Running a Shop Leadership

Changing the Way You Work Changes the Way You Think

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Consultants tell shop owners and managers that there has to be a “cultural” shift for “lean”-er systems to take hold and sustain. Probably. But contrary to what their audience thinks or hears, the critical shift in thinking is the responsibility of the shop leader, more so than the techs or estimators. How a leader thinks about their role in the value delivery system, and what their obligation to their staff is, defines success or failure. So does how a leader thinks about the customer (the insurer and car owner) and how the steps in the value delivery system they have created serve or subvert what those who pay the bill expect or want.

Managing (policing) a collection of employees, or small subdivided teams of employees, chasing some numerical metrics designed to elicit individualized max performance, is not that hard. After all, it is the employees in that model that bear the accountability for returning the “number,” the desired result. They figure out (some better than others) how to game the numbers, but there is only so much they can do.

The estimators are limited by their skills, experience and the chaos of having to usually be in at least two places at once. The techs are at the mercy of the estimator's work product, which is usually deficient (supplements) on 50 percent or more of the jobs. The painters are at the mercy of what the body techs have ready (often all on Wednesday and Thursday, it seems), and the body techs are at the mercy of what the painters are able to get done in time to be reassembled (they are also at the mercy, again, of the accuracy of the parts order when they go to reassemble).

“We have no idea how to think differently until we have a framework in which the shortcomings of old thinking are exposed.” —Aaron Marshall, manager, Marshall Auto Body

Raising the expectations of each individual does not appreciably raise the result of the whole operation when most, or all, are already doing “their best.” Incidentally, this is why incentives are a bad idea. They encourage sub-optimization, which usually leads to more partially done work in progress, exactly the thing (overproduction) that we should be vigilant about preventing.

Putting the entire process in a line from the first step to the last, staffing each step with a person and a work standard that indicates what to do (no more) and to what standard it must meet when done, changes the process dramatically. Giving a specific location, correct training, tools, light, and uninterrupted time to do those tasks, etc., makes evident quite clearly, that improvement (measured as the speed of the whole chain), is nearly unlimited compared to the way people in most body shops work today.

With proper perseverance from the business leader, this work system starts where the traditional model left off in terms of output. Once it stabilizes and people understand new roles and how they serve one another, output improves. As problems surface (the purpose of chaining the work together in the first place) and leadership exercises its new role in solving them (this is no longer the staff ’s obligation —they, after all, are busy trying to do the work), the system gets faster (stronger) yet.

Problems that come up along the way:

Lazy leader: The business leader actually has to fix stuff that gets in the way (silly rules, lousy software, the instructions between steps, the training of those instructions in each step, shop layout).

Bad wiring (the cultural part): Thinking about everything as a function of individual self-interest, from the way people are paid to what motivates or de-motivates them.

Sustaining a connected process, in which everyone is on the same team, helps us re-learn what children already know, which is that the games are a lot more fun when everyone cooperates and does what’s in the best interest of the group—even when the teacher isn't watching—so the game can go on.

So which comes first, the culture shift or the new way of working? The new way of working, of course. We have no idea how to think differently until we have a framework in which the shortcomings of old thinking are exposed. It is impractical to talk too much about how the future will look to our staff (where clumsy individual incentives are removed, liberating the team’s huge potential when all are pulling in the same direction). But if we do it, they will see, and it’s more convincing to see results than trying to imagine them.

Aaron Marshall manages Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis. He can be reached at

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