Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2007   by Allan Janssen

Keeping focus

Increasing productivity in a shop is all about through-put.

It’s about focusing on a goal of efficiency, moving cars from the parking lot to the bay and then back to the parking lot.

It’s about implementing systems and processes. Checks and balances.
It’s about organization.

And if this sounds like management stuff to you – like just another strategy for getting the most out of its workers in order to maximize profits – you’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s much more than that.

Yes, productivity is good for the shop, but it’s even better for the technician.

Good technicians appreciate organization. They thrive on the kind of processes and systems that help them perform. They need strategies to enable them to be as creative as possible and have more fun while they’re at it.

A lead technician I spoke with once told me he loves to get "in the zone" where he can really get his head into his work, without distraction, and focus his energy so tightly that he experiences flashes of brilliance, seeing entire vehicle systems, instead of just components, and rooting out faults in a Zen-like state of concentration. He described it as a kind of natural high.

Sound a little far out? Many professionals experience it every day. From scientists to police investigators, they can get so caught up in the riddles they’re trying to solve that they can think of nothing else, even in their down time. It’s not unlike what professional athletes go through during competition. Normal distractions disappear as they focus on their goal.

Probably the main reason that’s a rare state for automotive technicians is because so often our processes are clunky and awkward, preventing true productivity.

Most garages are constructed like an open-concept office, with lifts instead of desks and tool boxes instead of room dividers. Distractions are plentiful.

And, let’s face it, you’ve got to want to focus. If your attitude is that your job is not important enough to demand more of you, you’ll probably never experience that Zen-like state of productivity.

An article in last month’s Canadian Technician magazine spoke of the competitive drive of some technicians, including Jeffrey Taylor of Eccles Service Centre in Dundas, ON. What wasn’t mentioned was that after Jeffrey’s win as the top Canadian technician in the 2001 ACDelco Technician of the Millennium competition, his work became immeasurably more difficult.

That’s because his boss, Bruce Eccles, was like a proud father, advertised the win and told as many customers as he could of Jeffrey’s accomplishment.

"It made sense because it’s good news for the shop. But it meant that every customer wanted to come in and shake my hand," says Jeffrey. "And while that’s really nice, I’m still expected to fix the cars, and I still have my own work to do. I was making some mistakes and I was stressing myself out. It was mostly me. I put a lot of expectations on my own work."

Thankfully, Bruce understood and took the heat off Jeffrey, allowing him to inhabit a quiet corner of the shop where he can concentrate and thrive.

Recently, Rotary Lift has introduced the notion of "Techtivity" – an approach that allows technicians to be as productive and creative as possible by minimizing distractions and designing automotive service equipment with convenience and efficiency in mind.

Most notably, its inbay lift series features built-in display screens which can project a wealth of information so the technician doesn’t have to wander far from the job.

The objective is to give you the tools you need where you need them so jobs aren’t done in stops and starts. A piecemeal approach to repairs is rarely the best strategy.

There are many other proven ways to improve the work environment so technicians will get the most out of their work hours.

Brian Pellerin, of Moncton Rust Check in New Brunswick has implemented a number of unique systems, including using colored work orders to help everyone in the shop quickly identify the priority and status of a given job.

"We pay eight hours a day, and we’d like you to get as close to that magic number as possible, realizing that it doesn’t always happen," he says. "But we do whatever we can to help them get there. We let the guys do the work."

For example, new cars will be brought into the bays while they’re on lunch. And when the job’s done, another guy comes and gets the car and washes it out back.

"We let them concentrate on the mechanical as much as possible," says Brian. "They don’t order parts, they don’t jockey cars, they don’t fill out too much paperwork. They just concentrate on their work."

He has also set up a message board out back where all of the techs have their own slot. That way they can pick up the details on their next job or any personal messages that have come in when they’ve got time.

"If I can possibly help it, I don’t want to disturb them while they’re working. I know they’re in the middle of something and I don’t want to get in their way."

He also gets the guys to find out right away what parts they’ll need for a particular job so the parts can be ordered while they do the routing stuff like oil changes and tire rotations. "You do what you can while you’re waiting," says Brian.

In the old days of paper repair manuals and catalogs, it was common to refer to the "walk of death" that took technicians away from the job at hand in order to do research. You crossed the garage floor, perhaps past the washroom, the coffee machine, the smoking room, and the daily newspapers. Sure the research got done, eventually, but the toll it took on work flow was high.

Today, with electronic repair information available in the shop itself, if not right in the bay, looking up even detailed instructions is quick, and likely to improve productivity because of easy access to related information. You never get out of repair mode. You don’t lose your place in the job.

That’s especially crucial in these days of intricate electronic work. Following a wiring diagram to locate a possible fault requires a level of concentration that is easily disrupted. Walk away from the job even for a minute and you often have to start all over again.

Increasing productivity, then, is not just about improving the shop’s bottom line. It doesn’t just make financial sense for the shop owner. It should be the goal of top technicians as well.

And, while no one likes to attend too many boring meetings which will actually limit productivity, it’s not a bad idea to set up "bull sessions" every once in a while where unusual jobs and unique fixes can be passed along. There’s enormous benefit in comparing notes.

This kind of dedication to increased productivity can take its toll after a while. Down time should be respected. There’s nothing worse than being asked at the last minute to stay late or come in on Saturday afternoon after long hours of intense work. Productive technicians should be given time to recover and recharge their batteries.

And, of course, compensation should reflect productivity. Shop owners who are hitting their monthly numbers because the technicians in the bay are focused and efficient ought to consider rewarding their staff for the efforts.

Brian says monthly bonuses are a frequent surprise in his shop.

"If somebody has hit all their targets, it’s not unusual for him to get an extra cheque at the end of the month," he says. "I appreciate their work because it’s what my business is built on."

Increasing productivity in the shop is not just for management’s benefit. It can increase your own appreciation of the job. If you’re allowed to shine, you probably will.

And if it improves your own bottom line too, so much the better.

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1 Comment » for Keeping focus
  1. Allan JANSSEN says:

    I have heard much of the story and I am looking forward to telling it when the opportunity arises. I have to respect the justice system. Testimony in a preliminary trial cannot be published because it could influence a jury when the proper trial gets underway. I will continue to follow the case because I believe it holds many important lessons for the automotive repair industry. — Allan

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