Got Friction? Metal Department vs. Paint Department - BodyShop Business

Got Friction? Metal Department vs. Paint Department

One of the longest-running battles within a collision repair facility is the one between the metal department and paint department. And in some of the shops I’ve worked with throughout the world, it had escalated past a battle – it was more like a civil war going on between these two main production departments. Each day began and ended with each complaining about the other – with everyone quick to point out everything the other department was doing to hinder production flow and quality workmanship. Unprintable descriptive adjectives were commonplace for how each side felt about the other.

If this seems remotely familiar to what you experience during any given day, then what I’m about to examine will likely help you to make earth-shattering changes in how your daily operations function, as well as boost your bottom line.

Yesterday . . . All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away
Thirty years ago, it was very popular for the same person to perform the body repairs and paint work all by himself. We called them craftsman or combination techs. And even though the combination-man system is still being used in a small percentage of U.S. operations, it’s rare compared to the specialist approach – employing body men (metal technicians), detailers, frame men (structural technicians), paint preppers and painters (refinishing technicians).

Also in the past, the point at which the metal work ended and paint work began didn’t make much difference considering that the same person was doing both and getting paid the total sum. Today, however, it’s extremely important to understand what we refer to as the key “Hand-Off Points” for production – with the one between the metal department and paint department being the one we’ll focus on here.

Even though the movement from combination techs has been taking place for decades – during the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – I’ve worked with large organizations that were still going through this transition as recently as the last few years. During this transition, shop owners need to establish very “exact” guidelines – which normally doesn’t happen, hence all the friction in many shops between the metal and paint departments.

Step 1: Get Customer Focused
Everyone in your organization must become customer focused in order to improve the quality of the product you’re providing and to improve your operation’s hand-off points. This begins by getting everyone in your shop to internalize the core values of your company. Do you have a mission statement that everyone believes in and acts on accordingly? Does it talk about your company’s obligation to its customers? If not, start there.

Then make sure everyone understands the different types of customers you deal with. I’m not talking about if they’re good or bad, grumpy or happy. I’m talking about the basic categories of customers in any business. If a Richard Flint seminar is available in your area, get everyone to it. Flint is a master at getting your organization to internalize this concept.

The bottom line is that, at some point, everyone must recognize that we have external and internal customers to provide our services to every day. External customers include the vehicle owner, the insurer or work provider, and our suppliers. Internal customers include our co-workers in each department of our organization.

If everyone is truly customer focused, everyone has an obligation to satisfy all of their customers.

Though the ultimate customer is the vehicle owner – and this focus dictates on-time delivery and quality workmanship the first time around – many other customers are also involved in the repair process. And we’ve got obligations to all of them. Let’s just look at how this works . . .

The estimator has the shop’s part manager as a customer. He must ensure he produces a proper repair order after the estimates are finalized so the proper parts can be ordered the first time – or the least number of times possible. To accomplish this would normally require a shop owner to implement a staging or blueprinting process in the shop. There, the vehicle could be dismantled and all the damages identified.

But if, at this point, the estimator doesn’t satisfy his customer (the parts manager), then conflicts arise and additional work must be performed. As defined by the Japanese in the Toyota Production System, this is waste and a non-value-adding task.

Drafting a Peace Treaty
When looking at the metal and paint departments, either can be the customer of the other – depending on the type of damage, the work order requirements or stage of the repair the vehicle is in. For example, when parts must be painted or edged before installation, the metal department is the customer of the paint department.

How is your company ensuring that this hand-off process is smooth and timely? Do you have standard operating procedures written and implemented in your shop? If not, begin by allowing all employees in these departments (including the parts department) to sit down to discuss how this is to be done, when and how can it be validated. (You can also find examples in The BOSs at This establishes the first stage of a treaty between the metal and paint departments.

Another source of conflict is when body repair work is handed off to the paint department. This hand-off point is a key source of friction – though it doesn’t have to be. Every paint system has a recommended grit level for the substrate to be at before beginning the paint work. Generally, this is at around 180 grit. Your company simply must establish very clear, precise guidelines on what’s acceptable before the vehicle can leave the metal department. Generally these guidelines will include:

  • All plastic filler is finished to 180 grit.
  • All plastic filler must be the correct contour and straightness.
  • All plastic filler work must be void of pinholes, gouges and scratches coarser than 180 grit.
  • All surrounding paint or primer must be properly featheredged with ultimately 180-grit levels.

During my visits with metal technicians regarding these basic guidelines, I’ve heard just about every possible reason why they challenge compliance to these simple guidelines, such as:

  • “Sanding filler worked to this grit makes it wavy. It was perfect at 80 grit.” (Even better at 36 grit.)
  • “It was straight until the primer was applied.”
  • “It’s impossible to tell if it’s right (straight) unless it’s primed.”
  • “There’s no way to see pinholes until it’s primed.”
  • “The featheredging isn’t important if you put enough primer on it.”

Any of these sound familiar? If so, don’t believe them. The work can be checked without primer. If it appears that pinholes are appearing regularly, then check the products being used and the application techniques of the users. Pinholes shouldn’t be a problem. One of the best ways to ensure this won’t happen as the paint work begins is to run a solvent rag (lacquer thinner works very well) across the bare filler work and featheredge. Pin holes will quickly become visible if they’re there.

On the other hand, if improperly trained paint preppers are allowed to use a power sander over finished filler work, they must be aware of what’s been completed and be properly trained to do what they’re doing. The tools they’re using must also be maintained to the highest level. Nothing ruins good repair work faster than a D/A sander with an un-level (warped) sanding pad on it or a “kid who loves to sand cars.”

After the vehicle is painted, often the metal department again becomes the customer of the paint department at another hand-off point: when the metal technician is to reassemble the vehicle.

But are all the panels painted properly? Are they ready when needed? Have they been properly cured so reassembly can be accomplished without worrying about “soft paint”?

The interactions of these two departments are some of the key areas where production efficiency and throughput can be improved. Improving the hand-off process will almost certainly improve operations and assist in meeting the vehicle owner’s (your ultimate customer’s) expectations of quality and timeliness.

This is why spending sufficient time to get these two departments together at solving hand-off problems and not placing blame should be a primary focus of management.

Job Aids and Tools for Implementation
Often we assume that everyone just “knows” what’s expected. This is a fatal fallacy for any owner or manager to believe. Why do hand-off problems occur in the first place? Is it because the technicians just want to do poor work? I don’t think so – and neither should you.

Setting proper expectations for all hand-off points is critical for your organization to continue to improve and to reduce errors, waste and non-value-adding tasks. Take the time to produce “live examples” of properly finished filler work, featheredging and priming stages, guide coats and refinished panels. But make sure everyone has input in identifying and “believing in” the standards.

When new people come into your organization, have the standards in place visually and then spend the time during their “induction training” to reinforce company expectations and all the customer’s expectations.

Another key piece to implementation is a “job control device.” This tool is a form that follows the vehicle through the process with the “work order” to ensure that each hand-off is completed and accepted by the next department (the customer of the prior department). This tool validates that the processing is following your company’s standards and can be used to measure your organization’s effectiveness.

There are many variations of this tool. Some shops have used the work order and a checklist to validate that each operation has been completed. This may or may not be what I’m referring to as a job control form, depending on how it’s used during production.

The work order example is often simply a checklist for the department performing their work tasks and is basically a reminder. A job-control form is a hand-off tool that may also include reviewing the work order to ensure that all prior work has been completed to company standards. The key difference is that it’s used by the next department to validate prior work before acceptance.

This process of defining hand-off points and validation procedures is used in many production systems and is well-defined in the ISO 9000:2000 quality standards. Check out and for further explanations and how this process improves quality, consistency and customer focus.

Using these tools throughout your shop will also improve efficiency by reducing or eliminating waste of redos and comebacks, making everyone more money and the customers happier.

Other Challenges: Your Estimating System
Another aspect to the metal and paint department hand-off is how estimating systems calculate the estimated times for certain operations. It’s no secret that paint times for panels in the estimating system are for new, undamaged parts. And this allotted time is based on a set number of operations required to prepare that panel for painting and applying the topcoats. Anything over an above-required would be considered not included in that panel’s allotted time from the estimating system.

But there could be a possibility of additional operations to consider. They could include multi-stage topcoats, special colors, protective areas, two-tone operations and other special needs. These are all based on using a paint system’s procedures, but not necessarily your system. It boils down again to the fact that the estimate and the estimating guides – whether manual or computerized – are just what they say they are: an estimate of damages and a set of guidelines.

For years, there’s also been a question as to where the primer filler application and blocking of such repaired panels comes in. We all agree that it isn’t in the estimating system’s paint times, so where is it? In many cases, it could be buried with cost shifting. Or it could already be in the metal-repair times listed, in another repair operation, partially in the material allowance or even listed as a panel to paint or repair (a panel that’s even not damaged).

This requires looking at a specific vehicle very carefully to determine if any other procedures are necessary for that given repair. This cannot be determined by an estimating system in all cases since the variables are too numerous. Unfortunately, shops often cost shift to get these additional items as part of the total sum, but not listed separately. Hopefully our industry will someday rise above this and follow the Collision Industry Conference’s (CIC’s) Best Practices “Guidelines for Estimating and Processing Auto Physical Damage Claims.” To view these best practices, log on to

Establishing a New Type of Teamwork
One possible additional technique to improve this transition is to create a new type of team based on metal technicians and paint preppers, rather than paint preppers and painters (who now become sprayers). This team will operate just as other teams would, other than the prepper and metal technician work together to ensure the work quality all the way to the final preparation stage, which is before topcoat applications and its hand-off.

What we’ve found is that it may require two metal technicians to support one paint prepper or at least a metal team of one Level 3 technician, two Level 1 technicians and one paint preparation technician.

This arrangement improves production flow and eliminates some of the common friction points in the process and hand-off. It also adds the flexibility to use roll-on primer application in the metal department instead of spraying, as well as staggering shifting for priming in the evening to maximize the time the building isn’t being used for drying. This technique has been used by a number of my clients. It would be most effective, however, if the shop layout and design were built to maximize this approach.

Some have believed it difficult to separate the paint hours in these cases, but in reality, it’s rather simple. We’ve found that the paint labor amounts received on well-written estimates today really breaks down to 60 percent preparation; 30 percent mixing, verifying colors and spraying; and 10 percent detailing. This formula may vary slightly depending on to what stage you break out operations, but it’ll be close.

Incentives that Promote Proper Hand-Off
Undoubtedly, basic flat-rate pay systems promote the individual and not the throughput of the total operation or its customer focus. This will be a hard, long road for many to change. If, however, the incentive was based on not only how many labor units can be produced in a day by an individual, but also on how effective the process was in producing vehicles on time without defects and in satisfying all customers, we’d all be further ahead. This may sound unrealistic to you right now, but trust me, this key change would alter the culture of your staff almost overnight.

Any incentive you choose will quickly become the primary focus of your staff. Today, we encourage the metal department to just push cars (which builds inventory) – not to get more vehicles out the door. In fact, it costs you more to have cars in inventory waiting to be refinished and completed than not having them at all. Why? Because you’re holding these vehicles (space costs money), parts have been ordered and some even paid for, and the technicians may have been paid for some or all of the job, depending on your company’s payment terms.

Promoting teamwork between all departments has definite impact on business operations. Promoting teamwork between the two main departments – the metal and paint departments – will certainly improve throughput and your bottom line dramatically.

A Peaceful, New Beginning
The bottom line is that everyone in your organization must believe that they have an effect on the final quality of the repairs and the profitability of the company. This also translates into their livelihood and into their level of commitment to the industry. Operations that have figured this out have great two-way communication within their walls and have much happier employees, managers and owners because they’re all reaping the benefits.

The lines can be drawn many ways between these two main departments, but in reality, bodymen and painters should not be enemies. What they should be is working for the same company goals. Anything short of this will create chaos and cost you money.

Contributing Editor Tony Passwater is president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company. He’s been in the industry for more than 27 years; has been a collision repair facility owner, vocational educator and I-CAR international instructor; and has taught seminars across North America, Korea and China. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611, ext. 101, or at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at for more information.

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