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Production: Don’t Be a Bottleneck

Bottlenecks come in many shapes and sizes – paint booths, frame machines, even people. Here’s how to identify and fix them.

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Angelo DiTullio started in the collision business in his father's shop at seven years old. He has been both a shop manager and regional manager for the past 20 years. He has worked for the insurance industry, family-owned body shops, regional MSOs and national body shops. He's currently a district manager for Abra. He can be reached at [email protected]

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If most shops were asked to identify a bottleneck in their shop, they could easily pick out one or more. The most popular answer would most likely be “the paint booth.” While this is a common bottleneck, it’s not the only one. There are many different types, some easier to identify than others.

Disclaimer: there are plenty of people out there who are more versed than me in things like identifying bottlenecks and understanding the Theory of Constraints. This article is not meant to offer the depth of theory that professionals in this area could offer. My goal is to give you my view from a shop manager, regional manager or owner’s perspective, including real-world examples I’ve lived, seen and worked in daily.

Throughput

The first time I started looking at shop production differently was after reading “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt. At the time, I worked at Sterling Autobody, and this book was required reading. Since my first read (I’ve read it many times since), it has allowed me to see production differently.

In the book, Goldratt first puts forward his Theory of Constraints. The throughput of any system is simply determined by one constraint (or bottleneck). So, if one’s goal is to increase throughput, one must focus on identifying and improving the bottleneck or constraint. I began to look at shop production as an interconnected line where one section was dependent upon the others. Even better, shop production is like a hose: if an area is constricted, it will impede the vehicle flow through it.

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I’ve written before that production is one constant loop or circle. Vehicles are coming in one end and exiting through another. In the interior of the process, each department is handing off to another department as vehicles keep moving through the process – in one door and out another with vehicles moving smoothly through every department. Monday is the same as Friday, and the first is the same as the 31st.

However, things don’t always work smoothly. At times, vehicles back up in a certain area or part of the process, or there are no vehicles in a certain area or process. Somewhere around there, a constraint or bottleneck is lurking.

The Biggest One

Most times, it’s easy to spot your shop’s biggest bottleneck, and many times, as mentioned earlier in this article, you’ll find it in front of the paint booth.

The paint booth is a great example of a physical bottleneck. Mostly every repair needs to visit the paint booth. The paint booth is a bottleneck because it can only accommodate a finite number of repairs on a certain day. There is a minimum time that one full paint cycle takes. In other words, from the doors opening and loading a vehicle, to doors opening again and unloading the previous vehicle and loading a new vehicle takes a set amount of time. If there are only eight hours in your workday, then you can only have a set amount of booth cycles. So if you want to deliver 10 vehicles per day, but your paint booth can only accommodate five, then you can only deliver five.

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Fixing a Bottleneck

Since we’re on the paint booth topic, what can you do to try to fix or alleviate that constraint or bottleneck?

Depending on space, funds and need, you could decide to purchase another paint booth and begin to run two paint booths instead of one. That should double your capacity in that area. If that’s out of the question, there are a few additional things you can do.

Keep in mind that the paint booth is for painting. How many other things are you doing in your booth? The booth is not for repairing, priming, sanding or even masking. You need to try to get your booth cycle down to the shortest possible time.

How long is your current booth cycle, and how many booth cycles per day are you getting? You need to find out. You may be able to squeeze an additional booth cycle or more per day out by using the booth simply for what it’s intended for and what can’t be done anywhere else, i.e. painting. Ideally, you should have a vehicle masked and ready to be pulled into the booth, and the colors mixed, checked and ready to go as soon as the previous bake cycle is done.

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Speaking of that previous bake cycle, as soon as it ends, undo the masking only enough for you to be able to safely pull the vehicle out of the booth and close the doors behind you. Full unmasking and disposal of paper and car covers should occur outside the booth after the job is inspected and denibbed where needed.

Batching

Another great way to get more vehicles through your booth is to batch different jobs together. How can you fit six vehicles in the booth? Simple: take them apart when you can and batch parts runs together. It equals one booth cycle, but several vehicles through the booth as one. Schedule bumper-only jobs so you can fit five or six or more bumpers in the booth at once.

Any vehicles that are just bumper jobs or already have the parts off the vehicle should be painted in batches. This would be the only way to beat the system and paint more vehicles than the booth will physically allow in a day.

Don’t be afraid to stuff the booth; I’ve seen six or more bumpers put into a single batch with no problems. Initially, there may be pushback in aggressive batching, but everyone will soon see the benefits in easing the bottleneck at the booth.

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You can also ease the bottleneck by sending resources from other departments. Can someone in a less busy department come and help sand, prime or mask to keep the painter painting in the booth? Is the painter using the proper materials for the weather conditions? Or are the wrong products for these weather conditions taking a long time to dry and giving us longer booth cycles? Are things drying too fast, causing quality problems? Or too slow, causing extended time?

Frame Machine

Another easily identifiable bottleneck is the frame machine.

How many times have you heard, “I have to pull that job before I can start working on it, and I’m waiting for so-and-so to come down before I can.” Newsflash: the frame machine should only be used for frame and unibody correction. It’s not a parking space or a welding jig. Get the vehicle up there, secure it, measure it, correct it and get the vehicle down from it as quickly as possible. There is no reason, if you did things right, for the car to stay up there. Staying up there is a crutch because you’re not sure if you pulled it correctly and you’re afraid to come down. That’s not good enough. Have a process, do it right and get off of there. Break the habit and you’ll see the bottleneck ease.

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I’ve seen shops with too many frame machines taking up unnecessary space because they didn’t follow my thinking on this one. When a frame department is inefficient, you need more frame machines. When a paint shop is inefficient, you need more paint booths, and when a shop is inefficient, you need more space. I’ve seen six-plus A techs work from two frame machines with no problem whatsoever.

People

What are some bottlenecks that are harder to spot? People. That’s right, people. A bottleneck can be a person, too.

We can have 20 customers who want to drop off their vehicles, but the front desk can only process how many of those 20? Or 20 customers of a particular insurance company need to have estimates written, but the estimator for that company can only write eight. It goes on and on.

How many cars can the detailer clean a day? The line starts with customers calling to make appointments and coming in, and ends with the office manager’s ability to close the file.

There can be various bottlenecks, some natural like the frame machines and the paint booths and some human like everyone who works in the business.

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My point is, don’t be a bottleneck. Don’t cause everyone down the line from you to be waiting for work because you can’t process enough to get the work to them. Having work sitting in front of you in a pile is a bottleneck. Everyone’s work ahead of you in the line means nothing if it crashes into your bottleneck and is now stalled and not moving.

The point is that each position in the line is important and interdependent upon one another. The estimator can’t write five estimates if the CSR can’t get him five folders. The production manager can’t dispatch five cars if the estimator can’t get him five folders. The body tech can’t fix five cars if the production manager can’t get him five cars and on and on and on until the folder lands on the office manager’s desk. If the detailer washed five cars today and the office manager could only close three, what good was it? We’re only done on the production end when the folder is closed and we get paid. So, from the first position to the final position, they’re all equally important, and your success is tied to the people behind you and in front of you in the line. The point is, don’t be a bottleneck.

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