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Hail Isn’t a Four-Letter Word Anymore

After one hail of a storm, this shop’s paint department couldn’t keep up and productivity grinded to a halt. In this month-by-month account — penned by the shop’s production manager — we hear all about the gridlock that occurred, the sleepless nights spent racking her brain for a solution and the teamwork system now in place that’s increased cycle time and boosted shop sales.

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Hi there! I’m the production manager at Zara’s Collision Center and am responsible for keeping all jobs on track and managing the shop staff. I’m an eight-year veteran with Zara’s. I follow each job from beginning to end, and I’m always striving to have a more efficient repair process so our customers will have their vehicles returned to them in the shortest amount of time possible, with the best quality results. All seminars I’ve attended and all literature I’ve read concerning paint department bottlenecks sound good but are so hypothetical that in a real situation like ours, didn’t work.

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Though we haven’t completely eliminated paint shop bottlenecks, we’ve developed a system to help us utilize our space and people more efficiently. In fact, these days, we’re getting jobs done early.

But before I tell you about our new process, let me give you a little background on how we used to run the shop.

Historically, our paint shop ran smoothly because cars got finished on time — but that doesn’t mean it

couldn’t have been run better. There were maybe one or two days that a car was sitting from body to paint, but I’d sometimes give those jobs to preppers, who could turn them around quicker. (At times, I’d pull preppers off jobs that were going out next week to get a smaller job done that just came in the door but needed to go out sooner. Sometimes, however, our preppers were totally stacked with work, so I had to call the customer to delay the completion date.)

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Our four preppers had staggered work hours with two of them starting at 6 a.m. and working until 3 p.m., and two starting at 8 a.m. and working until 5 p.m. That way, from 6 to 8 a.m., two preppers had two prep stations available, and from 3 to 5 p.m., the other two preppers had two prep stations available to them. The early morning preppers were getting a lot done before the "crowd" came into work because they didn’t get caught up in the early morning gossip. As soon as they got here, they went right to work. The ones who stayed later would unload or load up things in the booth so they could get painted after they went home, and our painter always stayed to get those things done. It was a nice flow — but it was always on the edge of being out of control, especially if someone called in sick or additional work needed to be done that wasn’t included on the original estimate.

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Mother Nature sent us over that edge.

The story I’m about to tell you (in the form of my journal) — and the solution we came up with — were both made possible because of a hail storm that forced us to re-evaluate the way we ran our paint department.

April 2001
Just when I thought we had our paint department running smoothly — and I use that term loosely — we got hit with a hail storm. This softball-size hail was so bad that it did severe damage, so most of the damaged vehicles weren’t candidates for paintless dent repair. It either totaled them or called for repair and refinishing of the car.

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"Hail" is a four-letter word when it comes to working in the paint department at a body shop — at least in my book.

Trying to be proactive, we’ve come up with a plan of scheduling three hail jobs a week. No more than that. We have four preppers, one painter, seven body technicians and one mechanic. We know that three hail jobs a week are all we can handle. Suddenly, we’re bombarded with non-driveable vehicles, and the phone doesn’t stop ringing with people needing their driveable cars fixed before the family vacation The bodymen are happy — they have work galore — and the paint department, well, they’re always busy but for the most part, they can usually keep up.

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May 2001
I’m miserable. We have way too much work here. I can’t sleep at night. I stay awake thinking about everything that needs done. We have too much coming in, and we’re squeezing in a couple more hail jobs a week on top of the three per week we’re already doing. We got six towed in over the holiday weekend — all repairable! And one of our preppers decided he isn’t cut out for this kind of work. I’m calling our customers scheduled for next week to see if I can delay them a week. Some will be willing to change their repair dates; some won’t.

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The bodymen are still pumping out the work to the paint department, but the paint department is completely snowed under. But our painter isn’t busy at all. Why can’t we keep him busy? The preppers look busy, but everything is getting done at a trickle pace. We’re in a mess!

End of May 2001
Brad Zara, our owner, and I meet. He feels my pain. He’s been in my shoes before. Fortunately, he has great visions. And right now he has a good one. We talk about his idea. It sounds good — and it’s easy enough that no major restructuring needs to be done. Now I have to present it to the techs.

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We call them all in on a Monday morning. They’re apprehensive because they don’t know what to expect. Brad starts by telling them something they already know: We have work that isn’t getting out the door. After the bodyman finishes with it, it may be a week before the paint department touches it. Brad’s idea is to team up a bodyman with a prepper, and they’ll work exclusively with each other.

GROAN … They aren’t excited.

We get out our charts showing the metal department’s efficiency vs. the paint department’s efficiency. Metal department efficiency, on average, is about 170 percent, while the paint department’s is about 130 percent. But when broken down by daily hours produced, they were just about the same.

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They perk up a little. They seem interested.

We then tell them that we have a pair in mind who we want to try teaming up for a month. (We presented the idea to each of those individuals the day before). We matched them by personalities, by abilities and by how well they’d interacted with each other before.

The bodyman we chose is extremely efficient. The prepper isn’t; he’s our social butterfly. But his abilities are the best. The bodyman was concerned about it effecting his efficiency. We told him it’s a push-pull idea. Peer pressure in the workplace. The prepper needed to feel accountable for what needed to get done. What better way than one of his peers. We went on to explain that no pay rates would change — that it should only increase efficiency. For example: A bodyman is assigned a job, parts are checked in and immediately given to the prepper. The bodyman goes over with the prepper what he needs edged, etc. If the bodyman is still disassembling, pulling, etc., and the prepper is ready for the car, the prepper can get started on the job the bodyman will be doing next. When the bodyman is ready to turn over the first car to the prepper, then the bodyman can start on the job the prepper has parts edged for. If the bodyman gets caught up and the prepper is behind, then the bodyman may have to jump in to block or tape up a car before it goes in the booth.

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The prepper can also be sanding for blending purposes on adjacent panels or nibbing for buffing, while the bodyman still works on that particular car. If need be, the prepper can do some light assembly work, helping to put on the bumper or to put a door together. But that would be rare. The idea is that the bodyman can never get far enough ahead that what he’s working on doesn’t involve the prepper.

June 2001 — Week 1
It’s the end of the first week with our new team idea. I’ve never seen our prepper work so hard and produce so much. It’s working out just how we thought it would. Our bodyman has really taken on a leadership role, and I’m out of the loop. Before this system, I’d go over the job when I first assigned it to the bodyman, and when his role was complete, he’d return it to me. Then, when I assigned it to a prepper, I’d go over it again with him. Now the bodyman goes over exactly what needs to be done with the prepper. I went from going over the job twice to being completely out of the loop.

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Cars are beginning to move through the shop at a higher speed. A couple jobs took four days instead of five. And I’m finally getting a full night’s sleep — there is a way out of this mess.

We’re going to give it another week before we start a new team. I’ve placed an ad in the paper for another prepper, possibly two if I can get someone with experience. The bodyman even took Friday off. He explained to the prepper what needed to be done so on Monday he could begin reassembly of cars in progress. I’m impressed!

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June 2001 — Week 2
Monday morning. Our prepper gets hurt, and he’s off for a week. I have to re-group. I choose another prepper to fill in because I don’t want to get off track. The prepper I’ve chosen is fast anyway, so it isn’t much of a stretch for him to keep up with the bodyman.

Everything continues to run smoothly with this new team idea. We’ve also been fortunate to hire another prepper — although, in the meantime, we lost one, too. He saw what was happening and knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up. He was always a low producer.

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June 2001 — Week 3
Our injured prepper is back, and we’ve got him teamed back up with his original bodyman. We feel we’re ready to start a new team. This new team we’ve chosen consists of a bodyman and prepper who are both in their 40s and have quiet temperaments. We feel they’ll be a good match. I go over the expectations with each technician individually and let them know they’ll be working exclusively with each other.

By the end of the week, the prepper is getting parts from the bodyman to be edged way before the car is even ready for him, so the sheet metal can be hung. The bodyman is dismantling the car, while the prepper is sanding adjacent panels for a blend in the bodyman’s stall. It’s amazing to watch. They’re working hand in hand.

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The other technicians are observing this all the while, and the bodymen are beginning to request certain preppers.

Since this is going to be somewhat of a marriage, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take their input into consideration. They’re picking who I would’ve put them with anyway. I just don’t let them know that.

June 2001 — Week 4

Our new prepper starts work. He has a lot of experience, so the training process won’t take long. During this period, cars are continuing to move through the shop at a higher speed. We’ve even called customers to see if they can bring in their vehicles early for repairs. Our backlog — once six weeks — is down to three.

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I still have four more teams to work on, but the groundwork has been laid. I’m taking it slow because I want some of the unbelievers to be sold on this idea, and I want to make sure the pairings are the best ones possible. One step at a time.

July 2001
We have three teams in place and three left to go. It’s late one afternoon as I look outside. The sky is very dark, like looking at a midnight sky. The wind is beginning to blow, and as we listen to the radio, they report we’re in for a big hail storm.

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Let it hail.

Hail is no longer a four-letter word to me. I’ve begun to see it as an opportunity to bring more work in the door and to do what I never thought was possible: to get it out the door.

We’ve looked our worst nightmare in the face and have made subtle enough changes as to not disrupt anyone’s working styles. In fact, pairing them up with someone else has enhanced them, pushed them and made each one of them leaders within their individual teams.

October 2001
The biggest change we’ve made is to start assigning two bodymen to one prepper. We pair a high-volume bodyman and an average-producing bodyman with one prepper. It allows the time spent on big jobs to continue with the high-volume bodyman who really pumps out the work (whose efficiency is always more than 200 percent), while the prepper is being fed smaller jobs by the average-producing bodyman. The average-producing bodyman — whose efficiency fluctuates from 140 to 170 percent — now works at a more even pace. If the high-volume bodyman is on a big job, then the average-producing bodyman continues to feed the prepper work until the big job is totally ready to go to the prepper.

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I decided to assign two bodymen to one prepper because, first of all, I didn’t have one prepper for every bodyman, but I did have a good mix of fast producers vs. average producers. So I figured by mixing the two types of bodymen and assigning them to one prepper, we’d always be able to keep the prepper busy. Otherwise, the preppers were at a standstill while waiting for the vehicle itself to get to them after they finished with the edging of parts, etc.

I had to invest in a 6-foot-tall dry erase board for the paint department because as soon as a job is assigned to the bodyman, it’s assigned to the paint department as well. Before the three or four jobs the preppers had in progress were the ones on the board, multiplied by four preppers was 16 jobs — at the most — on the board. Right now, it’s a Thursday afternoon at 4:30, and I just counted 31 jobs on the board in progress — and the preppers already know what’s going on with them. Before, I would never put jobs on the board until I was able to assign them to the paint department, and I wasn’t able to assign them to the paint department until I actually assigned them to a prepper. Now, once it’s assigned to the bodyman, it immediately goes on the board because I’ve essentially assigned it to that team, which involves the paint department.

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This is truly an easy system. It’s really working well, and the guys really like it. I’m sitting here trying to think of a downside to it — and I can’t. A

Writer Kim Woolard is production manager at Zara’s Collision Center in Springfield, Ill.

The System Works
Since going to a team concept, Zara’s generates $1,775 in additional labor sales per week.

To measure shop cycle time, we at Zara’s use how many hours we produce per day per job. This is the only way to make a consistent comparison with the varying size of the jobs. (The basis is still from the day it came in until the day it goes out.)

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Comparing one month without all teams in place and one full month with all our teams in place, we were averaging 3.7 hours per day on cars and have now increased to 4.2 hours per day on cars. Bear in mind this is "true" labor hours produced each day.

Since we’re increasing our labor time spent on these cars and since our labor sales are almost half of our total sales, we’re generating $1,775 per week in additional labor sales. This is one more car a week based on our average job size.

And this is just the beginning. Using our old system, there was no way of increasing productivity without adding people and space. But by using our new team method and by making a few small changes, we were able to increase sales without spending more money.

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