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Life in the Fast Lane

The latest industry buzzwords — speed lanes, cycle times, process efficiency — all focus on repairing cars faster. Fast is hot; slow is not. As we ring in the new millennium, we may also be ringing in the era of rapid repairs.

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With ever-increasing regularity, our day-to-day lives are introduced to new trends. From the hula-hoops of the late ’50s, to the Starbucks, www.coms and PokéMon cards of the late ’90s, it seems like there’s always something new to set the world buzzing.

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And the world of collision repair is no different. It has its own trends that occasionally stimulate emotion and commentary. From the introduction of high-dollar downdraft paint booths, unibody repair equipment and computer management systems in the early ’80s to the evolution of the direct-repair program (DRP), tough environmental regulations and industry consolidators of the ’90s, there’s always something for us to write about or put on the agenda at the next industry conference.

As we approach the new millennium, this is more true than ever. We find ourselves listening to industry experts and pundits reporting the latest trend they predict is about to impact the world of collision repair. And it usually comes with its own assortment of terminology, such as "fast track production," "advanced production systems," "speed lanes," "cycle time," "process efficiency," "turn rate," etc.

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Call it what you will, what they’re all talking about is fixing cars faster.

There are many reasons why the interest in what I call Rapid Processing Technology™ (RPT) has started gaining momentum. For larger body shops, particularly those with multiple locations, maintaining and developing DRP relationships has become paramount to quenching their thirst for the high volume of jobs necessary to maximize their production capacity. Having a quick turnaround time will inevitably interest insurance companies, since it will make policyholders happy and reduce rental-car costs.

Even if you’re not crazy about DRPs, most experts agree that RPT can give your shop a competitive edge by enabling you to offer a "curb to curb" completion time — in as little as 48 hours — on a high percentage of repairs! Imagine being able to say, "Mr. Jones, if you drop off your car on Tuesday by 5 p.m., we’ll fix it and have it ready for you by Thursday at 5 p.m."

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For a $2,000 job that typically takes a week or two to process, this 48-hour turnaround seems like an impossible feat. And for the typical shop, it probably is. Still, as the awareness and understanding of RPT increases, it may eventually become the rule rather than the exception. If that happens, offering it may eventually become essential to the survival of your business.


The Keys to Reducing Process Time
The objective of RPT is to substantially reduce process time — the combined total of the actual time taken to administrate and produce the finished product. The critical components of RPT and their level of importance is best illustrated with the RPT Pyramid™ (see diagram).

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To repair motor vehicles, various resources are necessary, including tools and equipment, a building, parts and materials, technicians, etc. While all of these resources are essential to production in general, it’s vital that they’re put into perspective in terms of their level of importance. An understanding of the RPT Pyramid™ and how it differs from the conventional Production Pyramid is especially important if RPT is to be clearly understood — and ultimately implemented.
The five-level Pyramid places in order of importance the challenges that potential RPT shops will need to overcome in the future.

• Equipment resources accommodate the level at the top of the pyramid. Having the right tools and equipment to do the job will be essential to successful implementation of RPT. Note: Even though this is only a small component in the grand scheme of things, there’s a tendency to expect the equipment to fix more production problems than it was ever designed to fix.

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• Facility resources is the fourth-floor level. Careful attention must be given to the layout, design, equipment locations, traffic-flow patterns and production environment in general (i.e. space organization, lighting, air quality and noise control). As with equipment resources, the expectations of the facility resources are often seriously overrated. A strong belief exists that equipment and facilities hold the key to RPT. (And often vast sums of money are spent here before we realize this just isn’t the case.)

• Parts and materials resources occupy the third level of the pyramid. There’s no argument about the correlation between having access to the right parts and materials and the successful implementation of RPT. And understanding the impact of parts replacement vs. repair is important not only to the profitability of a job, but also to the reduction of the process time — which is the very objective of RPT.

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• Management resources, located on the second level, is a major component of the Pyramid and of the whole concept of RPT. Without a clear understanding of this resource, the time, attention and money spent on the upper floors of the Pyramid will, at best, be watered down — or, at worst, canceled out.

Management resources relate to the level of organization, administration and control applied to the business of repairing cars. For the body shop owners and managers who have yet to understand even the fundamentals of modern-day body shop management, the successful implementation of RPT will be out of reach. It goes beyond the fundamentals and requires an understanding of the disciplines necessary to achieve previously unattainable levels of administration and production efficiency. Critical path planning, vehicle damage classifications, production staging and strategic production planning are among the plethora of terms that make up the language of RPT. For many, it will be a new language to learn; for some, it will be a language they’ll never understand.

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• Manpower resources is the first level — the very foundation of the Pyramid; it addresses the technicians who carry out the production process. It’s here where we encounter the greatest challenges to the successful implementation of RPT.

The first challenge isn’t necessarily exclusive to RPT, but it’s still vital to making it work. It relates to solving a number of interrelated personnel problems pertaining to hiring, motivating and retaining employees — the ongoing issues of, "We just can’t get good help" or "They want a big paycheck, but they’re not willing to work for it" or "I train them, and then they leave to go work for my competitor."

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Before solutions to these problems can be implemented, there must be an acceptance that, like it or not, they are employer problems, not industry or employee problems. They’re primarily caused by the fact that most body shop owners and managers were once technicians, and few were trained to deal with personnel problems such as these. The answers to these challenges, therefore, lie in management education.

The second challenge is even greater. Those shops that are able to successfully implement RPT and achieve the greatest reduction in process times will be those that can change the way technicians are deployed in the production process.

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Ever since body shops were invented, a culture of individualism has existed. Today, assigning "one man to one job" dominates body shop production. This effectively eliminates the option of deploying the available manpower resources to any job at any time to maximize output and maintain schedules. In most of today’s shops, putting more than one technician to work on any one job would create chaos and confusion. Like a square peg in a round hole, one of the key elements of RPT doesn’t fit into today’s body shop culture.

Changing the culture of a company is about changing the employees’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and understanding about the way production should be organized. But unlike equipment, square footage, parts and materials, etc., changes to culture can’t be purchased. There are no shortcuts or canned solutions, but it can be done.

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Think of developing a new culture as producing a fine wine. Several things need to happen in a predetermined and specific order. From providing the right environment, cultivating the soil and planting the vine to the fermenting, bottling and aging process, there is no shortcut. Sure, they could skip a step here and there, but the end result would never be as good. A natural process of growth must be respected to produce the finest wines.

The same goes for collision repair. It’s possible to change the way the repair process is organized and executed in the shop, but it requires the same sensitivity to the natural process of growth. A new company culture requires the right environment and must be carefully cultivated with the various steps recognized and then implemented in a predetermined and specific order.


A Rapidly Changing Industry
So is RPT just a lot of hype? I don’t think so. It’s already getting attention from the auto manufacturers and larger body shops, particularly those with multiple locations. Many people in the industry recognize the advantages of RPT, although few truly understand how it works. Undoubtedly, many will attempt to implement it. Some will fail; some will succeed; and some will continue to believe it’s just a lot of hype.

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Is RPT really going to change the way cars are fixed in the future? Not necessarily, although there’s an urgent need for the collision repairer to adapt and change repair techniques to stay current with the way cars are manufactured and to achieve the maximum possible reduction in process time.

It’s important to realize that RPT isn’t about breaking down the collision repair process into a series of menial tasks that can be carried out by minimum-wage employees. To the contrary, repairing cars will continue to require the skill and experience of qualified technicians. Some industry experts who extol the virtues of "McDonaldization" ignore the increasing intricacies of the repair process. However, the advent of RPT may well change the way body shops are organized and managed in the future.

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I can’t help but compare the concept of RPT with the "team concept" introduced to the collision repair industry in the early ’80s. Because many body shop owners and managers recognized the potential advantages but failed to understand the complexities involved, most gave up when they couldn’t make it work. The collision repair industry is now a little older and a little wiser — which is just as well, since giving up on RPT may not be an option.

Writer Brian S. Evison, CCRM, is the owner and technical director of Bemack Planning Services, a California-based consulting company specializing in collision repair facility planning and pioneering RPT. Evison is also a licensed teacher of post-secondary education and is a co-founder and instructor at Masters School of Autobody Management.

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