Breaking the Bottleneck

Nov. 1, 2011
Solving problems requires breaking habits and stepping beyond familiarity.

Pete owned a relatively small shop, but he enjoyed a substantial amount of business from the local police department and harbor patrol. There was only one problem: When a vehicle was damaged, they often wanted it back in operation very quickly.

When Pete had too much business all at once, bottlenecks occurred and it became difficult to live up to time commitments for completing police vehicle repairs. Something had to be done.

Then one day Pete had an epiphany. His original workflow plan had vehicles moving in a circular fashion around a central wall in his bodywork building. He suddenly realized that if he removed that wall, he could structure a parallel workflow pattern that could greatly eliminate bottlenecks. He was amazed he hadn’t thought of it before.

“Old habits die hard and are often not recognized for what they are. What worked well in bygone days may actually be time-consuming and a bottleneck now.”

Apparently one of the biggest barriers to eliminating bottlenecks is familiarity and habit. We get used to doing things a certain way and change often requires an entire range of peripheral changes that we fear will disrupt our comfortable pattern of living and doing.

Alex Osborn, at the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, N.Y., provides a system for getting around habitual blindness to opportunities for constructive change. One of his favorite examples is the chicken that is first given some grain on the ground. Then a clear glass is placed in front of the chicken with the grain on the other side of the glass. The chicken sees the grain through the glass and pecks at the glass to try to get to the grain. Osborn says this blindness is an inability to consider simple concepts like “around” or “over.”

He says many difficulties can be overcome by considering simple concepts such as “adapt,” “align,” “alter,” “amplify,” “anticipate,” “around,” “behind,” “bypass,” “close,” “challenge,” “combine,” and so on. 

Pete’s idea to rearrange his space is typical of what Osborn has called “transformation” thinking. But the space bottleneck is only one of the many obstacles to faster cycle time. Another is waiting for a variety of elements like insurance inspection and approval, parts ordering and receiving parts, supplement approval and more.

Some shops have begun to “magnify” or “expand” the estimating process to anticipate hidden damage. Sometimes teardown is “reorganized” and done immediately to completely identify what parts are needed to eliminate the waiting-for-parts bottleneck. This may also make it possible to write a finished estimate and bypass further delays.

Some shop owners might question the possible cost involved in adding an additional frame machine to enable an immediate teardown and repair analysis. But even though the costs of waiting may not be obvious, they can be substantial. More of Osborn’s transformational concepts come into play. Some processes are “combined” or “divided” into two parts. Others are “modified” completely.

I’ve been amazed at how various shops approach parts ordering. This vital function is often “minified” at some shops. The best shops I’ve seen have a parts ordering pro on the job. This is a person who will use every imaginable “transformational” concept. He or she will “anticipate” problems, “adapt” to ordering delays, “bypass” usual suppliers to get what is needed quickly, “divide” parts orders between suppliers and completely “replace” some suppliers if they fail to perform adequately. How this job is performed is a major key to eliminating bottlenecks and should be given the importance it deserves.

Communication bottlenecks may be the worst. In some shops, people at the front desk gather customer information and hand over the customer to an estimator to do the estimate and close the sale. Any breakdown in the exchange of communication between the estimator and the front desk person can result in time-consuming mistakes and corrections.

Although electronic communication is now incredibly fast, simple and generally accurate, I still see shops relying on sticky notes and scraps of paper to convey messages and what may become important information. To completely eliminate this problem, it may be necessary to “revise” a customer information form or “replace” existing memo forms with a more state-of-the-art format.

While “removing” the wall at Pete’s was a fairly straightforward action, the “walls” that exist in some shop manager’s minds can be much harder to move. Old habits die hard and are often not recognized for what they are. What worked well in bygone days may actually be time-consuming and a bottleneck now.

We can all recall the days when this was a more relaxed business and we could stop and talk with everyone who came by and had nothing better to do than chat. We also had the time to casually sort through the mail to see if anything interesting had arrived. Sadly, these days, we may have to “revise” old comfortable habits like these or risk becoming a living bottleneck ourselves.

Tom Franklin, author of Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth, has been a sales and marketing consultant for more than 40 years.

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