Full-Time Learning

July 1, 2012
Safety, quality and productivity are better at shops that embrace continuous education.

Jeff Peevy, senior director of field operations and segment development for I-CAR, recently met with a shop operator who shared an alarming story—one that can serve as a wake-up call for all repairers.

Technicians at the shop repaired a high-end vehicle, equipped with electronic safety systems and lane departure warnings. After completing the repair, the technicians noticed an unfamiliar vibration in the steering wheel when they turned during a test drive. They spent a huge amount of time trying to diagnose and fix the problem. Ultimately unsuccessful, they sent the car back to the dealer for help.

It turned out there was no problem at all. The vehicle’s steering wheel was designed to vibrate to alert drivers of unintentional lane departure, Peevy says. The technicians chased down a nonexistent problem because they didn’t know about that technology.

Peevy says all repairers should take a minute to think about that situation—a vehicle repaired by technicians with inadequate knowledge of its systems. With many new and interconnected safety components on modern vehicles—both electronic and structural—serious mistakes can be made due to inadequate levels of knowledge and training, he says.

Lack of proper knowledge and education is a problem that has plagued the industry for years, Peevy says. But it’s becoming an increasingly dangerous issue with the complexity of new cars. And it’s not necessarily technicians’ fault if they’re improperly trained. There are several factors that can derail the value of training even when it’s provided. For example, some industry professionals have a negative attitude about training, Peevy says. As a result, their shops have not established cultures that embrace education.

Peevy says it’s critical for shops to establish a learning-based organizational culture within the business. Training is more than just attending a class, he says. It’s a process of motivating technicians to absorb information, encouraging changed behaviors, and portraying a positive outlook that training initiatives will eventually improve shop performance.

Peevy, who is leading presentations on the subject this summer with industry 20 Groups and associations across the country, says building such an organization is important for getting the most out of training efforts. He talked with FenderBender about how to do it, and we found a shop operator dedicated to continuous learning to share how the strategies work in a real collision repair facility. 

Develop a training structure that commits all employees to ongoing education.

That may seem obvious to some shops. But according to a presentation given by Peevy during a Collision Industry Conference (CIC) meeting in July 2011, 69 percent of collision repair shops do not train their technicians.

Peevy says shop leaders often make inaccurate assumptions of knowledge regarding their staff. During interviews with new hires, owners will simply assess training transcripts, interviewees will make false claims, and owners develop an unproven assumption that technicians have the skills they need to achieve accurate and efficient repairs.

But technicians don’t always have the knowledge. For example, I-CAR offers a test-out for every class through its Professional Development Program. Peevy says the tests are basic and related to a technician’s specific job. The pass rate on those test-outs is only 46 percent—one indicator of a true lack of knowledge in shops today, Peevy says.

Shop perspective: Geoff McCollom, president of Dutch Valley Auto Works in Lancaster, Pa., says it’s extremely difficult to find young, well-trained technicians. “There are many young technicians trying to get into the industry, but just don’t have the proper knowledge,” he says. “So you have to home grow your own.”

McCollom says he spends roughly $14,000 annually for technician training initiatives. He spends 10 to 12 hours quarterly scheduling and booking classes for each technician, and posts an Excel spreadsheet in the shop that outlines each of their training requirements for the year. Every technician takes at least five to seven classes annually.

Motivate employees to learn and absorb new information when they attend a certain type of training.

Peevy says the attitude and view that shop leaders portray toward training will either make or break the entire effort. He says there are a few common problems within shops that often unintentionally devalue training before it happens.

Shop owners need to reflect on how they portray training to their staff by asking themselves these questions: Do you see it as an obligation that’s demanded and imposed upon you? Or do you see training as a method or process of solving a problem?

More often than not, shop owners see training simply as a requirement and additional hoop to jump through to get on manufacturer or insurer programs, Peevy says. That causes leaders to use a few unproductive phrases with technicians, such as “You have to go to training,” or “Just get through it.”

“That eliminates a technician’s motivation to find value,” Peevy says. “Technicians will lose focus on the purpose of attending and won’t be open to learning. It derails the entire value of going in the first place.”

Shop leaders should work to motivate technicians on educational value, and instill a more positive outlook. They can do that by explaining why training is good for the health and stability of the business. Use phrases such as “Please attend this training and bring back as many things as possible to share with your colleagues.” Even if a course is known to be basic, challenge technicians to find one thing to bring back and discuss. Peevy says that promotes a sense of excitement that there will be value, and motivates them to retain information.

Shop perspective: McCollom says shop leaders have to set the tone and show the importance of consistent training. So he still attends training, even as the owner, to convey that message.

“I now have more training credits than anyone at the shop because I’ve been doing that for 12 years,” he says. “I’m always asking questions and always learning.”

Encourage learning and changed behaviors after technicians complete training.

Once information is learned, it has to be applied in the real world before it’s lost and forgotten, Peevy says. You need to have a process that allows technicians to quickly apply new skills.

Develop an environment that isn’t afraid to discuss things a technician learned from a training effort, Peevy says. Many technicians feel that admitting they learned something will expose that they did not know the information to begin with. Work to dispel that mindset, Peevy says, and challenge your technicians to come back and talk about it.

For example, say a technician just completed a class on ultra high-strength steel. Find an example of that on a job already in your shop. Have your technicians huddle around it, discuss the course material, and identify how the learned information can be used for that situation.

Peevy says that creates a positive type of communal learning, in which technicians learn information from one another. Training in that fashion ensures that technicians share accurate and up-to-date material in an organized environment.

Shop perspective: McCollom says it’s important to always follow-up with technicians about things they learned in training that could improve shop processes or methods. It could be something from the actual class, or even a tip they picked up from another attendee.

Ensure technicians understand how their training initiatives help to develop business sustainability.

Discuss how certain educational efforts can directly impact specific performance metrics. Shops should implement processes that praise and recognize technicians for adapting and growing professionally.

“That develops a culture and environment where learning and changed behavior can take place,” Peevy says. Technicians see the value of education on both a personal and business level.

Knowledge and education is the foundation for several components that will improve your shop’s key performance indicators (KPIs)—lean processes, standard operating procedures, information systems, parts management, tools, equipment and leadership.

“Bundling all of those things into a learning organizational culture really becomes the tie that binds. It builds a learning organization that can continually improve itself,” Peevy says. “That will be the successful shop of the future.”

Shop perspective: McCollom suggests explaining to technicians that one person’s willingness or unwillingness to learn affects the entire team.

“You need to have technicians who want to seek more information when they don’t know how to do something. Technicians are artists who need to care about their work,” McCollom says. “You can’t be having uphill battles with quality concerns. You can have the best technicians in the world, but if they’re not willing to learn and try new things, you’re going to be dead in the water.”