After almost two decades of relatively radical change, the collision repair industry has finally started to shake off its previously well-earned reputation of being a poorly organized, inefficient business. In the process, we’ve searched for role models, people we can emulate, successful companies whose formula we can copy, and we’ve been inspired by the writings of world-renowned business experts such as Stephen Covey, Chuck Coonradt, Ken Blanchard and Philip Crosby. More recently, visionaries in the collision repair industry have pointed to one great American success story in particular that they say we should identify with. "McDonaldize" has been their advice. Why? Because the popular restaurant effectively applied faster, streamlined service into its operation.
By looking at the McDonald’s phenomenon, collision repairers can see how the restaurant’s adapted process can help their shops by providing faster service and a more streamlined, systematic repair process. And, by applying some of McDonald’s lessons to their shops, they can realize larger profits.
A History Lesson
McDonaldization means different things to different people, so to understand how the collision repair industry can benefit from the concepts and methods pioneered by this mega corporation, we should start by looking back.
While its legendary founder, Ray A. Kroc, is unquestionably responsible for the awesome success of McDonald’s Corporation, he was neither the founding father of fast food nor the inventor of highly disciplined, systematic hamburger production. Ironically, it was America’s growing dependence on the automobile that provided the launching pad for McDonald’s success. The early 1940s saw the advent of "curb service" restaurants that became known as drive-ins and carhops. It was at this time that two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald (Dick and Mac as they were known) opened the first McDonald’s drive-in on the corner of Fourteenth and E streets in San Bernardino, Calif. A staff of 20 carhops served from a menu of 25 items, primarily consisting of hot dogs, ribs, and beef and pork sandwiches. By 1945, McDonald’s had become the town’s No. 1 teenage hangout, and Dick and Mac were achieving greater wealth than they’d ever dreamed possible.
By 1948, however, the brothers realized the drive-in concept they’d helped to pioneer had some inherent flaws. Their carhop method of service was a novelty, but it was also slow and limited the amount of customers who could be served during any given period. Most significantly, drive-ins had become known as a source of low-priced food, yet their labor costs were high. Competition was fierce for hiring carhops, and if they didn’t lose employees to their competitors, they lost them to higher-paying jobs in other industries.
In September 1948, the brothers made the bold decision to close the drive-in, fire the carhops and completely restructure their business. After studying sales receipts for the previous three years, they were surprised to find that hamburgers generated 80 percent of their business. This, along with their plan to provide a faster, more streamlined service, led to the menu being reduced from 25 items to nine.
To help encourage "Speedee Service," there was to be no choice of condiments. All hamburgers were prepared with ketchup, mustard, onions and two pickles, which opened the way for preparing food in advance. Custom-designed grills replaced the traditional kitchen equipment, and the kitchen was rearranged to accommodate faster, high-volume production.
In addition, eating utensils and china plates, routinely broken or stolen, were replaced by paper bags, wrappers and cups. This, in turn, made the dishwasher redundant. Also, the service windows where the carhops filled their orders were changed to service windows where customers would place their own orders.
Dick and Mac reopened after three months — although it took more than a year and some minor adjustments to their plan (like the addition of milk shakes and french fries to the menu) before they regained all their lost business. Nevertheless, it became clear from the start that their new format, now shunned by the teenage population, had a special appeal to children. And by appealing to the kids, McDonald’s was naturally attracting the parents.
The brothers went on to further pioneer the concept of fast food. They adopted rigid operating procedures, breaking down the process of preparing food to repetitive steps that could be quickly learned. And they refined the roles of the kitchen crew who became specialists at particular tasks.
The procedures became so detailed and the jobs so specialized that they experienced higher production speeds and the same labor-saving benefits that Henry Ford had discovered when he introduced the assembly line concept. Above all, they could now employ untrained cooks at low wages and, with minimal training, could turn out products faster and with better quality control than even the best short-order cooks were capable of.
From Burgers to Automobiles
There’s much more to the success of McDonald’s, but when those in our industry talk about McDonaldizing the collision repair process, they’re typically referring to the concepts pioneered by the McDonald brothers — to developing rigid operating procedures to break down the process of autobody repair to simple, repetitive steps that can be quickly learned; to developing specialists at individual tasks and achieving higher production speeds with the same labor-saving benefits of assembly lines; to hiring untrained techs at low wages who, with minimal training, can turn out faster repairs and better quality control than even a highly paid journeyman technician.
But is this indeed possible? Can body shops really be McDonaldized?
It doesn’t take an industry expert to figure out there are fundamental differences between repairing a modern motor car and cooking a burger. Every move the burger makes follows the same rigid systems and procedures, from the farm, to the meat processing plant, to the delivery truck, to the refrigerator at McDonald’s, to the grill, to its position between each half of the bun. Each step along the way has been meticulously planned to ensure the results are the same, from the first hamburger to the one billionth.
Now consider a wrecked vehicle. It could be any one of 20-plus different makes, anything from a subcompact unibody to a full-size SUV with goodness knows how many models and vehicle types in between, not to mention having been painted any one of tens of thousands of colors. All this before you even begin to assess the extent of the damage. You may have two Ford Escorts, exact same color code and both hit in the left front corner. But what are the chances of each job needing exactly the same parts? Of following the exact same rigid repair procedures? Of being matched with exactly the same color? Of having an invoice for an identical amount?
The collision repair process varies significantly depending on the extent of the damage being repaired. There are approximately 20 identifiable steps in the process of repairing a heavy-hit vehicle, each of which could be broken down into a similar number of smaller tasks. Do the math on that, and it could add up to literally hundreds of individual tasks — each that, from one job to the next, could take a different amount of time to complete.
Any step in the repair process can produce a fork in the road that requires the tech to decide which way to proceed. Like it or not, that takes training, experience and a high level of initiative.
Could we refine the roles of techs so they can become specialists at particular tasks? Developing specialists isn’t new to our industry. After all, the combination man is almost extinct, having been replaced by separate body and paint techs. However, these experts still require training in many different areas of their specialties.
Probably the most compelling question is, can we hire untrained technicians at low wages and with minimal training and expect them to turn out faster repairs with better quality?
Remember that first car you owned? Most of us probably lifted the hood to change the spark plugs or tweak the carburetor. Today, even if you could find a spark plug or carburetor, you wouldn’t have enough room to get a wrench between the plethora of electronic gadgets and unrecognizable components crammed into the engine compartment.
Now imagine that same vehicle in a shop with an employee who’s paid minimum wage and is minimal trained. And he’s taking apart that parts-intensive front end. Imagine him tearing into the door assembly that typically includes often complex electronics for operating the windows, rear-view mirrors, and audio and security systems. Imagine the same guy trying to put it all back together. Imagine him setting up, measuring and realigning a unibody vehicle to a tolerance close to zero or welding in a new unibody section. You could probably describe several more tasks that are difficult — if not impossible — to imagine a minimally trained tech carrying out.
For McDonald’s, much like manufacturing, many repeatable processes can be standardized, mechanized and duplicated. And there are some repeatable processes that can be identified within the administration and production of repair work — and it’s appropriate that systems and procedures be applied to those tasks. Those tasks aside, however, shops are service companies, not manufacturing companies.
When referring to service-company management, R. David Dunn, owner of a successful independent collision repair shop in Galesburg, Ill., and author of the book, "Liquid Amalgam," says: "The general attempt has been to script, proceduralize or otherwise create policy in a business that is anything but predictable. Virtually every situation in a service company requires flexibility and creativity. You cannot script, proceduralize or otherwise predict every possible scenario which might occur in a typical day [of collision repair] … "
Yet more and more, we hear our industry experts extolling the virtues of McDonaldization and suggesting we model our shops after this fast-food giant. But, techs and managers alike must demonstrate a high level of initiative; they must analyze, evaluate and plan their strategy to complete their tasks. The inconsistencies they face every day make it extremely difficult to implement a processing system that doesn’t provide for immense flexibility.
Except in specialty shops, the collision repairer doesn’t have the opportunity to streamline his service by offering a "limited menu." So, the McDonaldization trademark of repeatable process, rigid procedures and limited technical-training needs isn’t compatible with the real world of collision repair.
Because of this, many body shops that have tried to McDonaldize have failed; their designs didn’t take into account the uncertainty in the collision repair process. But this isn’t to say they can’t succeed or that there aren’t lessons to be learned from the McDonald’s way of doing business. On the contrary, there’s much to be learned.
Hind Sight is 20/20
Just as custom-designed grills replaced traditional kitchen equipment and a kitchen re-arrangement accommodated faster, high-volume production, your shop’s layout and equipment can help lead your business to faster, high-volume production.
Let’s take a closer look at how body shops can incorporate some of the layout lessons and processes learned and adopted by the McDonald brothers, along with some general guidelines to follow:
• Accommodate the repair process. Think through all the things that need done to a car and the order in which they occur in the process. Map out the route. The most accommodating design is one that’s circular. The most common mistake made in layout and design is starting metal repairs at one end of the shop, then moving the car into the paint department and then to detail and cleanup, and, finally, out the door on the other end. Keep in mind there’s still some re-assembly work that needs done before a car’s detailed — and that means, most of the time, it has to end up back where it started, in the metal department.
• Provide for flexibility. You need to be able to access any part of the production process. Because you may need a vehicle to enter or exit the process at any stage, you don’t want to create a system or design that requires a vehicle joining the end of the line to get processed. Consider this: A car with a small scratch needs to go to the final stages of paint/prep because it only needs lightly sanded, masked, put in the booth and sprayed. Is your shop’s design flexible enough to accommodate this?
• Allocate the right amount of space in the shop’s different departments. It’s a good idea to have an equal or higher capacity in the paint department as in the metal department. If you don’t, you can probably bet on bottlenecks.
• Buy only the equipment that’s needed. Not only is having un-used equipment costly, it’s a space waster.
Beyond shop layout and design, owners need to realize that how the shop is managed will also significantly impact productivity and profitability. From McDonald’s history, learn that:
• The McDonald brothers had the foresight to see what was going on in their industry and were proactive, looking for solutions and making changes. How many owners in the our industry do you know who are too busy fixing cars to see what’s going on around them or complain about the way things are rather than finding ways to benefit from these changing times? The McDonald brothers had the courage to think "out of the box," not hindered by tradition — a trait all too rare in the body shop business.
To gain the foresight needed to improve your business, get involved in the industry: join associations, get as much training as you can, don’t resist technological change. And don’t be afraid to admit defeat. Is something not working in your shop? Then change it. Do you have a profit center that isn’t making a profit? Then get rid of it.
• The McDonald brothers measured their performance. They knew their carhop labor costs were high and how their sales were structured, and they acted accordingly. That was in 1948. Yet even today, many shop owners either don’t have access to accurate performance data or don’t know how to use it to improve their businesses. The McDonald brothers recognized what they were good at and what they weren’t good at. (To determine your true cost of doing business and if you’re hitting industry benchmarks, see story, "Working Designs," on page 10.)
• The McDonald brothers knew who their customers were and improvised with that knowledge. Do you know who your core customers are? Do you know how to find out? Do you know how to market to them? Maybe a marketing course or specialist is needed to help you in this important area.
• The McDonald brothers introduced common standards of quality, service and cleanliness. In many body shops, such standards exist, but are often compromised when the urgency of delivering the car becomes the priority. Don’t allow clutter to hinder the repair process or your professional image or to provide for possible injuries.
It’s Up to You
Many important lessons can be learned from McDonald’s, just as they can be learned from other great American success stories.
While it’s true that many of the rules of business are the same, it’s also true that vast differences exist between McDonald’s and Bob’s Body Shop. Therefore, it’s up to Bob to take into consideration the differences that exist between his repair operation and McDonald’s fast-food operation. It’s also up to Bob to extract the successful practices that can be applied to collision repair and incorporate them into his own business.
Brian S. Evison, CCRM, is the owner and technical director of Bemack Planning Services, a collision repair facility planning and management consulting company. Evison is also a licensed teacher of post-secondary education and is a co-founder and instructor at Masters School of Autobody Management. He’s also the owner of Brit Racing, a NASCAR race team.