Leverage Your Body Tech’s Knowledge

July 30, 2010
Body techs may be able to fix your shop as well as they can repair a car.

Jody Gatchell, owner of A&J Collision Repair in Conway, Ark., wanted to make his shop more efficient. So he turned to the people known for fixing things—his body technicians—to create standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the shop.

“My job as a leader is to bring out the full potential in all my employees,” Gatchell says. “They have to help with the business. They have to help put the repair process together.”

Gatchell met with his technicians in 2009, asking them to identify the purpose and goals of the shop. They came back with an answer: to work with insurance companies and other vendors to restore vehicles to pre-accident condition in a timely manner.

With that in mind, the technicians created step-by-step SOP checklists to help the team achieve that goal efficiently, Gatchell says. “I’m getting more performance from people than I ever have.”

The body department has substantially improved its efficiency, from 80 percent in 2004 to 170 percent, meaning that for every 40 hours the technicians work, they produce 68 hours worth of work. A&J now brings in $1.8 million annually, up from $800,000 in 2006.

Too many shop owners don’t let go of the reins and allow employees to show what they can do.
  –Bob Spitz, vice president of production, Management Success!

“Leadership is 90 percent listening and 10 percent doing,” Gatchell says. He wanted the technicians to create the SOPs on their own, noting that shops “get a much bigger buy-in from employees when it’s their idea.”

Leveraging more value from body technicians—or acquiring ideas for process improvement—is essential for your shop to build a smooth repair plan—which can save you time and make more money.

Improving the Process

Toyota, the father of lean production, identified seven types of waste in the shop. But Brad Sullivan, principal of Philadelphia-based The Body Shop@, says there’s actually an eighth type—the underutilization of people’s minds. If shop leaders play their cards right, they can tap employees’ brain power to bring great value to the business—value above and beyond the technicians’ job descriptions.

There’s an assumption that people want to come to work, do a good job, feel good about what they’re doing and believe in the company, Sullivan says. But some people become desensitized to that because they don’t feel valued in their position within the organization.
Shop operators can combat that by empowering employees to improve inefficient repair processes.

Shop leaders have to create a culture that allows technicians—and other employees who do the actual repair work—to run the business, Sullivan says. When you respect your people, their opinions and their knowledge, and you engage them, you create a culture where employees truly believe that an important part of their job is not only to do the work, but to do it better, and in a better way.

The people who are closest to the work know more about the problems and have more knowledge about the potential solutions than any manager, Sullivan says. “All we need to do from a manager’s perspective is to engage these people.”

When employees come into the organization, they’re not only bringing their body and skills, they’re also bringing their minds.

“In our organization, it’s a prerequisite that people bring their mind to the game,” Sullivan says. Employee value greatly decreases when shop owners require them only to come to work to do specific tasks. That leads to a mind- and soul-numbing job. “[The leader’s task] is creating an environment where everybody works together as one, with the common goal of fixing cars,” Sullivan says.

From Traditional to Lean

Body technicians often have ideas to improve SOPs in the shop; the tough part is getting them to speak up. That’s akin to transforming traditional workers into lean ones, who are willing—even eager—to make changes for the good of the organization.

Traditional workers do the job they are hired for, they value their ability to do that specific job, and improvement rarely happens, Sullivan says. A lean worker, on the other hand, works to improve job processes. Their value lies in their ability to discover better ways to do the job. A lean employee is the reason for a shop’s success, but when failure happens, the lean employee sees even that as an opportunity for improvement.

And that’s the kind of technicians top shop leaders aim to have.

Consider The Body Shop@, which has four locations. Techs there were having a hard time with complex reassemblies because the people who dismantled the cars were not the people who put the cars back together.

“There was a lot of complex work to do, which was slowing things down,” Sullivan says.

Some of the technicians were reassembling vehicles incorrectly by putting parts back on in the wrong order. At the end of the job, they routinely found a part that was not yet put on, and they’d have to take the car apart again.

Sullivan’s employees found the solution: a build sheet. For every complex dismantle—which leads to a complex reassembly—employees create a build sheet that shows what parts, in what order, are required to put the car back together.

The build sheet moves with the job, so when it gets to reassembly, the person putting it back together can see the correct sequence of steps.

Though Sullivan hasn’t quantified the specific numbers yet, he’s seen how the idea increases efficiency, decreases stress and is improving the shop’s cycle time.

Give Leadership, Get Value

In the process of turning traditional techs into lean ones, granting more responsibility and authority helps employees become better connected to the big picture. Said another way, when you deputize someone as a leader, you stand to get more value from that person.
“Any time you give someone more responsibility, they feel better about themselves and you get more buy-in from them,” says Bob Spitz, vice president of production at Management Success!. “Too many shop owners don’t let go of the reins and allow employees to show what they can do.”

At The Body Shop@, the creation of team leaders who oversee groups of four technicians improved the production process. That leader is a trainer, Sullivan says, and their job is to develop the skills of technicians and respond to problems that arise.

The shop uses a trouble light system on the shop floor. The technicians turn the light on if they have a problem, which signals to the team leader they need to talk about an issue.

Typically the shop manger would respond to those lights, but lead techs are now responsible for helping their team find solutions to those problems, Sullivan says. Giving top techs that kind of leadership bestows a great sense of pride. “We would love to have every one of our shops completely run by the technicians,” he says.

Pay Attention to Statistics

Statistics can be a powerful means for extracting insight from your technicians. “The ground root of everything is to watch employee performance through statistics,” Gatchell says. He’s got statistics for everything, and he looks at them constantly.

Gatchell says he notices periodic dips and spikes in the productivity of his technicians. Every time there is a change in productivity—whether it drops or rises—he checks in with the technician to find out what happened.

“If someone increases their billable hours, I find out what the technician did to make that happen,” Gatchell says. He records the action that proved to be successful and replicates that on every other job.

“If you track those statistics, you can start seeing trends,” Spitz says. “If you know how to watch and work with the numbers, you will be in control of your business.”

So where do those numbers come from? In Gatchell’s case, estimators and technicians record their data daily: number of jobs closed, job types, customer demographics, time of sale and “labor control cards” that show techs’ billable hours, jobs worked and productivity. That information is captured in Management Success! software, which spits out graphs that show daily and weekly changes in performance.

Reward for a Job Well Done

Shops can’t hire great employees, Spitz says, they can only hire potentially great employees. Willingness is the key characteristic to watch for when searching for employees.

Do employees pitch in, beyond their specific tasks, without being asked? Do they regularly exceed your expectations? These are indicators of technicians who think beyond their specific job to consider the business as a whole, Spitz says. And it’s wise to reward employees who demonstrate these traits. Timely acknowledgment of a job well done encourages continued lean thinking.

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