Ask Employees for Ideas

June 1, 2010
The best ideas for shop improvements often come from employees. Ask them to speak up, then listen closely.

T.G.I.F. Body Shop Inc. was constantly experiencing congestion at the paint booth. The shop routinely had too many vehicles in the same stage of repair, driving up cycle time.

During a training session on lean practices, employees at the Fremont, Calif.-based shop pitched a solution to shop owners to streamline the process. Their idea? A color-coding system that labels each vehicle according to its stage of repair. Technicians in the shop can then easily see how many cars are in discovery, how many are ready for the body shop and how many are ready for the paint booth—and quickly identify any congestion.

The fix had benefits beyond the paint booth. It also helps the front office ensure that the shop isn’t loaded with more work than it can handle, says Kathy Mello, chief operating officer and co-owner. And though the specifics have yet to be quantified, Mello says the system has improved the shop’s cycle time. That’s likely a side effect of techs being able to see, in a single colorful glance, what work needs to be done each day, and what still needs to happen.

All this, thanks to employee innovation. And a shop operator’s willingness to listen to some innovative ideas from employees.

Employees often have great knowledge and ideas to share, says Norman Rose, president of Excel Sales Consulting, which works with the collision industry. “You just have to be able to listen.” That’s how good shop owners elicit the great ideas that ensure success on the shop floor.

Listen and Learn

Asking your employees for ideas gives them a sense of ownership over the business, Rose says, and immensely improves morale by giving them a sense of responsibility and value.

Implementing their ideas makes [employees] feel like part of the team. It gives them a sense of responsibility and value.
–Jim Patrick, general manager of Lang Chevrolet body shop

When the economy began declining, Lillian Maimone, CEO of Marco’s Collision Centers, gave considerable thought to ways to be more efficient to save money through tough times. She realized that what used to work didn't work any longer, and she couldn’t do it by herself. She says the company’s management team “felt like we were sitting idle.”

Maimone hired an outside consultant for help, who suggested looking to the company’s employees for answers. Maimone started holding regular meetings in each of the company’s shops with one representative from each shop department—detailer, parts person, estimator, front-desk person, painter—to capture their ideas for business improvements.

“During these meetings, the bosses just listened and let the employees do the talking,” Maimone says. The meetings have been effective, yielding a number of small ways to improve shop efficiency.

Most recently, an employee suggested improving the parts process by keeping the parts for each job on a specific shelf—allowing managers to identify additional parts needed for each job quickly.

Maimone says implementing that tiny change has substantially reduced the time technicians spend on each job, and has greatly improved the shop’s cycle time—although she wouldn’t disclose by how much.

It’s important to listen to your employees because they’re the ones doing the work, says Geralynn Kottschade, co-owner of Jerry’s Body Shop in Mankato, Minn. “It’s their job; they know what will make it better—and what will make it worse.”

You have to trust that your employees know what they’re talking about if they see something that will improve their workflow, she says, because managers don’t always have the level of experience to do their job.

When you do extend that trust, you become a team, Kottschade explains. Asking for employees’ ideas demonstrates how everyone in the shop can work together. “It’s not me and them,” she says. “It’s us.”

Allowing your employees to create change in the business instills motivation for those changes to be successful. “They don’t see new initiatives as additional tasks they have to do,” Rose says. “It’s something they helped create,” so they have an investment in making the changes work.

Idea Acquisition

Employees’ ideas can fuel your business, but getting employees talking is no small task, especially in hard times. “During tough times, most employers become controlling in decision-making,” says Maimone, who counsels giving them the control to turn the business around. That means creating collaboration among team members, allowing employees to brainstorm innovative ideas and making them feel comfortable enough to pitch those ideas to management.

• Allow employees to try new things. “I try to create an environment that allows employees to be creative and have freedom to make decisions,” Maimone says. “If anyone makes a mistake, it’s OK—even if it’s a costly one. I want them to feel safe to try something new without fear.”

• Give employees responsibility and ownership in the business. “We include employees in the change process by asking for their feedback, assigning research tasks and including them in meetings and conversations,” says Kristin Nelson, Marco’s Collision Centers human resources director. This shows employees that their opinions matter—which builds trust and encourages creativity.

Mello agrees, and says employees at T.G.I.F. Body Shop are consulted with a lot of daily decision-making. The shop never makes a decision when it comes to new shop equipment, for example, without consulting the technicians first. T.G.I.G. has equipment representatives sell products directly to the employees who use them, Mello says. That gives employees a strong voice in business improvements.

• Continually involve employees in training. Rose says training employees in additional skills, communication and business strategy helps them perform at the highest level.

In 2009, Mello invested $20,000 on three sessions of lean training for her employees. She says the training allowed her employees to think more openly about shop efficiency and gave them a chance to brainstorm ideas together—which ultimately resulted in more innovative ideas for the shop, she says.

It’s not about being efficient as an individual; it’s about “getting together and thinking as a team,” Mello says.

• Hold regular meetings, and let your employees do the talking. Rose suggests creating an agenda for every meeting. Let your employees know what you are looking for prior to a meeting, Rose says, and let them know their input is valued. This is critical to making employees feel comfortable enough to share some of their ideas with you.

• Maintain open communication. Jim Patrick, general manager at Lang Chevrolet in Beavercreek, Ohio, reserves one hour out of each day to touch base with employees individually. This gives him a one-to-one opportunity to discuss problems, frustrations and ideas for improvement with each employee.

Two years ago, during Patrick’s daily employee check-in routine, one technician suggested adding a paint thinner recycler in the shop. Patrick implemented the idea, and now, by recycling—rather than throwing the old stuff out—the shop saves five gallons of paint thinner per week and has cut costs by $100 per month, Patrick says.

• Implement the ideas. Employees’ input on change is very valuable, Nelson says, but it can’t just end with the thought. Those ideas need to be tested.

“Implementing their ideas makes them feel like part of the team,” Patrick says. “It gives them a sense of responsibility and value.”

• Have an “open-door” policy. Your employees need to feel comfortable approaching you, Kottschade says. Shop managers are more likely to get ideas for improvement if their employees know their suggestions are recorded and taken seriously.

Culture of Constant Improvement

No matter how well your business is doing, you always need to be looking for ways to get better, Mello says. Ideas for improvement are often sitting right in front of you, in each of your employees.

Employees often withhold their thoughts and opinions because they feel intimidated or afraid of change. But it’s critical to get employee ideas out in the open because they can lead to such strong strategies for shop improvement, Mello says. It takes a leader with that mindset to create positive change within an organization.

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