Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2014   by Murray Voth, TACT

Needing and Managing the Human Element in Your Shop

"This business would be a lot easier if it wasn’t for the human element." I hear this comment on a fairly regular basis from shop owners. They are not referring to their customers, which I acknowledge can be a challenge, they are...


“This business would be a lot easier if it wasn’t for the human element.” I hear this comment on a fairly regular basis from shop owners. They are not referring to their customers, which I acknowledge can be a challenge, they are referring to their employees. Or I hear, “I never signed up for this human resources stuff. Why don’t people just do their jobs!” There was a time when a King ruled the land and everyone basically worked for the King. Most of us would have been known as serfs, wearing rags and living in dirt floor hovels. Then there is the old saying, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” During the early industrial age people were paid just enough to eat and stay alive so they could come back to work. During the Depression people would do anything to have a job to feed their families. And up until recently, many business owners, managers and bosses of any kind were accustomed to saying “jump” and we as employees would say “how high?!” mostly because there were usually many more people than there were jobs.

But as many of you have noticed, times have changed. It is no longer legal to use corporal punishment to motivate employees. Things other than money motivate many employees. The shortages of employees in some trades and fields of work have put the employee in the proverbial driver’s seat, and in addition to that, many of the current generations of employees when asked to “jump” ask “why?” More and more employees in the developed world want to know how their job contributes to the better good of the company they work for or for the community in which they live. They need the job for the money, but they don’t just do the work for money or for a sense of duty like many of our parents did. They want to have a say in their work place, they want their job to have a creative element or to be challenging rather than monotonous, and many employers don’t know how to handle that, they take it as insubordination. Before I launch into the rest of this article I want to remind all of the readers that 1) we have all been an employee at some time in our lives and we need to remember what that was like, and 2) there are a lot of really good employees in our businesses and we need to acknowledge them and be grateful for that fact.

Managing Today’s Employees

My thoughts in this article are a natural sequence to the last two articles I wrote; the last one about clarifying your role as a manager, and the previous one about what it takes to be a business owner. Once you begin to have clarity in these roles, your role as a leader will become more effective. You then will be able to focus on helping your team get the results that the business needs to prosper. As business owners with little training in this area we make several common mistakes. And we don’t make these mistakes once; we repeat them over and over again. 1) We hire friends and family because we want someone we can trust; however, we do not lay out clear expectations of performance and we end up with employees that feel privileged. 2) We tolerate poor performance on the part of one employee. We do this because of the fear of a confrontation, because we are lazy, because we are too busy putting out fires, because we might not find someone else, or we have let it go on so long that the financial costs of severance prohibit us from moving on. Imagine what your good employees feel about working for your company when you put up with this. Hey wait a minute, I remember now; you can’t find good employees anyways. 3) We don’t communicate well with our employees. This includes current standard operating procedures or any new changes that are coming to the business. We don’t communicate our expectations, we think or hope they can read our minds. 4) We don’t give our employees feedback of any kind. How do they know if they are doing well or not? I call it managing by emotion. If the boss is in a good mood I must be doing a good job, if the boss is in a bad mood, I must be doing a bad job. But enough about the challenges, let’s talk about solutions.

Let’s start with the existing team members. The first thing is to create or acquire and modify some job descriptions for each position in your company. A job description will describe the skills and attributes required for the position. It will have general descriptions of duties and responsibilities and the standards by which these will be carried out. Don’t create the job descriptions to fit the current employees; rather create the position and the job description for it. Your current employees will then need to be trained for that position. In a way, they would all be hypothetically reapplying for their new job. And maybe even with training they might not be the right person for the job, and some difficult decisions need to be made. On a more positive note, most employees when they receive clear direction and expectations are much better performers and less stressed. This article is about drawing the best out of our teams, not beating it out of them.

Having the Right Management Tools

It is important to have several different tools rather than trying to jam them all into one. The next document to begin work on is your SOP Manual (Standard Operating Procedures). Flying by the seat of your pants is over. By standardizing all of the systems and procedures, service and repair processes, your business will begin to get consistent results. What is your customer write up process, vehicle inspection process, test drive process and so on and so forth? Yes, I train shops to use the same test drive route for all test drives. That way you will know how long it takes, the roads and turns are the same, and just the vehicles are different. Have shop cleanup checklists; tool and equipment maintenance and service checklists.

Another important document to create or have created is your employee handbook. This book has all your company benefits listed, how and who qualifies. It outlines cell phone and Internet use policies, as well as lunch breaks, coffee breaks and smoking policies. I will also include vacation policies, statutory holidays and overtime policies. Many shop owners express frustration with how vacations are booked, but unless you have a policy, you are going to get what you got. You could include your company occupational health and safety documentation as part of this, but many well-implemented shops have this as a separate handbook.

Next we need to create a positive employee review process. One of the key things that employees are looking for is feedback on their performance. Too many owners see a review process as waiting till their frustration builds up to a point of anger, calling the employee into the office and unloading on them. This needs to be a positive process. I recommend having reviews at least twice a year. I don’t think that performance reviews should necessarily be tied to pay increases. Even though an employee’s performance has a direct effect on the profitability of the company, I prefer to separate these conversations. The performance review is about giving positive feedback and constructive coaching, and training in areas that need improvement. In addition, I believe that employees all need to be trained on some of the basic financial and operational numbers that they have a direct effect on. I would then use this knowledge in a separate wage review. A one-page performance review document is all you need. Don’t over complicate this process. Make sure that the employees are made aware well in advance of this process, and ensure these are done by appointment rather than on the fly. Provide a copy of the review to the employee for them to review prior to the actual review. The last step in this section is to create a way for the employee to review the company and the management.

Although I am addressing staff meetings near the end of this article, it is probably the first practice to add to your business. Many shop owners have never had staff meetings besides the occasional yelling session. Others have tried and stopped because they always seem to spiral into negative whining sessions. And many employees only experience staff meetings when the boss has had enough and needs to dump on them. I would recommend regular staff meetings, quarterly at a minimum, monthly is great, and many top shops have a short weekly meeting as well. These meetings should be between 30 minutes and 45 minutes long, the weekly ones could be as short as 10 minutes. There should be a prepared agenda with a short amount of time allotted for “other” topics. The agenda should include topics such as operational successes, operational challenges, equipment needs and or repairs, suggestions from employees and new announcements from management. For example, staff meetings are a good place to present job descriptions, handbooks and the review process. Make sure that individuals are not singled out during staff meetings, which is saved for the review process, or an individual meeting.

Fundamentally, human beings will not make long-term changes in their behaviour based on negative threats or logical arguments. People need to want to change. This change happens when people see how this benefits them morally, ethically, communally and lastly financially. As individualistic as our society is, people like being part of a community or a team. The more they feel part of the team the better their participation and performance.


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