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Cycle Time: The Most Important KPI

Can we game the system to improve cycle time? Sure. But how about we simply fix cars faster?

Carl Wilson has been painting for nearly 30 years, with formal training from the GM Training Center, ASE, I-CAR and multiple product and color courses. He currently works as a trainer/consultant for Hi-Line Distributors in Oahu, Hawaii. He can be reached at [email protected]

In our body shop world, there are dozens of metrics we’re measured by. We know them as key performance indicators or KPIs:

  • Used/new part ratio
  • Repair/replace ratio
  • Severity
  • Keys-to-keys
  • Touch time
  • Ounces of paint per refinish hour
  • Labor hours per RO
  • Refinish hours per booth cycle
  • Booth cycles per day

In any given shop, with any current pursuit, we might find any one of these as the focus of our attention. But if I were just starting the journey of improvement and wanted to concentrate on just one as a means of continued improvement, I would place my bets on cycle time – a consistent race winner across both DRP and non-DRP shops.

Call it by whatever makes sense to you or your insurance partners: cycle time, keys-to-keys, length-of-rental. But we all know it means fixing cars faster. Can we game the system? Sure, turn zero-day repairs into overnighters with one-day rentals and use those one-day repairs to lower the average length-of-rental – but come on, we can easily turn counting cards into an administrative headache, and we have enough of those. How about we simply fix cars faster? But…what is our cycle time goal?

Based on a report by Dan Friedman, an executive at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the average length-of-rental for the first quarter of 2019 Q1 was 12.8 days. We want to at least mirror that – but beating it by a single day is better. Two, more so. Let’s examine cycle time killers and explore possible solutions.

Scheduling

Scheduling may well be the most challenging aspect of a consistent flow and, in my opinion, one of the top three cycle time killers. Too much work. Not enough work. Too many train wrecks. Techs on vacation. Unexpected tow-drops. And on it goes. What, if anything, can we do to arrest the unpredictability of the workload? Schedule the work according to capacity – but more on this in a bit.

We’ve all seen in decades past – and perhaps still practice – grabbing every job possible, as many keys as we can, feeling smug and safe with a lot full of work. But if a repair process cannot be started right away, we lose cycle time days. Equally disastrous is allowing body techs to “tear down” everything in sight, effectively peeing on the job and claiming it – regardless of whether it makes sense from a cycle time perspective. Even if it is assigned to the tech for teardown and an initial RO upload for DRP compliance purposes, having too many disabled, torn-down vehicles in the shop hinders movement and productivity. We used to call it “feast or famine” before we learned that we do indeed have a little control over it.

Before we can schedule effectively, we need to know our capacity. It’s good to know our average daily billable hours, so we can multiply that by the number of days of our cycle time goal and know with certainty the sweet spot between too much and too little work we have on the property. Even better is to break that number down further, to total body and paint labor hours a day. And then by tech. This detail allows us to adjust the schedule when one of our three techs is on vacation. With 30% of our body labor unavailable, doesn’t it make sense to either a) adjust the schedule accordingly or b) huddle up the body techs and inform them of some temporary OT. If you choose “a,” then it might be wise to also huddle up the paint shop and ensure they’re aware of a temporarily diminished workload. This allows them to decide if now is the time for their own time off, or to fill the gap with a week to make progress on the owner’s 1963 Impala project. Either way, communicate.

Additionally, it’s not enough to know our daily labor hour average. For example, if we can produce 100 hours a day, we can’t schedule all side mirror replacement jobs. It’s not reasonable to expect we’ll punch out 30 of those in a day, even if we had 30 to try. Likewise, we can’t have five 100-hour train wrecks and think we’ve got the week covered. We need balance in the workload. Segregate jobs by severity, perhaps four classes:

1) Less than $1,000
2) $1,000-$4,000
3) $5,000-$10,000
4) Greater than $10,000

This is naturally a bit subjective, but it serves as a starting point. Adjust it as it makes sense to your operation. The goal is to create a daily balance of work through the body techs who steadily feed the paint shop, while maintaining forward motion on the big hits.

Naturally, scheduling is not that simple. We know no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and we have two we cannot control: tow-drops and estimate-swell. While the tow-drops may well be unpredictable, we can and should anticipate estimate swell by scheduling 20% or so less than our capacity. That was a long-winded way of saying, “Plan the work and work the plan.”

Supplements and Parts

I believe supplements are tied for second along with parts as cycle time killers. We’ll address them congruently, as the solution ties them together.
It’s pretty simple why we have supplements: something was missed on the estimate. That will happen – there’s no way to get every part and labor operation on the first estimate. However, we can do a fairly decent job having only one supplement. This has been demonstrated over and over in shops all across the country, but it does require changing the old model of teardown into a newer model of disassembly.

Whatever you want to call it, when the vehicle is disassembled in its entirety, then all damage is revealed and every part required for reassembly is identified. This is easier than it may sound, but it does require a paradigm shift from our decades-old thinking. We can’t simply remove the damaged door, leaving it intact for the transfer of parts to the new door later. We must also disassemble that damaged door so if a clip or fastener is broken, it is identified and becomes part of the single supplement up front, as opposed to on the day of delivery during put-together.

Organization of the removed and new parts becomes an integral part of making this system work. We have to stop with the practice of storing parts in the vehicle itself. They need to be stored in a fashion that makes reassembly intuitive, i.e. left-side front-door parts and fasteners stored in a labeled bag/bin alongside but separated from the left-side rear-door parts and fasteners, which are stored next to the left-side quarter panel clips and taillight.

It isn’t enough to order parts in a timely fashion; we must inspect them promptly as well. As elementary as that sounds, checking in the parts early is not universal. They all get checked eventually, hopefully not by the body tech when they need it. If the part is inspected at the time of drop-off (best case, but not always possible), then it can be rejected if it’s damaged or the wrong part. This saves us administrative time and money by not processing a “return” later. If inspected after delivery, but prior to needing it, then there is likely time to deal with an incorrect/damaged part before put-together on the day of delivery.

Perhaps the best example I witnessed for making the case to mirror-match was this: a rear door on a quad-cab truck was written for replacement. The door was ordered, received and painted off the vehicle, and the appropriate blends were made. When the body tech attempted to hang the door, he realized it was for the opposite side. Somehow, the wrong door was ordered (perhaps packaged wrong, but not likely) and, from receiving, inspecting and painting it, that fact was missed – an unusual scenario to be sure. Was everyone out to lunch? The moral of the story? Not mirror-matching and inspecting parts as soon as possible hurts cycle time.

Communication Breakdown

So ambiguous and ubiquitous is communication (or lack of it) that it almost seems like a cop-out to state it. So, let’s drill into it and simmer it down to the goal: giving the customer what they expect, when they expect it, in a profitable fashion. To be sure, the customer may not know what they expect, and it is part of our job to communicate the proper expectations
to them.

For an easy example, factory bumper covers seldom match the body color, yet it takes customers by surprise that they are not perfect upon completion. This is a failure to effectively communicate to the customer – at the time of drop-off – the proper expectation of bumper/vehicle match. This will typically result in a repaint – even if the bumper color is already within the allowable range of mismatch, all because we failed to set the proper expectation up front. Add a day or two to cycle time!

Or what about the dent, scratch or broken molding that is not accident-related but the customer wanted fixed? For whatever reason, the info did not make it to the floor of the shop, and now the job is rejected during delivery. Add a day or two to cycle time!

We’ve already covered wrong/damaged parts, but this also falls under “communication.” Are due dates being effectively communicated and updated to the floor of the shop? There are two angles here: first, are we working on the pertinent jobs? Are we painting jobs that can be assembled tomorrow and delivered, or are we painting vehicles that have a crucial part for reassembly on back order? This ties into No. 2: claiming that, at all costs, “this must be painted tonight for tomorrow’s delivery” – only to find out that there are missing parts. You can’t expect a painter to continually sacrifice his family on the altar of work for jobs that “had to go” but couldn’t for whatever reason without developing a “to-hell-with-it, paint-it-tomorrow” attitude. Add another day or two of cycle time!

Are the proper repair procedures being communicated in a timely manner? Does the proper procedure require any special tools or material? Is the job waiting for those tools or materials? Here’s an illustration to drive this point home: when Ford rolled out their aluminum-bodied F-150 a few years ago, the procedure for replacing a bedside was different than how the factory built it. I witnessed a shop cut off the old bedside and trim and prepare for welding on the new one, even though the repair procedure required that they glue and rivet it back together. They had neither the proper material or approved rivet gun to complete the repair. I believe they had to add four days to that job as they scrambled to rent a tool from a competitor shop.
Closing the file promptly is a no-brainer but I feel like I have to mention it. Because even though this process can be reduced significantly if we consistently update and even pre-close the file, many shops do not do this. Eliminating multiple supplements will also demonstratively reduce the time it takes to close a file.

Summary

You may notice that with the exception of communication, which is universal, the common theme of cycle time killers is administrative: scheduling, supplements and parts. Yes, there are additional areas to focus on as well, so we’ll look at procedures in the shop where efficiencies can improve touch time – and ultimately cycle time – in my next article. BSB

Carl Wilson has over 30 years in the industry as a painter and technical rep. He can be reached at [email protected].

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