Mistake-Proof Your Process - BodyShop Business

Mistake-Proof Your Process

Mistake-proofing your business is all about eliminating the guesswork and making it easier to do things the right way rather than the wrong way.

Time after time in conversations with shop owners, new vehicle dealers, insurers, consultants or anyone else who’s trying to establish a standard way to work, someone inevitably declares, “We’ve come up with a million great ideas in the past, but the real problem is in the execution.” You know what I’m talking about – it’s that same old problem of things just falling apart or going back to the old way after only a few weeks. We’ve all lived through it. Frankly, not being able to take the failure anymore is probably the single biggest reason why people just give up on change after awhile.

So how do companies that are continually improving and changing their processes deal with this issue? How is it that they can pull it off and others can’t? How do the most aggressive achievers of improvement, Toyota, for example, make it happen? Clearly it’s a problem that Toyota had to face if it was ever going to pull off building a business of rapid and continual improvement.

Some would say that a critical key to the success of companies like Toyota lies in their cultural differences. The images of Japanese workers performing calisthenics and singing songs of praise for the boss each morning are evoked. While respect and discipline are probably higher up on the value scale in Japanese culture, this alone isn’t enough to achieve the level of speed and accuracy with which companies like Toyota can make changes…and ones that stick. Just look at Toyota in the U.S.: it’s a fact that they’ve successfully implemented continual improvement that mirrors that of Toyota City’s best facilities, and all with American employees. So what is it they’re doing to be able to get over that hump, and how do they make change stick?

Making Change Stick
The ability to make change stick was itself one of the major improvements developed by Toyota. In attempting to rapidly change/improve processes, it was discovered that time and again, the desired outcome was just not happening. On closer observation, it was determined that this exact problem, the ability to stick to change, was keeping processes from being fully implemented. It wasn’t a matter of an idea being a bad one; it just never had a chance to get off the ground. So how did the company deal with this? It was clear that just asking people to do things a specific way wasn’t enough. The question became, “Why do some changes work and others fail,” and the next move was to see what the common characteristics of those processes were.

After Toyota more closely observed those processes, it became obvious that those that were structurally or physically limited had a greater chance of actually sticking. For example, if a new process required a new and specific tool to be used, it always had a much better success rate when the old tool was completely re-moved from the operation – thrown out even. The physical design of the new work was such that it was impossible to perform the work in any other way. Kind of simple when you look at it, but doesn’t it make sense? This process of system design became known as “Poka Yoke,” or “mistake-proofing.” Today, any business that practices lean understands that this “mistake-proofing” of process is required, and the stronger the mistake-proof design, the better the results.

Mistake-Proofing in the Shop
So how does mistake-proofing apply to
collision repair, and how can you achieve better results through its use? Let’s start with a couple of examples from things we’ve seen and used.

Mistake-proofing a quality audit.
Let’s say you’ve put together several quality control checklists over the years and, although each one has been good, after awhile they get the gratuitous giant checkmark across all bullets. I think every one of us has had this experience. How could you make it so that these items are really being checked and that issues discovered get corrected? Could this be mistake-proofed? Here’s a couple of ideas you might try:

  1. Remove the keys from a vehicle while in the reassembly process. Make it physically impossible to get the keys until an audit report is turned in. 
  2. Create an audit bay in your shop where vehicles are placed after reassembly. Place this bay right in front of the garage door opening to the shop, so that no other vehicles can move until audits are complete.
  3. reate a finite number of “audit cards” (permanent, numbered and reusable index cards) for each technician. Technicians must turn in a completed audit card before being assigned a new job. No card turned in or none available in their bin means no job.

Mistake-proofing new parts verification.
In this scenario, you have parts orders sitting for days, and once they make it to the bay for install, you discover you have broken, damaged, missing or incorrect parts. You’ve established policies on your parts process, but for whatever reason, you still have to deal with this issue. Here are several ideas: 

  1. All ordered parts get a matching colored sticker, i.e. 10 parts ordered, 10 colored stickers placed with the waiting order. As parts arrive, they’re checked in, matched against the damaged part and, if correct, get a sticker. Techs see the stickers and know the parts are good. Also, when all parts are in, you’re all out of stickers. 
  2. All damaged replacement parts are kept in one area and separated by job. When new parts come in, they’re matched against the old parts and then old parts are immediately thrown out – a “no old parts in the work bay” policy. People will be very certain that they have all the right parts in this scenario.

Mistake-proofing the paint prep process.
Let’s say your paint quality changes constantly due to the different processes of prepping panels your individual technicians use each day. They’ve all been trained by the same paint company, but for some reason, people have their own way of doing it. How might you mistake-proof this one?

  1. Start with determining the proper way your company performs the prep process. Then, only supply the prep department with those materials which support your process. Get rid of every other product by physically removing them. Don’t allow for options – make it a “this way only” procedure.
  2. Reduce the size of your prep area so that only one car may be prepped at a time. Physically limit the shop floor so that you may not have more than one car even if you wanted to. Have everyone involved prep that one car together until it’s ready, and only when it moves to paint do you prep another one. This would promote crosstraining among the techs and reveal best practices between them. They would create their own best way and do it every time.

How can you begin to mistake-proof your processes? There are a couple of basic rules to follow. First, understand what areas of your business are today delivering the most varied results. If you’re going to get serious about making certain that things happen, I would only mess with the big, non-negotiable issues. Make a list of one or two things that you want to mistake-proof. Second, understand the variables in the work today.

You’re going to have to observe and write down exactly what happens in this area several times over several days. You need to discover the activities that aren’t performed exactly the same way each time. It’s in the variation that you’ll discover a need to standardize process. Third, once you know how the work is actually being performed, decide on how it should be performed. Write the step-by-step instructions on how you want the work done. Now you can begin the mistake-proofing. Start with the work area itself and answer these questions:

1. Is the work area designed to support performing this activity? In other words, does the work (a car, a part, a file folder, a computer, a copier, etc.) actually fit nicely in the area? If not, find a new place to do the work. Not too big, not too small, but just right.

2. Are all of the tools required to perform the work available in this area? Is everything right there and handy? If some tools are shared by other steps, are they easily accessible and easily findable? If not, make these changes.

3. Is the area visually managed? Is all the equipment labeled? Does it have a home, clearly marked, that’s also labeled? Are there instructions on how to perform the work posted in the area? Is it visually understood when it’s time to perform the work and when it should be completed? Is it visually apparent where tools should be placed when finished? In a nutshell, can anyone perform this work without having to ask anyone how to do it, where the tools and work are, and when to start and stop? If not, clean this area and make it visual to everyone.

4. Is the area clear from distraction? Are there other tools in the same area that aren’t needed for this work? Does the area contain only what’s needed to perform the work? Forget the exceptions here, you can think of a million reasons to keep extra junk. You’re building a process for the majority, so you can deal with exceptions as they arise. Don’t fall for that. Is the area clean? No junk on the floor or walls, no dirt on the floors>

Is it kept clean as people move in and out of the area? This is a work area, and if you expect it to run well, it’s got to be all business. You don’t see a pitcher on the mound with his lunch, a Louisville slugger calendar, a clock, extra gloves, a bag of ice and a bunch of old copies of Sporting News. An important key to mistake-proofing is cleanliness. It’s not just about being anal retentive about cleanliness, it’s so that anyone can clearly see the state of things – where stuff belongs and can be found, where things should be worked on, etc. Problems and mistakes cannot hide in a clean work area. If the area is not this way, make it so. Clean it out, all of it, no exceptions.

5. Can you make the most important steps of this work more difficult to do the wrong way than the right way? In other words, if we’re talking about an operation that requires faxing a document somewhere, can you have only one number preset in the fax machine and remove all the other buttons? If we’re talking about storing a buffer in one specific area of the shop, can you make a shelf shaped so that it literally will only hold that exact buffer and no other tool? Can you eliminate any other flat surface in that area so that it’s easier to return the buffer to that one spot than to go find something else to put it down on? The more options on how to work you can eliminate, the less the variation in the outcome.

Follow these five basic steps and see if you can begin to mistake-proof your most critical areas of performance. Solicit help from your people – you’ll find all kinds of incredibly creative ideas on how to make mistake-proof operations. And don’t just limit yourself to the shop floor – you’ll probably find more value in mistake-proofing your administrative process than anything else.

Mistake-proofing is all about eliminating the guesswork. It’s about making it easier to do it the right way rather than the wrong way. It’s not about setting hard rules that people must follow because you don’t trust them; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s all about having so much respect for them that you’ve gone to great measures to make it easier for them to be successful.

The above examples and ideas are all meant to be thought-starters for you, not direct recommendations for how you should work. Their real purpose is to get you to start looking for new ways to operate. Some of this may sound too severe for your operation. It may seem like these ideas might limit your operation or diminish your flexibility. The truth is that all systems must have rules, and without them they’re no longer systems.

How can any business survive that has unlimited and varying levels of performance? Without solid systems for how you work, all you can do is depend on the people working in the operation. Not to discredit those people by any means, but we hear it every day from all businesses: “Good help is hard to find,” or “It all comes down to the people.” And right there is a critical difference between most organizations and those that practice lean. Why not harness the attributes of those great employees and turn their work habits into standard procedures that everyone can follow? There’s nothing more beautiful to watch or more rewarding than a robust, self-directed process. Take some time to “Poka Yoke” pieces of your business. Whether you’re lean or not, you’ll find improvement in your outcomes.

Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ (www.thebodyshop-at.com). 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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