainstormed for a day and came back with the teepee-shaped cart they use today. It has hooks and slots for each tool, so that each and every piece of equipment has one place it should go. Things are easily found, it can hold more, and, because it’s skinnier than the old carts, it can move easily through tight spaces. The techs built it themselves in a couple of hours.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions
As Lobsiger discovered in his lean implementation, successful operational strategies don’t universally transfer from one shop to another. Long-time industry consultant Marcy Tieger of Symphony Advisors LLC says there are three main obstacles shop owners face when implementing a new process or system:

1. Shop Space. 
Everyone would love to have a big, wide-open floor plan with the load-bearing columns exactly in the right places. But, often in smaller shops, the location footprint can present challenges. Shop owners need the creativity and imagination to envision how this can work in your shop—not how it worked in the shop down the street. Be flexible and be creative.

2. Fear of change.
Knowing your limitations can’t deter you from that change. You need to understand that it’s a process, and that every shop is different and will have limitations. There are aspects of lean that are physical, but, primarily, the obstacles are behavioral. That starts with buy-in from your entire team.

3. All-at-once approach.
The “Lean Journey” is a process that needs to be phased in over time. Too much too soon can overwhelm a business and can result in false starts and even abandonment of this very important initiative. It’s also important to remember that lean is about continuous improvement and that the journey never ends.

The Takeaway

Lobsiger is still early in his transition, having just now reached the one-year mark. But, he says cycle time has decreased by more than one day and touch time has increased by more than one hour. His shop regularly hits that 280 hours-per-week mark, and he expects another record year in 2014.

“The biggest thing is just getting the right mind set of how to look at your shop,” he says. “Once you look at it as a whole system, and constantly work to tweak and fix that system, you can really make changes for the better.

“I wouldn’t say we’re blowing away our past production or anything, but we’re doing it easier. It’s more organized. There’s less chaos. All we focus on is finding problems and fixing them.”

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