Know Body Shop's Problems to Start Lean Transformation - BodyShop Business

Know Body Shop’s Problems to Start Lean Transformation

Is someone trying to sell you slick lean “tools” before you’ve identified your shop’s problems? Fall into this trap and you may be very disappointed by the outcome.

Over the years, I’ve spent time in many organizations outside of the collision repair industry watching how people work, experiencing their problems and trying to understand how they create solutions. And I have to say that the body technician is just about the most clever of them all.

It’s only a body tech who can accurately use a screwdriver as a hammer. It’s only a body tech who can safely use a two-by-four as an engine support. Maybe it’s because the collision repair industry, to a great extent, has been left out of OEM servicing considerations. Maybe it’s because properly retooling for every change in every model of vehicle isn’t affordable or possible. Whatever the case, it just goes to show that if you want to realize people’s creative capabilities, remove their resources. It’s amazing what people can do when the need exists.

Thankfully, we have some of the most creative people in any industry. However, as we all know, using the wrong tool can have disastrous outcomes. We’ve all gasped at some of the situations we’ve seen people put themselves in. On the other hand, we’ve all found that when you see an exceptionally good tool, it’s obvious that there was a very specific problem for which it was conceived. A gear wrench with a built-in lamp, for example, because it was too hard to illuminate that tough-to-reach spot, let alone get a wrench on it.

Conversely, bad tools tend to be too broad in their intent. The crescent wrench, for example, where one size fits all, but try busting loose a rusty exhaust flange with it. Ouch! Or worse than that, the wrong tool altogether. Can’t you just cut everything off with an acetylene torch? Sure, but does that solve the problem or maybe just create a new one?

Identify the Problem First

For those of you who are implementing lean or thinking about implementing it in your shops, have you done this work yet? First, do you know what you’re trying to create? Do you know your destination? I hope that your goal is not to “be lean,” because being lean is not an end. (Please tell me you don’t have the words “Go Lean!” written on your wall right now under 2010 objectives). Have you developed a complete understanding of the current situation? Do you know what your problems are today? Do you know what obstacles are preventing you from getting closer to your destination? Are you ready to select the right tools for the work at hand?

Too often, I’ve found myself answering the question, “Why does lean cost so much and take so long to do?” The answer is related to the above “selecting tools” analogies. For example, don’t you believe that going blindly into change, whether it’s a new piece of equipment or a new process, is both foolish and irresponsible? If so, is putting tools or solutions in front of “understanding the problems” both wasteful and common? Yes. To a large degree, this is what is happening in our industry today with the interest in going lean. There are a lot of tool salesmen with shiny new models telling you all the wonderful things those tools can do without first identifying both what direction you want to head as an organization and what your current obstacles are.

Where to start? Recognize your problems first, then seek out the appropriate solutions. In the Lean & Meaner, “What’s Your Problem?”, that appeared in the January 2010 issue of BodyShop Business, I spoke about understanding your purpose. The objective was to help you state your values, or your reason for existence. This is where your problems will be discovered, and this is where you need to start in creating your “state of the union” address. For this, you can only look at the issues important to your organization. For example, if cycle time isn’t an objective of yours, then don’t spend any time looking at it. The same goes for LKQ parts use – if it isn’t part of your objective, don’t go there either.

The important point to understand is that you’re all independent business owners with lots of decisions to make about what your organizations should look like, what they should deliver and to whom. These factors make us incredibly different from each other, and thank God for that! These differences allow us to compete with each other and let the market decide where to spend its money. We are not one size fits all. We must each decide what we want to look like individually. If not, we’ll all look even more similar, furthering our slow drift into becoming a commodity. Just ask a glass installer how that’s going. (Clunk…that was me jumping off my soapbox).

A Way of Thinking

So ask yourself this: “What am I trying to get out of going lean? Do I know what that will look like? With what I’ve been told about lean, do these things I’m learning fit into my picture? Do these things address my problems? Do these tools overcome my obstacles?”
As I’ve said before, lean is just a way of thinking. Call it a business strategy. It comes with a large box of tools, with unusual Japanese names that are very clever and exciting to look at. But it also comes with a lot of “experts” who want to put you behind the wheel…tonight. Don’t start hammering with the screwdriver here!

You might also be asking, “Are all lean tools valuable, and do I need to use them all?” The answer is yes, all lean tools can add value to your business, but why would you use them all if they don’t address your problems?

For example, take the tool called 5-S, a system designed to walk you through organizing your business
so that items are easy to find and are in good working order and stay that way.

Does implementing 5-S make your business results better? Okay, you’re thinking, you’re thinking. You can’t answer the question. Why?

First, how do you define the business result? Maybe dirty and disorganized is the goal? Second, maybe your old way worked just as well and you went through a bunch of work for nothing. Do you see what I’m saying here? It’s just a tool that you might use when an organizational problem calls for it.
When Jim Womack and Dan Jones wrote “lean thinking,” they created their list of the five fundamentals of lean. They are:

1. The customer must be the architect of the process.

2. The value you produced must be thoroughly mapped out and understood.

3. The value must then be made to flow through the organization.

4. The customer must then pull the value desired.

5. You must finally pursue perfection, not your competition.

All of this is dead-on, if your objective is to eliminate waste and provide your product or services to the customer with less cost and higher quality. But these fundamentals again are really just tools that you might use to solve the specific problem of slow, low quality and high cost.

What if you have a nearly waste-free way in place already? You can obviously always get better, improving upon what you do today by finding even less wasteful ways, but does this address you as an organization trying to get to some specific destination?

Again, you can’t answer that question unless you’ve clearly defined exactly where you’re trying to go and what purpose you’re trying to serve.

Know Your Purpose

Maybe it’s time for you to reexamine where you are with your lean implementation, or maybe you’re just examining it for the first time. Either way, start with knowing what you want to be as an organization. In other words, for what purpose do you exist? Do you want to serve your community, hand the business over to your children or employees, or just shut the doors at some point and play with your toys? Once your direction is stated, figure out what it is you need to do right now. The real work of Toyota happens right here – and is where problem solving is deployed.

Once you understand this target condition you’re trying to achieve, a deep analysis of the current condition will expose exactly what the next step is. The deeper the examination, the more accurate the next step. Maybe the first step in this scenario is to just turn the organization to face in the right direction and tell your people about where you want to go. Great! That’s the next step. Knowing that, what are the things keeping you from taking that next step right now? Maybe it’s some needed improvement in customer service or efficiency.

Now that you’ve identified the problem that’s currently in front of you, figure out how you can use a lean solution (a lean tool) to help get you there, and when you can see where you must go next after taking that step. Which lean tool will be the right one to use? Which tool will be the right one for the next step? And so on.

It’s simple: Where are you going, what’s the next step on the way, what’s keeping you from taking this step, what will you do now (apply a lean tool, in some cases), and when can you see the result as well as the next step you must take. That’s how you improve. Anything else is just an exercise in your ability to implement something. If you just implement tools, you may or may not see improvement.

Forget Shiny

You must look at your lean education just like you would look at finding a new air compressor. Don’t get mesmerized by all that shine and newness. Look for the right stuff. Make sure that no one is teaching before the problems are identified; make sure that problems come before solutions. Make sure that the focus is on you and your organization’s problems from the start, not some cookie-cutter process that will turn you into the guy down the street (unless the guy down the street is who you want to be).  Make sure the teaching is centered on the thinking, not the tools. And finally, remember that it’s the problems that need to be solved to get better – anything else is a tool sale!

 Thorough, Timely Analysis Brings the Most Effective Solutions
When selecting tools for your business, it becomes obvious that
understanding the existing problems deeply will lead you to making the
best decisions about which ones to use. For example, before buying a
new air compressor, you want to know a lot about how you use air
currently and how you might use it in the future. You want to know
about temperatures and conditions in the area you’re planning on making
air, energy considerations, etc. You would then find the compressor
that fits your needs. But we’ve all seen the shop that just goes out
and purchases the fancy new compressor or the “hyped-up” one without
really understanding what it actually needed first. In most cases, the
shop is ultimately disappointed.

This latter scenario of buying the “hyped-up” machine is what I call
the “solutions-driven” mindset. We see it in all businesses when
dealing with nearly every problem nearly every time. Call it human
nature, but we’re prone to jump to solutions well in advance of truly
understanding the problem. In our work lives, this nearly every time
leads to the same frequent disappointment.

How many times have you gone into a problem head first with the new fix
in hand (after 15 long minutes of contemplation), feeling encouraged
and excited, only to discover next month that the problem has gotten
either negligibly better or no better at all? We’ve all done it because
we’re all action-oriented. As leaders, we don’t have time or resources
to burn on problems – after all, we have work to do (he said

The opposite scenario we see in larger organizations (that do have the
resources to burn) is caused by the condition known as “paralysis by
analysis,” where literally nothing gets done or, by the time a solution
is created, the conditions have changed and the solution has no effect
at all.
At the end of the day, we always find that the most effective solutions
are those created after a thorough but timely analysis of the situation
that leads you to make just the right moves, apply just the right tools
and address just the existing problems that will lead you to your
specific desired outcomes.

Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ ( Along with his business partner, Brad Sullivan, they own and operate collision repair shops inside new car dealerships, as well as consult to the industry. Sweigart has spent 21 years in the collision repair industry and has done everything from being an independent shop owner to a dealership shop manager to a store, regional and, ultimately, national director of operations for Sterling Collision Centers. Both Sweigart and Sullivan have worked closely with former manufacturing executives from Federal-Mogul, Morton Thiokol and Pratt & Whitney in understanding and implementing the principles of the Toyota Production System. You can e-mail Sweigart at [email protected].

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