Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2007   by J.D. Ney, Assistant Editor

Walk the Walk on Preventative Maintenance

Maintaining your shop's tools is not optional

As this issue’s Garage of the Year finalists feature clearly points out, the automotive service business is shifting, or at least ought to be shifting, to a maintenance model. Ideally, it’s a structure through which owners and service writers book appointments in advance, and rarely if ever, do breakdown work, because, well, their client’s cars simply don’t break down. Such a system is predicated on a conscious effort to promote the “preventative” side of the maintenance coin, ensuring both a working automobile for the customer, and a steady flow of traffic for the owner. However, if the service provider is the one touting the regime, why is it that technicians everywhere are operating (and in some cases barely making due) with out of date, and home-repaired tools. Now don’t get me wrong — I find it unbelievably cool to watch a guy fix something with a broken pneumatic tool he’s MacGyvered, using a paper clip, chewing gum and six inches of mint flavored dental floss; but it’s not something I’d want used to fix my car. Further, it’s probably not something you ever want a client to see either, regardless of the prestige it may bring the individual technician amongst his peers. If shops are ever going to add any credibility at all to their increasing rhetoric about the importance of preventative maintenance, they should start walking the walk when it comes to maintaining their own equipment, as well as taking steps to ensure their technicians do the same.

It’s all in how you organize

A key function of a shop manager is organization in all aspects of the shop’s business, and that includes the management of your shop’s tools. “Most of the problems I see on a daily basis comes down to organization,” says Tony Auchincloss, president of Tool Inventory & Appraisal System, a company dedicated to appraising the value of a shop’s tool inventory, largely for insurance purposes.

According to Auchincloss, just about every shop he visits — 300 last year alone — have some pretty significant problems when it comes to the tools being used. “Every shop has a tool in it that probably needs to be sent away for repairs,” he says. “The problem is, most mangers have no policy or system in place to quickly and easily identify that needed repair.”

A lack of such a system can obviously lead in tool failures, and given what those tools mean to your overall business, it’s hard to imagine a “convenient time” for such a failure.

Manufacturers have robust programs to handle broken or worn-out tools, and for the most part do their best to ensure some seamless transitions so as to not leave you high and dry with a customer car on the hoist. A failed tool is a useless tool, and broken tools cost money, in that they need repairs and have an associated opportunity cost. Most manufacturers do their best to provide their clients with immediate service and the fastest possible downtime; but this is not always guaranteed, and is heavily contingent on demand.

As a result, manufacturers are much better equipped to handle a client who works proactively with them when it comes to the mechanized tools of the trade. According to Ray Lavander, marketing and communications manager at Snap-on tools in Mississauga Ont., scheduling and budgeting is the key.

“We have a flat rate program so that our clients can know well in advance what the cost will be to repair their tools,” starts Lavender. “Historically though, it’s not used as a maintenance program, but simply a repair program.”

Similar services are offered with other groups as well, but not surprisingly, there is a similar tune when it comes to responsibility.

“We have a broad network of service distributors, but it is up to the individual to take advantage of that opportunity,” says Jeff Armour, marketing manager with Ingersoll-Rand Company. “We supply some shops that are quite diligent, and get their tools serviced and maintained like a car, but a lot of others really don’t take care of them at all, and as a result, get failures. Keeping in mind that it is both you and your customer that pays when a tool suddenly fails, this whole concept of tool maintenance certainly starts to gain some momentum, particularly if you value that customer’s business.

The Fix

The answer, according to the experts appears to be all about planning, and then sticking to that plan.

“It comes down to following the maintenance schedule,” says Armour. “We include one with all of our pneumatics, and so it just has to be followed. A lot of it can even be done right in the shop.”

Unfortunately, the onus still falls on the shop manager to institute some sort of shop-wide procedure. While this may seem daunting or overly time consuming, Auchincloss says it doesn’t really need to be so.

“Something as simple as having a tool room can ensure things stay on track,” says Auchincloss. “If everything has it’s place, then it is very easy for a shop owner to keep tabs on the equipment. If you check out the tool room, you’ll immediately know that a scan tool is being used in the shop, because its spot will be bare.”

This sort of system doesn’t just improve the day to day organization, but also improves the overall efficency of your operation.

“If everything is centrally located, it becomes much easier to monitor the condition of your equipment. At scheduled intervals, the owner can simply go through and take a look, so that when it’s really needed it’s not broken or damaged,” he says.

Planning is also the key to an overall maintenance program according to Lavender.

“Problems arise when the service rep may have two or three loaners and 300 customers. But, if you have your shop on a scheduled program, then you can make sure you get a loaner, basically eliminating your downtime. You can even schedule things around staffing issues, and have your technicians service their own pneumatics while they are on vacation, and not using them anyway,” says Lavender.

All top-notch notions, and all requiring organization and pre-planning.

The final angle simply harkens to a concept that fills the last word section of this magazine with staggering regularity, and should if nothing else, shame some shop owners into a meaningful maintenance program.

“Don’t wait until an air tool breaks,” says Lavender. “The idea of preventative maintenance is something that owners are trying to preach to their customers, and it’s something that we as an industry are preaching to the public. We need to practice what we preach, and focus on maintaining tools.”

Auchincloss says he runs into those flying in the face of their own words daily.

“Take a look in most tool boxes in Canada, and you’ll come across a set of socket wrenches with tape all over them,” he says. “You’ve got to ask, is the proper amount of torque really being applied to that bolt, or are you compromising something there, all due to a poor maintenance program?”

It’s pretty clear after discussions with those around the business that there is a fundamental disconnect between the industry’s public relations campaign and what is being practiced behind the closed doors of individual businesses. As a note, it is not the intention of this article to speak ill of the industry and those in it. It was explicitly stated by everyone spoken to, that there are many shops that do have an exceptionally vigorous maintenance program as it pertains to all of their tools as well as those in their employ. That said, however, it does seem as though, for whatever reason, many other businesses simply have not yet taken-up that particular organizational gauntlet. What should be taken from the comments reported here is that such an undertaking, although intimidating, is not necessarily difficult or painful. It could also very well mean a major shift in your shop’s professionalism, business acumen, and most importantly: reputation.

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