Lessons From Highly Efficient Shops
There is no universal “how-to” manual in running an efficient and successful collision repair business, John Gustafson says. There are, however, certain strategies that every shop can adapt to fit its own needs—systems, processes, procedures and philosophies that, when implemented correctly, can transform an average shop into elite status.
“It’s just figuring out your own ways of making things work in your facility,” says Gustafson, co-owner of Gustafson Brothers, a three-shop collision and mechanical business in Southern California.
Gustafson is one of four operators tabbed by FenderBender to share their keys to efficient workflow. Each facility ranked in the 99th percentile in terms of overall efficiency out of the 573 shops that filled out the 2014 FenderBender KPI Survey. The shops were scored in terms of technician productivity and efficiency, shop cycle time and touch time, and both gross and net profit margin.
These four shops scored among the best—and they tell you how you can do the same.
HOW TO TURN YOUR STAFF INTO A TEAM
John Stubbs misses a lot of work—roughly five of his 12 years as the manager of Zeck Ford have been spent overseas, deployed in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. Yet, the shop has never missed a beat, operating in the same efficient, precise method Stubbs developed when he came onboard in 2002.
And, no, Stubbs doesn’t rule with the iron fist one might expect given his military background. Instead, he’s developed an autonomous, forward-thinking team approach that allows his staff to work just as efficiently whether Stubbs is standing in the middle of the shop floor or in the Middle East.
“Every repair is different, and you can’t work efficiently if you’re locked in and stuck in the same process,” he says. “You need to be able to adapt.”
Stubbs says that’s why his team of three body men and two painters produces roughly 160 billable hours per day. To build a successful team-based system, Stubbs says, there are a few critical aspects.
1. Setup. Stubbs’ three techs work together, as do his two painters. The shop helper is also part of the team, cleaning up after each department to allow them to move freely from job to job, a move Stubbs says saves the team four hours combined each day.
2. People. Stubbs has team-first employees, who enjoy the challenge of creating efficiencies. Without the correct mindset, none of it is possible, Stubbs says.
3. Clear Communication. Stubbs has release meetings each morning for the team to determine the best route for tackling that day’s jobs. “It gives them the chance to say, ‘Well, after I get this to paint, I can work on this and then have time for that later,” he says. “They plan ahead.”
4. Proper Scheduling and Flow. Every step in the workflow is tracked religiously through detailed notes in the shop’s management system, allowing every employee to understand where each job stands at all times.
5. Ability to Adapt. Stubbs’ team works together and makes autonomous decisions together. He gives them the freedom to adapt on the fly if it means increased efficiency.
6. Shop Floor Improvements. Stubbs says he and his team review the shop floor layout a minimum of twice each year, analyzing how things can be moved, tweaked or adjusted to allow for better flow.
HOW TO SCHEDULE BASED ON SKILL
Bob Langlie has been one of the few constants at Luther Collision & Glass, a dealer-based facility that has changed names and ownership four separate times in the 35 years Langlie’s been a part of the company.
And he’s done it all: “Service, sales, parts, collision—all of it,” he says. “Wherever they needed a manager, they put me there.” He’s been managing the collision side since 1989, but it was his time focusing on mechanical that had the most impact in how the shop operates. His task, daily, was to juggle roughly 100 cars between his techs in the service department, matching workload and job type to the technician’s skill set and expertise.
And that’s the exact same mindset he took to collision, helping the repair business go from a three-person operation on the back of a dealership to a freestanding, 16,000-square-foot powerhouse with overall technician efficiency above 210 percent.
“Think of it like a football team,” he says. “You’re not going to have 11 running backs all on the field. So, why would you try to make each tech the same when you have such a variety of work?”
Here’s the keys to his process:
1. Team Evaluation. Langlie does skill evaluations with all members of his team at the time of hire. Those evaluations are updated based on performance tracking (efficiency, productivity, comebacks, etc.) and continued training.
2. Team Setup. In his shop today, body techs work independently; his painters work as a team. Why? Because that best suits their personalities and work habits. “You have to set them up to succeed,” he says. “You can’t force someone into an uncomfortable position that will create inefficiencies.”
3. End-of-Day Evaluation. As the general manager, Langlie handles the scheduling himself. He goes over the progress of each job at the end of each day through the shop’s management system. He then can draw up an outline of the following day’s schedule.
4. Morning Meeting. Langlie and his entire team meet at the beginning of each day to go over that day’s work.
5. Blueprinting as a Priority. Every job is blueprinted. It allows parts to be ordered in advance and to get a true sense of the hours needed to be scheduled.
6. Finding Balance. Langlie’s technicians range in efficiency from 125–260 percent (the overall shop average is around 210). He knows that a 200-percent efficient tech can handle 16 billable hours in a day—and that’s what he schedules for them. He does that for each tech, giving them the jobs that meet their evaluations.
HOW TO PLAN AHEAD
Operating in Fargo, Luther sees plenty of trucks—plenty of Fords. With the launch of the aluminum-bodied Ford F-150 this year, becoming aluminum certified—which the shop did in 2014—was a no-brainer, Langlie says.
“When you’re making future projections, you have to look at your workmix, your demographics and see how trends are going to affect that—not how it’ll affect a shop in another part of the country,” he says. “Look at us, and we’re probably going to have more than 50 percent of our workload be aluminum in less than 10 years. Why wait and play catch-up?”
HOW TO MAKE LEAN WORK
Simply put: Take a “modified lean” approach, Langlie says. His shop has adopted a number of lean principles, but he says it doesn’t have the space to do it all the way.
“Not all aspects of lean are going to work at every shop, and you shouldn’t just adopt something that someone else is doing,” he says. “Take what you have, and make the improvements.”
HOW TO CREATE A WINNING CULTURE
After more than 40 years in business, John Gustafson decided it was time to blow things up and start over; not with the business itself—Gustafson Brothers in Huntington Beach, Calif.—but, rather, with its overall approach to business.
“We were a giant group of independent contractors,” Gustafson says, “and we just weren’t reaching our potential in terms of what we could produce.”
He felt a change needed to be made to increase its $4 million-a-year sales pace. (Gustafson Brothers also has a mechanical segment that accounted for another $2.5 million out of two facilities at that time.)
Gustafson targeted one thing: the company’s culture. The shift began in 2013, and by the end of 2014, the company had grown revenue by nearly 50 percent without adding any staff. Sales on collision work topped $6 million, and overall sales went from $6.5 million to $10 million. And, not by coincidence, efficiency numbers experienced an identical 50 percent rise, as well, surpassing 160 percent as a whole on the shop floor. Cycle time dropped by more than two days to just below seven, and touch time increased by an hour.
Company culture and individual attitudes are the biggest influencers of shop efficiency, Gustafson says. Once those two aspects were fully ingrained, the shop was able to reach its potential.
“It actually wasn’t as difficult as it might sound,” he says. “As with any change, there were challenges. Not every team member made it through the change. But, as a whole, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been and we’re pushing forward.”
Here’s how Gustafson created a shop culture that succeeds day in and day out:
Step 1: Develop a Vision. Gustafson says to create a vision statement that sums up your company’s overall objective. For Gustafson Brothers, it was “To become the organization that provides ‘world class’ customer service with zero defects and zero stress.” He then created a list of 11 core values for the company—things like trust, teamwork, respect, and accountability. On a more tangible level, Gustafson used these values and concepts to create new job descriptions for every member of his team.
Step 2: Train. Gustafson brought in an outside consultant to walk his entire 70-plus person team through extensive, five-day training, working with groups of 15–18 employees at a time. He developed a PowerPoint that delivered his vision for the company and how that pertains to each employee’s role, and he kept the sessions very open-ended, allowing for feedback and questions. After those sessions, he and the consultant sat down with each employee individually to review their new job descriptions and their place in the company.
Step 3: Make the Vision Part of Day-to-Day Processes. Walk up to any Gustafson Brothers employee on any given day, and each will have a the same green, 3-by-5 business card in his or her pocket. On it is Gustafson’s vision statement and core values, as well a number of different acronyms that perpetuate those concepts (e.g., “MAD = Make a Difference” or “WIN = What’s Important Now”). The idea, Gustafson says is for the employees to always have a reminder of their purpose in their work.
Step 4: Constant Evaluation. Just as his employees are supposed to regularly check their “green cards” as daily reminders, Gustafson says he still constantly evaluates his shop’s systems and procedures to ensure they align with his vision.
HOW TO CREATE AIR-TIGHT JOB DESCRIPTIONS
A great job description, Gustafson says, comes down to three things: function, objective and expectations, or “FOE,” as he puts it. He has 26 separate, detailed job descriptions in his business. Click here to download an example of one of Gustafson’s FOE-based job descriptions.
HOW TO DEVELOP SYSTEMATIC CUSTOMER SERVICE
Tony Simoneau was part of the ABRA process-mapping committee in the late 1980s that created the company’s first SOPs. As he progressed through his career, moving on to a number of different management positions, he’s never forgotten the benefit SOPs can play in a shop—and he credits the systems he’s adapted over the years for creating the extreme efficiency the dealer-owned Buerkle Body Shop operates with today.
“But, through all of that, you won’t have work to cycle through if not for great customer service,” he says.
It’s important to build systems and processes with the customer in mind, says Simoneau, the shop’s manager, and he explains his four keys to do just that.
1. Start at the End. Picture the end result you want, Simoneau says, and backtrack through each step that allows that to happen.
2. Understand the Stakeholders. At each step of the SOP, evaluate how those actions affect the customer, the vehicle, the staff, the insurer and management. For each SOP to be effective, it has to fulfill the needs and desires of everyone involved, he says.
3. Use Common Sense. Look for the simplest solution at each step. “What’s the quickest, safest and most efficient way to get from here to there?” Simoneau says.
4. Never Settle. Regularly evaluate every process in your shop and look for ways to improve. Customer complaints can’t be a burden, Simoneau says. They need to be opportunities for re-evaluation and improvement.