Learning from Shop Visits

Dec. 1, 2011
Visiting other shop facilities can give you ideas—and examples—for strengthening your own operations.

Before Mallery’s Auto Body Inc. opened its doors for business in Olean, N.Y., owner John Mallery wanted to make sure he did everything right. Purchasing the wrong equipment or setting up a poor design for workflow can be costly on efficiencies, and Mallery wanted to avoid potential mistakes.

So he visited roughly 20 noncompeting shops for insight. He wanted to analyze what they were doing, identify successes and struggles, and take the best ideas from each shop back to his own.

Mallery assessed front office layouts, estimate-processing procedures, throughput efficiencies, storage, shop layout, lighting, air line routing, building designs and landscaping.

“I spent a lot of time talking to the owners and managers,” Mallery says. “I asked why they placed things in certain spots, why they chose certain equipment, and what they would do differently the next time around.”

“If you have a problem, chances are somebody has already resolved it. Why not take advantage of that experience and learn from it?”
—Don Rife, owner, Rife’s Auto Body

Mallery says visiting other shops is one of the best educational and training strategies for shop operators to find ideas for improvement. There’s a lot to learn from other people’s experiences—information that can’t always be learned in the classroom.

Learn From Experience

Shops that have implemented a new concept can demonstrate exactly what’s involved to make the change happen, the most efficient way to get there, and the impact a change had on productivity and profitability.

Don Rife, owner of Rife’s Auto Body in Westerville, Ohio, has made a habit of visiting at least one shop every year. He says the possibilities of things you can pick up on are endless—anything from new equipment, to asset utilization, to human resource practices. And you can even take notice of little things that make surprising differences back home.

For example, storage of door trim panels during the repair process constantly irritated Rife—he never had anywhere to put them. He caught wind of another shop that had a simple storage and tracking system for that, so he went to check it out. Rife liked what he saw, pocketed the idea and now does the same.

It’s helpful to ask another shop owner how they dealt with issues if you have a problem to resolve, Rife says. You can learn from their past experiences, which helps you avoid any pitfalls or difficulties putting new processes into play.

“Tapping into other people’s knowledge is an awesome way to continually educate yourself,” Rife says. “If you have a problem, chances are somebody has already resolved it. Why not take advantage of that experience and learn from it?”

Augment the Classroom

Mallery says he’s a hands-on type of person, and admits he’s not the type to read books for new information. He has to physically see and do things to really grasp a new concept.

Mallery does attend other types of educational sessions—most recently, the PPG MVP Greenbelt training. He says he obtains a lot of valuable information, but sometimes has trouble actually implementing the ideas back at his shop. That’s because the information is taught in a theoretical fashion without a concrete plan of how to make it happen.

“You can sit in classroom trainings all day long, but it’s a huge battle to take proper notes, create an action plan and make it all happen successfully,” Mallery says. He adds that classroom training is more valuable if it’s followed-up with a shop visit because it gives a visual example of the information you just learned.

Training instructors can only demonstrate so much information in the classroom, Seelinger says. By visiting a shop, you can actually see how concepts are applied and implemented in a business setting. It also reveals the effect something has on the business and on employees so you can make a well-informed decision on whether it’s something you want to do.

Shop visits are a natural extension of the classroom, Mallery says. “It’s a hands-on, clear way to see business ideas in a real-life situation.”

Know Your Weakness

You don’t want to visit other shops just to get a general tour and hope you pick up helpful tidbits of information along the way. Have a specific focus for your visit.

Craig Seelinger, VisionPLUS program manager for BASF, suggests identifying a specific business weakness you may have. Choose one or two possible improvements that could benefit your shop. Find a shop that excels on the issue you’re hoping to improve, and focus specifically on that issue when you visit.

You may not know of any shops that can help you. And your competitor next door probably won’t let you stroll through and steal their best ideas. So how do know where to go?

That’s where your vendors can help. Paint company representatives, for example, have a solid grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of their clients. Seelinger says you can get in touch with your representative, explain your issue, and get put in contact with someone who can offer assistance. In fact, some paint companies even have formalized referral processes for those exact situations.

Such visits will help you become more competitive as a business, Seelinger says. You’ll learn about new efficiencies and best practices, which will give you an edge once those ideas become reality.

Choosing Shops to Visit

Finding shops worth visiting isn’t the easiest task. A peer shop needs to be similar in size, revenue and business philosophy for you to truly learn from its model. A few tips to find what you’re looking for:

• Join a 20 Group. 20 Groups are made up of similar shop operators who get together several times per year, Seelinger says. Part of their activities includes visits to other shops.

• Make the most of training sessions. Many training seminars are held within collision repair facilities, Mallery says. You can speak with those owners to gather information and walk through their facility.

Those training seminars are also filled with other shop owners and managers. Have conversations with as many as possible. They might be doing something innovative that you could learn from and experiment with, Mallery says. 

• Attend industry events. Collision industry events bring together many shop operators from noncompeting markets. Network away!

• Take advantage of travels. Anytime Mallery travels out of town, he drops into shops to speak with the owners and managers. He says they tend to be willing to share a lot of information once they find out he’s not a competitor.

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