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Become a Better Manager

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According to Steve Feltovich, manager of business consulting services at Sherwin-Williams, the lack of professional managers is the biggest void in the collision repair industry.

“There’s a huge gap between professional managing and just managing,” he says. “Owners learned from someone else who didn’t do a very good job themselves. What they’re doing is replicating a bad management technique themselves. They practice bad management techniques every day so they become very good and comfortable managing people improperly.”

And while a great emphasis is placed on owners becoming true leaders in their organization, many shop operators still work in facilities small enough that they have to manage many tasks on a day-to-day basis.

That’s where the problem arises, says Feltovich.

“I think most managers in this industry get caught up in the firefighting because they don’t see the root causes of the problem,” he says. “Eighty percent of the fires they fight come from 20 percent of the few very vital problems that never get solved.”

That’s where the difference between simply managing and managing effectively is crucial: An effective manager is one who creates an environment where every member of the team can be successful and deliver value to the customer, says Feltovich. It’s about trying to achieve optimum operational performance, he says, not firefighting.

Feltovich and John Sweigart, CEO of True Collision Centers in Philadelphia and an industry consultant, discuss their best strategies for training yourself to manage more effectively.

Managing Through Targets 

Sweigart says the first step of managing more effectively is creating specific targets.

“We ask the question all the time, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’” he says. “Without the target, the rest is just activity. The focal point has to be the problem we’re trying to solve and the target. We use a definition called ‘true north’ that describes where we want to be a long time from now.”

Feltovich says creating targets gets back to the idea of firefighting, or rather, having a perspective outside of just the immediate concerns.

“We have managers that are more focused on their tasks and activities, rather than stepping back from the pressures of the business and relieving themselves of those pressures because they’ve been able to establish that ideal state of business,” he says.

Sweigart says it’s important to create long-term and short-term targets that are both outward and inward facing. Outward objectives are customer-facing objectives, which fall into cost, quality and speed categories. Inward objectives are improvements in people, capability growth, and measures of productivity and sustainability.

“Without outward-facing and inward-facing objectives, then I really can’t help anybody,” he says. “The question would be, ‘What are you trying to manage?’ You need to know where you’re trying to go.”

“I think [managers] miss out on the critical information because they talk more than they’re listening.”
—Steven Feltovich, manager of business consulting services at Sherwin-Williams

Sweigart says those long-term objectives should then be broken down into shorter-term goals, which could be yearly, quarterly or even daily. Doing so, he says, allows owners to manage the day-to-day of the business without forgetting the greater goals.

The key, he says, is that the owner needs to define the target condition and communicate that to the employees.

“My job is to figure out where I need everyone to be and where they’re capable of getting in 90 days,” he says. “I can’t just rely on the employees to tell me the target condition and how we’re going to get there.”

Honestly Understanding the Environment 

After establishing the target condition, Sweigart says it’s necessary to thoroughly understand the current condition. To do that, he performs a “current state analysis.” Similar to a SWOT analysis, he sits down with individual employees and asks them to break down, from every perspective possible, where they are today.

“If it’s paint and the goal is to reduce paint time by an hour per car on average because that supports this longer goal of reducing cycle time by three days, I need you to tell me about the current state of things,” he says. “You have to keep prodding them about the current state and you may need to talk to four or five people. Because my current state is not necessarily the truth, it’s my perception of the truth.”

Sweigart says these analyses can often lead to 100 or more listed items and he says he never stops anyone from bringing up an issue.

Feltovich says the one-on-one conversation with employees is the most powerful assessment tool at a manager’s disposal, and one he rarely sees owners taking advantage of.

“I think [managers] miss out on the critical information because they talk more than they’re listening,” he says. “They are more focused on what they want to say and what they want to implement before the employee has the chance to get their points across. It’s astonishing to me how few managers actually do this.”

After completing the current state analysis, Sweigart says he starts to summarize the list and looks for patterns or trends that begin to emerge.

“We’ll begin to summarize and all of a sudden, those 100 things look like five things,” he says. 

Eliminating Roadblocks

Feltovich says the key responsibility for managers is getting roadblocks out of the way so employees can excel.

“I think it’s really working on the business environment where there aren’t frustrating issues every day impeding on employees being the best they can be,” he says.

That’s why Sweigart then looks at the list created from the current state analysis and begins to separate the obstacles from work.

“An obstacle means I don’t really know how to solve that. Problem solving is going to be required,” Sweigart explains. “If one of the elements of the current condition is that the paint shop is dirty, I would ask if that’s really an obstacle or if we could take a five-minute break right now and go clean it. That’s work, not an obstacle.”

Identifying the actual obstacles will allow managers to discover root causes of problems and start creating solutions that are lasting and focused on continuous improvement.

Create Lasting Solutions 

Creating those last solutions requires three activities, says Sweigart: delegation, communication and prioritizing.

“When you look at your list, which obstacle should you tackle first?” he says. “There’s a logical order to most things.”

Sweigart says to list, by priority, the obstacles that need to be worked on and delegate responsibility to various team members.

Feltovich also recommends empowering employees by asking for their help in creating the solutions.

“I think the manager gets caught up in the firefighting activity and employees coming to them for the answers and solutions, rather than creating an environment where people are empowered to solve problems,” he says. “I seldom see that taking place. But when you do see it taking place, that absolutely designates the successful business versus the lackluster business.”

Finally, Sweigart says the most critical part of managing is creating consistency and accountability when it comes to the results.

“We have to commit to taking a small step,” he says. “It’s creating consistency to getting things done. We’re going to walk out of this meeting and we said by this date, we’re going to have another meeting to talk about what we’ve learned.”

He says to establish concrete dates when a certain goal or result will be met, and then follow up with a meeting to discuss the progress made. Ask if the obstacle still exists, and if so, why.

“You need to examine, did we accomplish what we set out to do?” Sweigart says. 

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