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Profit in the Paint Shop Series: Maximum Efficiency

Any time we streamline the refinish process, we’re moving toward maximum efficiency. Part 5 of a six-part series on how to maximize profit in the paint shop.

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Carl Wilson has over 30 years in the industry as a painter and technical rep.

The way I see and articulate the term “maximum efficiency,” I realize we’re looking down one heck of a rabbit hole. But it makes it a little less daunting when I focus on the context of this series, “Profit in the Paint Shop.” OK, good, we’re only talking about the paint shop. However, to make the claim of “maximum,” we’re going to have to pull back and consider a bit more than just the paint shop – at least initially. Then, we’ll laser back down to the painter.

The Common Way

Let’s review the average shop and its operation. Work comes in, sometimes scheduled, sometimes not, but we’ve got a preliminary estimate one way or the other. Parts are ordered and received. The job is dispatched to the bodyman, parts are often ordered again and he sends the vehicle to the paint shop when he’s done. Painted, detailed and delivered. Repeat. However…what we’ve glossed over here is the waiting: for approval, parts, supplement approval and additional parts. Wait, wait, weight. The weight of the wait often falls on the paint shop, and we suddenly have a sense of urgency that simply didn’t exist elsewhere in the process. Odds are a painter isn’t reading this unless management read it first and passed it on to him, believing there might be some value. Therefore, I must address management first.

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Practices and Procedures
Efficiency begins at the starting gate through intelligent planning and scheduling, which involves implementing clearly defined and communicated practices, procedures and expectations. These must be consistently and predictably applied to everyone, as well as the entire process. There aren’t enough pages in this magazine to break down all the procedures your shop could benefit from, but suffice it to say the changes for a more efficient operation must begin at the beginning.

Consider my biased schoolboy analogy: the technicians – painters, in this example – are mules pulling a wagon. Rather than whipping them harder to get further down the road, get off the wagon and move some rocks out of the way. As to what rocks or how to move them, your paint line manufacturer undoubtedly has business management tools that can assist you in standardizing and streamlining your operation. I’m not talking about simply blueprinting or 100 percent teardown, but helping you to see the benefit of the logical sequence, which suggests things as simple as: ensuring pinchwelds are being properly dressed in the body shop before the vehicle is moved to the paint shop, and properly protecting vehicle interiors to avoid wasting time and material mopping up the messes made during the repair process. You know, simple stuff like that. Processes and procedures that make for a smooth flow. And smooth is fast!

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In the absence of those procedures, we’re back in the paint shop whipping mules. This results in an environment of chaotic scrambling – chickens without their heads – which, in turn, has a tendency to breed mistakes. I’m sure we agree that we can never correct an error fast enough after the fact for it to be as profitable as accuracy would have been the first time around. Nothing is faster or more profitable than accuracy. So how do we get that scrambling culture to change? To stop and correct an error right now, as opposed to pushing through and dealing with it later? You have to lead by example.  

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I should add that it’s prudent to bear in mind the old saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Let’s not kid ourselves about perfection. The only thing perfect about us is the “…pure perfect reflection of human imperfection…” (thanks, Robert Earl Keen). So while we don’t strive for perfection, we do strive for excellence. My father was flat-rate and understood you must draw the line somewhere, but he would not tolerate the words, “That’s good enough.” He understood the thinking and culture it represented, a mindset of stopping short of the goal.

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And with that, the lecture is over. I will now back out of this rabbit hole and address the painter.

One More Look

Is it as simple as saying, “Do it properly the first time. Be accurate?” Cutting down on any number of redos will indeed be more efficient, but we’re going be a bit more specific, dissect the paint shop further and consider things such as economy of motion – chess instead of checkers – and the realization that we’re all in the same boat and must row together in order to win the race.

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However, let me repeat that there’s nothing faster than accuracy. So, I find it advantageous for the painter to “take one last look.” Whatever operation you’re in, whatever you’re working on, before going further, take one more look. You may see a pinhole to address before you prime, a transparent edge before you clean your color gun or a bit of dry spray in the clear prior to kicking off the bake cycle. Just take one more look. Identify and correct the issue now, rather than downstream. I assure you, this is huge.

Protecting the interior of the vehicle before body work can help you avoid wasting time later by cleaning up a mess.Habits of Efficiency
I know the painter is pretty efficient already, particularly if he’s on commission or flat-rate. It’s just the way we work; we’re going to beat the time on the repair order. Notwithstanding, painters also have some incredibly inefficient operations and habits that are perpetuated simply because it’s always been done that way. The fact that we’re comfortable with it influences our belief that we don’t need to change. So I submit for your consideration a few habits that can contribute to a more efficient operation.

If nothing else changed in the paint shop but your “habits of efficiency,” you would see a smoother, faster flow and more accuracy that mattered. Material savings would be realized, and customers would be happier. The reputation as a shop with expert color matching would go before you.

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Color Library
“So what is ‘this,’ Carl?” you ask. “This” is the color library. Simple, huh? It also has the benefit of being easy. You just need to develop a new habit of efficiency, specifically a sprayout card. Spraying, clearing and cataloging every color you paint, every time – sprayouts made with your equipment in your environment. Your cards. By the way, if I’m still talking with painters here, I’ve heard all the excuses as to why you don’t do that now: “It takes too long and I don’t have time,” “I have the color information in my head,” “I always blend so there’s no need for it.” Do me a favor and save the B.S. for the 20-year-olds – I’m all stocked up. I have firsthand experience saying those same things, and I was wrong.

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Over the course of the years, I’ve built five different color libraries between water and solvent, and between different paint lines. I never liked starting over with a new line and having to build a new library because, of course, I wanted to continue using what I was accustomed to. But there are those in authority over me who made those decisions, and I had to acquiesce. I’ve never regretted building a library, though, and having access to it. To me, it’s akin to a treasure map because it leads to money. I make the very slight investment of time now, and I can profit from that sprayout every time I see that color again. It does, however, require accurate documentation on the back of the card and cataloging in such a way that it’s easy to retrieve.

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I catalog my colors by vehicle manufacturer, but some painters prefer to group them by color – reds, blues, greens, etc. As long as it’s easy to access, you’ll use it. Plus, any time you “build” a color on the scale, which has 10 percent of the black withheld, for example, in order to render the color a little lighter and richer than it would have been otherwise – and have it match – how much time and material do you think you save? How did you know 10 percent was the amount to withhold? You checked a car’s color against an unadjusted sprayout card you already had from a previous job. It was dark and a little de-saturated – seemed like it had too much black in it. So you withheld a measured portion of black and made a new card to catalog. So on and so forth until you had hundreds of cards in your library.

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It doesn’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if you don’t start. Incidentally, while working with the legendary Mr. Lee out of Oregon City, Ore., he and I each made two cards for every car we painted, one for him and one for me. That way, we each built our own libraries in half the time.  

Economy of Motion
Each step we take should have a purpose so you minimize wasted effort. In short, “How can I operate like a production line?” By staying with the task at hand, by having what you need within arm’s reach. I’m talking about mobile work stations, commercial or homemade.  

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I understand that the mix room and spraybooth are fixed work stations, but they’re examples of being properly set up for the task at hand. You don’t have to fetch an airline every time you paint a car – you have one in the booth. There’s no need to go to the parts department for a can or cup when you need to mix a color – it’s within arm’s reach in the mix room. And so the mobile work station is set up for the task at hand – a prepping cart stocked with abrasives, blocks, guide coat, machine sanders, etc.

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My masking tree not only had an ample supply of tape and paper, just like yours, but it also had razor blades, paper towels, degreasers and anything else I needed. I even utilized a modified carpenter’s hammer ring to hold masking tape so I always had the proper size immediately available hanging off my belt. An additional benefit of using it was that I didn’t lose a half roll of tape anywhere.

A buffing cart or detailer’s station can be stocked with the same thought in mind. We don’t generate any value to ourselves, the paint shop or the shop in general by walking around. I took a little ribbing for all the “tools” I carried in my pockets, but I was a mobile work station. If you need a visual, consider the carpenter’s tool belt. He wastes little time running back to the truck for anything.

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Another habit of efficiency that worked well for me was loading the booth at night – “…cocked, locked and ready to rock, Doc…” (Thanks, Uncle Ted). Come morning time, all I had to do was a wipe-down and a tack-off and I was painting. Talk about a jumpstart to production for the day! That doesn’t work in every situation, but the broader point is to play chess instead of checkers. Think a step or two or three ahead. Get that rocker/chip guard applied now. Anticipate. Strategize. Communicate. This dovetails with being mindful of the fact that we’re all rowing the same boat. What can I do to make things easier downstream for the next guy?

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The Next Guy
Notwithstanding any prima donnas, we should care about the responsibility we have to the next guy. This thinking and caring nets a return on investment. For example, switching your wet sanding to dry sanding, thereby eliminating the sludge left behind for the detailer to clean. By default, he would have more time to “shine” the car as opposed to mopping up a mess. That can only make the painter’s work look better.

Other seemingly small efforts, such as inserting a piece of cardboard in the door/fender gap while priming to eliminate the overspray on the hinges (which, in turn, completely eliminates the cleanup of that mess), have synergistic results. Rowing the boat in concert.

Moving the Boat

Previous articles in this series all had the thread of “efficiency” running through them. Whether properly prepping prior to priming, understanding the fundamentals of sanding or anticipating the blend, they all help to streamline the process. Any time we streamline the process, we’re moving the boat towards maximum efficiency.

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Carl Wilson has been painting for nearly 30 years, with formal training from the GM Training Center, ASE, I-CAR and multiple product and color courses. He currently works as a technical rep for Hi-Line Distributors in Oahu, Hawaii. He can be reached at [email protected].

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