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Coaching Techs to Improve Efficiency

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The key to having a shop filled with efficient technicians is leadership, says Rich Altieri, president of Autobody Management Solutions.

There are several ways for shops to improve technician efficiency through new equipment, tools, standard operating procedures (SOPs), repair methods, and lean concepts, but successful implementation of any of those efficiency-focused initiatives requires strong coaching from owners and managers. You’ve got to be able to engage, communicate and motivate your staff to generate and sustain efficient performance for the long haul, he says.

“If you’re going to do something better, you’re going to do it differently. And it’s unbelievably hard to change the way people do things today,” says Altieri, who has decades of experience coaching lean implementation and workflow improvements in collision repair centers. “At the end of the day, leadership is the difference between success and failure. The characteristics that make certain shop operators successful is knowing how to engage their people, talk to their people, and cultivate and implement new ideas.”

Altieri and Dale Shellenberger, director of operations for Collision Care Auto Body Centers, which averages monthly technician efficiency levels of 147 percent throughout its six locations, offer several simple coaching tips that all shop operators can implement to effectively lead technicians toward the highest possible performance level.

Set technician expectations

Set clear expectations surrounding standards of work performance starting the first day of hire, Shellenberger says. Identify the minimum level of efficiency you need technicians to achieve in order to hit production goals, and make that your performance standard. From there, set reasonable goals to incrementally raise that benchmark over time. Regularly inform technicians where they’re at with achieving those goals.

Communicate business goals

Shellenberger says a majority of his company’s goals are focused on the customer experience and what customers want to receive out of the repair process—low cycle time, cost-efficient repair orders, and quality work. Shellenberger says the company’s managers provide technicians with daily customer satisfaction reports, and discuss the impact that their work performance had on those results.

“Everybody needs to be focused on that common goal,” Shellenberger says. “We regularly inform technicians about the customers’ expectations, and discuss how each technician can work to meet those demands.”

Explain the business implications of efficient performance

Shop owners should develop a vision for why efficiency improvement is necessary, and clearly communicate that reasoning to staff, Altieri says. Provide technicians with a compelling reason to improve that generates a sense of urgency to make it happen. Make sure every technician understands why efficient performance is important from a business perspective.

“Technicians should understand you can’t always raise your labor rate or charge more for parts. So to remain profitable, you have to drive costs out through efficient work habits,” Altieri says.

A few points to touch on:

Insurance issues. Discuss how the repair process is an integrated component of the insurance claims process, and the demands that insurance companies put on body shops to improve their claims processes. Explain how your shop is held accountable for key performance indicators (KPIs) such as customer experience, cycle time and competitive prices, and the role that efficient repair work has on those factors.

Work volume. Explain how efficient work leads to more work for the shop, Altieri says. In addition, technicians should understand that insurance companies are shrinking their direct repair program (DRP) networks to reduce costs. They’re looking for the most efficient body shops.

Strong competition. There is shrinking demand for auto body repair, excess capacity of shops, and declining profit potential in the industry, Altieri says. Competition for repair work is stronger than ever, and shops must have the ability to produce quality repairs faster than competitors to attract and retain customers.

Discuss those business implications during your daily or weekly production meetings, and have open conversations about how you will continue to improve.

Identify barriers preventing success

As vehicles change, so do knowledge, equipment and tooling requirements for technicians, Shellenberger says. But some staff members are uncomfortable speaking up and voicing their needs to management.

Shellenberger says his managers make a regular habit of walking through the shop, noting observations, and asking technicians individually what training, resources or company changes are necessary to produce work faster.

“We diligently ask questions to understand what barriers are holding them back from achieving and exceeding their goals,” Shellenberger says. “Sometimes the problem is skill set, sometimes it’s a culture issue, and sometimes it’s an employee conflict. If you see someone who is frustrated, take time to ask them why. Don’t just pass them by.”

Follow an execution strategy to implement efficiency improvements

Be patient when implementing a new process geared toward boosting efficiency. Start slowly, and don’t immediately apply the new process to every job in the shop, Altieri says.
There are four components to a sound improvement execution strategy:

Plan the improvement. Make observations on the shop floor, and clearly outline the best approach to get started. Include technicians in the process by asking for their feedback. That way technicians feel involved with the idea, rather than having the idea dictated to them, Altieri says.

Brief your staff. Pull every technician together, explain what you’re doing and what your goals are, and allow technicians to ask questions. 

Technicians generally have concerns that should be addressed from the beginning, Altieri says. They want to know what’s in it for them, and how they will be impacted regarding job security, earning potential and work routine. Technicians won’t be onboard with any new improvement efforts until those concerns are eliminated.

Execute the idea. Conduct a pilot test to see how the new process works.

Debrief the results. Sit down immediately with your technicians to discuss all successes, failures and lessons learned during the pilot test. Make any changes that are necessary, and repeat the “execute” and “debrief” steps until you have perfected the new concept.

Remember that performance will likely decrease before it  improves, Altieri says. Give technicians ample time to attend additional training and learn to work with new tools or equipment. Setting the bar too high and expecting instant results will sabotage the improvement effort.

Measure, track and share metrics

Every shop owner should implement a process to measure and track performance for each individual technician to create a foundation for improvement.

Share those metrics publicly with every technician to help motivate underperformers to better compete with the shop’s highest performers. From there,  identify opportunities for improvement and establish clear performance goals for individuals to work toward.

“You need to measure continuously to identify areas that aren’t improving, determine levels of success, and celebrate success,” Altieri says.

Shellenberger says his managers prepare weekly, monthly and quarterly spreadsheets that outline efficiency performance of the shop, as well as individual technicians. The weekly reports are used to assess current performance and set goals for the future, while the monthly and quarterly reports are used to track long-term improvements. Managers sit down with each technician one-on-one when metrics aren’t up to par to identify the problem and develop steps for improvement.

Instill a philosophy of continuous improvement

For technicians to improve performance, they need to be trained to become forward thinkers, Altieri says. Develop a shop culture where technicians always think about better ways of conducting your shop’s processes, procedures and systems.

“Entropy is a natural tendency—for organized systems to return to chaos when left alone. Ongoing improvements and maintenance are needed to keep things from returning to previous conditions,” Altieri says. “Shop leaders have to be committed to make continuous improvement part of their culture.”

So shop owners should have a proactive role in learning. Have your staff read books and industry-related articles, Altieri says. A couple great examples include Leading at a Higher Level by Ken Blanchard, Lean for Dummies by Natalie Sayer, and any industry trade publication.

“When you find a good article or book, pass that out to everybody on your staff and talk about it,” Altieri says. “Unless you provide your people with continuous education, you can’t invite them to engage with you to help solve problems.”

Shellenberger also conducts significant amounts of in-house training to instill a culture of continuous improvement. He brings outside trainers to the shop to conduct training around lean manufacturing to help technicians stay in tune with better ways of working and promote deep analysis of shop operations.

Conduct formal feedback sessions

Collision Care conducts one-on-one coaching and feedback sessions between the technician and management to support technicians who are striving toward improvement. The company developed a standardized coaching form that identifies a specific improvement that needs to be made, steps that will be taken to make the improvement, and a process to monitor incremental improvements during a 60–90-day period.

The coaching form is used any time technicians slip below a certain efficiency benchmark as a way to eliminate lingering problems. The form is also used with every technician on a quarterly basis regardless of their performance level.

“Even if the technician has exceptional performance, there is always some area that could get stronger,” Shellenberger says. “Ninety percent of the time when we sit down with an employee and show them their performance numbers, they admit they can do better than that.”

Reward for performance

Technicians need to be recognized for strong performance that achieves business goals and production benchmarks. Showing recognition and appreciation for their work instills motivation to keep their foot on the pedal, Shellenberger says.

“It doesn’t always take a lot to motivate technicians. They just want to be assured that their work doesn’t go unnoticed,” Shellenberger says. “It’s about expressing appreciation for the positive impact they’ve had on the company.”

Shellenberger hands out monthly rewards to high performers throughout the company. There is no hard and fast rule when that happens, he says. It’s meant to periodically offer recognition to employees in a way they don’t expect.

“We’re always looking to give something to somebody for something,” Shellenberger says. “You’ve got to say ‘thank you’ somehow.” 

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