Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2008   by Ronald Tremblay, Implementation Coach With TACT, And Owner Of The Garage, Vancouver, BC

Ending The Stress Of Running A Professional Independent Shop

Good Management Practices Drive A Healthy Work Environment, Growing Profits

My grandfather, known to his friends and family as Chief, started an automotive service business in Vancouver, British Columbia in the spring of 1934. He had walked away from a farming business in Saskatchewan the year before during the Depression. With his Grade 3 education and family pride, he grew the business to support his whole family. All four of his sons joined him as mechanics and business men. My uncles and my father, with the guidance of my grandfather, had close to 50 years of very profitable times together and raising the next generation of entrepreneurs and mechanics when I entered into the picture in the late 70s. I learned the ropes and apprenticed under my uncles and father, along with my brother and many cousins. The 80s were awesome profit years for our trade as people needed their vehicles to last through those lean economic years.

Little did I know the challenges this industry was heading into during the 90s. While I was trained by my family and passed the British Columbia Trade Qualification test with minimal class room training, I truly believed I knew everything that needed to known about this trade. Looking back, I realize my head was in the clouds. The reality was, I knew very little about what I needed to know for long life, health and safety in this industry. I was trained on how to “get ‘er in and get ‘er done,” with little regard for anything else.

For example, I used to blow asbestos all over the shop with an air gun when cleaning and adjusting brakes, and I emptied used engine oil in the dirt laneway, all the time believing this was the right thing to do.

In the 60s, my father and uncles worked 12 hours with every second Sunday off for family. During my younger years, I only saw my father at dinner during the week and he usually went back to work in the evenings. Thank goodness things have changed. Today, we have much better working hours, more time with family and less toxic chemicals are used in vehicles, and we now have safer ways of handling the disposal of such things as tires, batteries, fluids and precious metals.

But one very important change has yet to be accomplished and that is the majority of shops in Canada are still being heroes for our customers. This is the single most damaging factor in our trade. Because we want to be heroes to our customers, we too often work in a “Crisis Management” mode, trying to get customer’s vehicles in and out of our shops quickly. The problem is working in a constant state of crisis means not using management practices and tools that can help us profitably manage our shops and lives. Crisis management adds to increased work, a stressed-out and burnt-out staff, and a poor bottom line.

So what are some of the things a shop can do to begin moving away from the crisis management way of running a shop? Well, let’s start with something simple, making the work environment a little safer and easier on a technician’s joints and muscles. Try having foam pads available so technicians don’t have to be kneeling on a wet cement floor every day and putting undue stress on their knees. Also, make sure everyone follows the rules when lifting anything heavy, like a large piece of equipment or a tire. Too many injuries are also caused by someone rushing to get a job done. Slow down and take the time do the job right the first time.

What about management techniques? Here is another simple tip that has immediate payout for the shop: let the technicians do their jobs without interruption. Interrupting someone’s focus while working on a complex vehicle or diagnosing a difficult problem adds to mental stress as well as to workplace frustration. Remove that stress and a shop’s staff is happier and healthier. One of the great tragedies of this industry is how many of our skilled technicians have to leave the bays because by the time they reach 40 their bodies cannot handle the stress and strains anymore.

This month, my 23 year-old son acquired his technician’s license. I’m very proud of that. However, he told me that in his class, 50 per cent of his peers quit the trade when they get their TQ, because they did not like what they saw to people’s bodies and spirits in our industry’s service centres. That is very sad and it has to stop. In my own shop, I have seen WCB rates decline each year, sick days reduce dramatically and stress is rarely felt by my staff, by just following the simple pieces of advice I have just given.

The secret to this is rather simple: it comes down to organization. It is moving from activity-based management, where you are rushing about trying to do everything and being the hero, to organized management, where you manage people’s time and resources effectively so work is done in a timely manner but without any stress. Customers get their cars back on time and leave happy, and everyone at shop goes home and to their lives proud of the work they have done and eager for the next day.

This is literally a 180-degree shift in thinking. Shop owners must recognize that we have been doing a great injustice to our customers and technicians. We no longer can afford to only fix what is broken when a vehicle arrives in our shop, to work in the old way of crisis management. It is simply too stressful and unprofitable. We must have a professional team of service advisors in our front office that know how to take care of our customers, earn their trust and properly educate them on how skilled technicians can provide valuable information for them to make well-informed decisions about their vehicles.

To do all that, technicians and service advisors have to work in a shop that uses good management practices and strives to provide them with a healthy working environment. A properly run shop that manages everyone’s time and resources effectively will know how to give technicians the time to properly test and inspect vehicles, to properly dispose of toxic waste and use practices which help reduce stress and injuries. As well, good management practices also means supporting technicians with ongoing training and paying them properly for the knowledge and expertise they bring.

When these management practices are in place, shops will find that not only are their employees happier, their customers leave happier too. Customers will quickly find their vehicles have been repaired and maintained with the highest skills available, have learned something about their car and will gladly bring their business back again and again, which means a ever-growing bottom line and less stress for everyone.

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