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5 Tasks to Improve the Flow at Your Body Shop

A great start for any team, whether they’re struggling or not, would be to fix the easy and basic things first before they worry about other more complex things.

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Angelo DiTullio started in the collision business in his father's shop at seven years old. He has been both a shop manager and regional manager for the past 20 years. He has worked for the insurance industry, family-owned body shops, regional MSOs and national body shops. He's currently a district manager for Abra. He can be reached at [email protected]

“Get back to the basics.” It’s an easy statement, one that can fly right by you if you’re not careful. We’ve all heard it before, but with our fast-paced lives and careers, it’s easy to dismiss as being too simple and easy.

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We sometimes yearn for some secret recipe, an earth-shattering piece of news that will drastically change our results. How many of us have seen our favorite baseball team struggle? Being a Phillies fan, I sure have. It’s easy to see what’s wrong when you see the players on the team swinging at the first pitch or not running out ground balls. After yelling at the TV, you wonder how can the team miss what’s right there in front of their noses?

A great start for any team, whether they’re struggling or not, would be to fix these easy and basic things first before they worry about other more complex things. I’m a firm believer that if you fix five things in the beginning, you’ll be amazed at how many others things get fixed at the end.

The Power of Repetition

I once read a story about famous Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who was a big believer in the basics. He made his players practice the very unspectacular play of the power sweep constantly. Over and over and over again, he made his players practice this simple play until they could execute it in their sleep.

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“You think there’s anything special about this sweep?” Lombardi said. “Well, there isn’t. It’s as basic a play as there can be in football. We simply do it over and over and over. There can never be enough emphasis on repetition. I want my players to be able to run this sweep in their sleep. If we call the sweep 20 times, I’ll expect it to work 20 times…not 18, not 19.”

Our businesses and shops are no different. We get lost on getting the basics right so often that we become great firemen who are adept at putting fires out. But instead of becoming great firemen, we need to stop setting so many fires.

So often in my career, I’ve gone to a struggling shop and been amazed at how simple and out in the open the answer to their problems was. Sometimes people can’t see the forest from the trees and the opportunities and mistakes that are right out in front and begging to be fixed.

The Basics

Just like there are basics in any sport, there are also basics in the collision industry. Examples include:

  • A complete and thorough estimate or repair plan
  • A complete and thorough 100 percent teardown, including all blend panels and R&Is
  • A complete and thorough accounting of all parts and their arrival times
  • A complete and thorough production plan, preferably written
  • A complete and thorough quality control process

It’s no accident that I said “complete and thorough” five times. Each of these tasks must be complete and thorough in order for them to be successful. Doing any of these tasks in any way other than this leaves room for mistakes to creep in that will cause a ripple effect in the shop, which in turn will cause things like longer cycle times, lower revenue and poor quality. If you start out each repair as “clean” and follow the five rules that I wrote above, you’ll see how smoothly these vehicles go through the shop.

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A Good Estimate

Everything starts with a good estimate. Without it, even if you follow the other four rules, things will still come out wrong. Before you go out to look at the damaged vehicle, you should first look at the two important pieces of paper that should be in your job folder: the assignment and vehicle check-in sheet.

Look carefully at the assignment (if there is one) and the vehicle check-in sheet – because you should have one. This is your chance to find out as much as you can right from the owner’s mouth as to what happened and what they’ve seen and felt on their vehicle. I’ve seen related damage missed many times just because the estimator did not take the time to read the assignment and look over the check-in sheet. It’s right there in the folder – pick it up and look at it. If not, why bother doing them?

Is the Vehicle Ready?

Is your vehicle ready to be looked at? Is it filthy or covered in salt? How are you supposed to see damage and judge repair times on a vehicle you can’t clearly see? If washing the car isn’t an option, at least grab a few rags or towels and wipe down the panels that you’ll be looking at. Once the vehicle is clean enough to see, walk around the whole thing, not just the impact area. Get a feel for what happened and how the accident energy traveled. Don’t just glance at the damage and assume that you’ve seen it all. Last time I checked, not everyone keeps their cars sparkling and clean and ready for your inspection. Also, don’t be afraid to get low and kneel down, or lay on the ground if needed. Borrow a creeper or grab a piece of cardboard or bumper wrapper to lie on. Look at the panel from all angles. Have you ever said, “Wow, that dent grew” when you see the panel before priming? The dent didn’t grow; you just didn’t see everything you should have from the beginning.

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Photos

Good photos are essential even if the vehicle isn’t being written as a direct repair, and they should not be an afterthought. Taking photos is an extremely important part of the process that all too often gets rushed through. If your photos don’t justify your estimate, you either need to take more and better pictures or adjust your estimate. Get down, bend the knees, use different angles if necessary, but take good photos. If you come back inside only to find out your pictures don’t reflect what you were trying to show, then you need to re-shoot them as many times as it takes to get them right.

Instructions

With your photos taken, now is a good time to map out each operation right on the vehicle with a car marker. This is a chance for you to double check yourself and write each operation as instructions to your technicians, right on the panels they’ll be working on. This step not only catches items you may have missed but also helps to alleviate unnecessary questions asked later on by the technician who needs to know something.

Teardown

As this is going on, all would be for nothing without a good teardown. Teardown is a topic many of us feel we already understand and have a handle on. However, there is a big difference between a teardown and a 100 percent teardown. This topic needs to be preached about constantly and revisited often.

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It’s amazing how many times I find myself talking about the same topics over and over too. It’s just human nature, and to be consistent, you’ll need to keep preaching these same topics over and over. In our busy and fast-paced lives, it’s easy to just allow a bumper or light to be taken out.

“Hurry-up-and-get-the-next-car-in” syndrome is something that happens often. In the industry today, we’re all trying to do more with less, and everyone has more responsibility. Unfortunately, when we “cheat” the system by allowing anything but a 100 percent teardown, we only wind up inviting problems and fires later down the line.

A 100 percent teardown means that every damaged piece, along with every piece that can be hiding damage, is removed. It also means that blend panels are taken apart and any moldings or nameplates that are being reused are cleaned and retaped now instead of later. The idea is that there is no possibility of finding hidden damage because you’ve uncovered everything. Take the vehicle apart to a level that no one could possibly find anything additional. Yes, this means removing radiators and condensers.

It’s amazing how often you hear the same arguments from people: “The car won’t move if you make me take the radiator out,” “The car will pour fluid all over,” and “Can’t I just leave the radiator and condenser in?” No, 100 percent means 100 percent, so please take them out. We’ll plug or reroute the lines if need be, but yes, they have to come out. You can’t leave any room for error, and there are plenty of things that can be hiding back there.

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Even after all this time, some techs still ask me those questions, and my answer is always the same: “Why are you asking me? You know my answer, yes, take them out.” This includes blend panels, too. Moldings do break, and some are only meant to be used once. Clips often break, and now is the time to get paid for them and get them ordered.

Ordering Parts

The days of ordering parts from whomever and forgetting the car until they come in are over. Part orders need to be immediate, accurate and have guaranteed delivery times. I expect parts to be on the next delivery truck or in the next morning. If for any reason they’re not, I expect my parts vendors to search diligently to get them. Downtime due to parts must be kept to an absolute minimum. Also, don’t assume you’ll have correct and undamaged parts until you physically see them. How many times have you seen left instead of right or the wrong lamp or a cracked lamp? I have plenty of times. I can’t see through cardboard either, and yet sometimes people don’t bother to open the box. This is another example of mistakes occurring right under your nose. You should assume it’s the wrong part in the box until you physically check it. If you check the part and mirror match it as soon as it comes in, you’ll save valuable time instead of the tech finding the mistake as he’s putting the car together.

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Production Plan

One thing I’ve always loved was writing out my production plan. I’m a student of military history and look at my production plan like a battle plan. I always write out my plan after the techs leave for the day and before we set the shop up for the next morning. This is the time to put all the pieces together in an accurate plan for the next morning and get things set up.

Walk the whole shop and see where everyone left off. What got done and what didn’t get done? What problems popped up? Keep in mind that even the best plan has to be fluid, and you need to be open for changes. The production plan is a starting point and a basic plan for the day.

As cars come in or if problems occur, the plan gets updated and changed. The reason I come up with my plan after production ends for the day is because everything is fresh in my mind. If I waited until the next morning, it wouldn’t be fresh in my mind and I might miss a critical piece of the plan. I update the plan several times during the day as opportunities arise. It’s important to look for opportunity and not take cars in a line as they come in because a certain car may come in, a certain hit or a certain color that will change my plan or force me to adapt it. The production plan exists to maximize shop efficiency and assets.

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Quality

The most important of the five steps to a thorough repair process is quality. Without quality, none of this means anything.

I’ve often asked a shop manager what their quality control procedure is, only to see the uncomfortable look on their face. The uncomfortable look comes because all too often, there really isn’t one or it’s not being used. If quality isn’t important to the owner or manager, it won’t be important to anyone else either.

Quality control has to be more than just lip service or a faded sign on the wall. It needs to be a culture and a non-negotiable part of our businesses. There are so many reasons for this, it would take another article to list them. Simply put, why be in this business or call yourself a professional if quality isn’t the most important piece of your operation?

How many of us “think” our shops have good quality versus how many actually do? As leaders, when is the last time we performed a fit and finish and estimate audits on completed vehicles?

Quality needs to be our focus on everything we do, and must be maintained in every facet of the operation. There are several different ways we can monitor in-line quality; the important thing is to choose one, make it mandatory and follow up to ensure it’s being used.

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There is no secret recipe, but you need to start somewhere, and this is surely a good place. Give it a try, and I assure you that there will be less fires to put out.

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