Putting Our Heads Together - BodyShop Business

Putting Our Heads Together

Want more claims dollars? Strive to standardize your business.

Several years ago, I witnessed a team concept that I still consider to be the best model for any type of small team system. The team leader had two men working for him, and the team was paid a flat rate for all the jobs completed weekly. The team leader dictated how the proceeds were distributed between the men, so he took home top journeyman’s wages and the other two techs received "C" and entry-level wages.

The team leader’s personal objectives were to make good money and to turn entry-level techs into journeyman techs.

This team was skilled to handle any job-type that came through the door. When I visited the shop, they had 18 jobs on their work-in-process board. The jobs were almost evenly distributed between light, medium and heavy hits and were also in various processing stages: waiting to be started, in repair, final assembly, in paint, final detail and awaiting delivery.

I noticed that the two young teammates were enthusiastic, polite and deliberate workers. As a matter of fact, out of about 25 techs in the shop, this small team of men appeared to be the least stressed group — yet they consistently pumped out the most work.

Why am I telling you this story about teamwork? Because until a machine is invented that can provide customer care and perform autobody repairs, our business is dependent on people and processes.

I’m not here, however, to lecture you on how shop owners and management have failed to realize the value of teamwork. On the contrary, I think that out of any industry, body shops are some of the best examples of teamwork.

So why, then, am I writing this team article? Because business demands and market uncertainty are at all-time highs. Today’s economy and marketplace are demanding more from your shop than ever before. Even the best body shop with solid strategies, great team systems and good leadership is reeling under the constant pressure to improve service and quality at lower prices. But this is the norm today in all industries. Every business and industry in our country is under the same pressure to provide more for less. That is what we, as consumers, demand.

To top it all, there’s no relief in sight.

Information technology has just scratched the surface, and the global economy is forcing businesses to reach unimaginable levels of efficiency and low prices. Yes, global forces do affect collision repair. Just ask suppliers, insurers, financial institutions, auto manufacturers, steel companies and technology providers if they’re insulated from the affects of the global economy.

We’re witnessing changes to our industry and marketplace that are leaving all but the most level-headed shop operators (along with insurers and providers) scratching their heads. The demand for new solutions and operating strategies that can be effectively implemented far outweighs the supply being provided by owners and management. As an individual, no matter how hard you work or how intelligent you are, you cannot move your business forward fast enough to keep up with changing times. You need input from other people in your organization who are on the frontlines and able to offer real-time responses to issues and opportunities.

4 Reasons You Should Consider Teams
A work team is defined as a group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, common set of performance goals and common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Why should you consider teams for your shop? Because teams:

1. Encourage participation and continuous improvement. The hidden or maybe misunderstood value of work teams is that they encourage and facilitate worker participation. And worker participation is needed to create, implement and maintain the best process and service improvement ideas for your business.

2. Reduce labor costs. If the "brain-power" value of teamwork doesn’t convince you, then how about the economic need to become lean and mean through the segmentation or specialization of job types, work actions and personnel? In the metal department, most shops have begun to segment and distribute repair jobs based on job complexity or repair categories to best suit an employee’s capabilities and skill sets.

Some shops take segmentation even further, breaking down work-actions into even smaller chunks of repair actions and distributing these processing activities between team members. And this distribution of repair actions provides the most cost-effective use of your skilled labor pool. Clearly, it makes more sense to use your highest paid and most skilled personnel for complex work actions and to use your lower compensated technicians for the less complex stuff. Every operator and manager understands that paying $25-$35 gross hourly wages and contributions to R/I or to replace parts isn’t economical and is poor utilization of a technician’s talents and skills.

3. Create immediate response to any size job and utilize resources more effectively. Teams allow you to provide an immediate response to customer demand. Clearly, the frequency and order in which different size jobs come to your front door are a huge management challenge. Manufacturing professionals would refer to a body shop as having processing characteristics of a "job-shop" — meaning every customer job requires a unique combination of production processes to meet its purchase specifications. Each repair has a different combination or set of customer specifications based on the type of car, the manner in which it was damaged and the special requirements requested by either the vehicle owner or even the insurance company.

Your shop must be able to efficiently respond to a customer’s accident event and subsequent demand for your services. Your shop also must be equipped to meet sudden demand — or the customer will go to your competitor.

Management’s challenge is to have the right amount of resources available to provide a service that can vary from extremely simple to extremely complex. And unless your shop is staffed with all journeyman technicians who are all equally equipped with similar repair competencies and capabilities (which isn’t uncommon), scheduling and responsiveness is an issue. Even then, you’re over-skilled and over-equipped for the majority of job types that run through your shop. Often in these situations, management still has to constantly expedite and re-prioritize jobs because there are now multiple one-tech teams, each having a mixed batch of jobs that have to be controlled and processed to meet customer expectations.

Scheduling your limited resources effectively for immediate response is impossible — unless small work teams with diverse skills are equipped and held accountable for processing a steady stream of diverse job types and sizes in the sequence and pace in which the customer demands them. One large metal team of individual techs is too large to manage in a cost-effective manner that’s responsive to your customer’s erratic daily and weekly demand (unless the shop has a customer demand for only two or three metal techs; then the whole metal shop acts as a team member for every job).

Shop management usually intuitively understands this because metal departments are usually adequately staffed, arranged and equipped to provide the diverse services demanded by your customers. The problem is that your resources and processes are designed as a longer-term customer response and not as the daily and weekly fluctuations demanded from random accident events. This is the reason shops have large inventories and back-orders and are constantly expediting jobs on a daily or hourly basis. This is also one of the reasons why a single tech is often assigned a larger job with several smaller jobs randomly dispatched in between.

4. Improve employee satisfaction. Teamwork systems are also important methods for improving employee satisfaction and career development. When designed and implemented correctly, teams that are empowered and self-directed to make decisions and improve performance create a working environment that’s rewarding and stimulating for your technicians. Because team systems mandate individual involvement and group objectives, team members are forced to work together toward common goals. And numerous studies have proven that properly directed and empowered teams are motivated more by team results than by compensation and job security.

Where Teams Work
In the paint department, shop management has institutionalized the use and acceptance of small paint teams because of high costs for purchasing and storing paint equipment. The building and equipment costs made it financially prohibitive for individual painters to have separate booths and equipment. Management responded by institutionalizing team strategies in the paint department. Although there are still those who struggle with their paint teams, every shop owner understands that teamwork is the only option for paint processing. This makes the team concept an institution or an accepted best practice. Shop management can easily identify the financial pain associated with not using a team-based system in the paint shop and, as a result, has employed team solutions.

So why, then, are we challenged to effectively apply teams in the metal department? Because the pain associated with not using team systems is somewhat obscured. The cost of adding paint booths and the building spaces is easy to calculate. But with metal work teams, shop management only thinks about the pain associated with forming and organizing the teams. And because metal technicians know metal teams aren’t yet commonplace, many of them compound this pain by resisting team strategies.

The most common use of work teams is for training and employee development involving an entry-level technician and a journeyman technician. Every shop I’ve ever visited has used this team strategy to train new techs. Unfortunately, the team usually disbands after the entry-level tech has attained sufficient "C"-level-type skills and is able to perform quality work independent of his trainer. It’s also unlikely that a "C"-level tech who’s been working independently will ever be paired back up with his old teammate or trainer for advanced technical training.

Once a "C"-level tech is on his own, he’s expected to "scrounge around" for additional training by asking (or begging) for progressively more complex hits to work on. When he’s successful in getting a more difficult job, he’s then expected to use his own initiative to find a journeyman tech (who has his own workload) who’s willing to help out and instruct him on the proper (hopefully) repair methods. To make matters worse, a limited number of journeyman techs in a facility have adequate patience, organizational skills and people skills to work with entry-level personnel.

Back to Our Real-Life Success Story
Let’s further examine the team I mentioned earlier — made up of a journeyman tech and two teammates.

The team leader told me that after several years of trial and error, he’d found it was best for him to recruit and approve new team members. One young tech had been with him for a little over two years and the other for just over one year. Prior to working with the lead tech, neither of the young men had any autobody or even mechanical experience. Interestingly enough, the team leader prefers his new techs to have no prior experience. Why? Because he finds it easier to teach young techs only good habits, rather than convincing them to break bad habits. He also said that no prior experience limits entry-level techs to using only one way — the best way — for repairs.

The team leader also specifically sought new recruits who were young (not older than 21) and of seemingly strong values and work ethic. The leader — a lifelong bodyman in his mid- to late 40s — used informal methods to identify the men who met his hiring requirements. For example, he’d attempt to learn about the candidate’s personal life by talking to parents and friends in the neighborhood (probably not HR-approved methods). He noted that he had, many times, hired the wrong candidate and had to immediately let him go. But, he said, he usually discovered his error in judgment within two or three weeks of hiring.

When first hired, the new hires are paid lower-than-average "C"-level or prepper-type wages. Even when they’re ready to "graduate" — as he puts it — in two to three years, the men still receive lower-than-average wages for the level of work they’re performing. The team leader, however, was very open with his men and used his own paycheck to show them what they’d earn by following his direction.

The shop owner told me that this team of one journeyman tech and two teammates was very productive and that he thought it might have been over a year since the team had a comeback or customer complaint.

What makes this teamwork? Key features include:

  • The three-man team has a large work and inventory area (approximately five inside work bays and a team-designated exterior parking for five vehicles).
  • The workspaces are immaculate; the team leader is compulsively organized and tidy.
  • Each new hire is expected to "graduate" in two to three years and move on as a journeyman-level tech in the shop — if nothing is available in-house, the team leader helps him find a job elsewhere.
  • Each of the techs in training aspired to be a similar team leader and to train entry-level technicians in the same manner that they were taught.
  • The work processes are highly regimented (i.e. all re-usable parts were stored and labeled in exactly the same manner, etc.)
  • The team leader details precise methods for repair processing.

The team leader illustrated how his instructions were detailed and based on an explanation or reasoning that the young men understood. He brought over both young men and asked one to describe the proper method for drilling out a factory weld. While one young man demonstrated how to hold the drill precisely at the right angle, he asked the other man to explain the reason why the correct angle was important. The one doing the drilling further explained the importance of using the correct downward pressure for this type of weld. I was amazed that each young man had a thorough understanding of both the "why" and "how" behind each action he was expected to perform.

Away from the team leader, each young man expressed how the leader was kind and patient, but also a demanding task master. They had genuine respect and admiration for him and likened him somewhat to a mother-hen. The team leader was also very protective of his men. He had an understanding with the shop owner and other shop staff members that any team issues were to be directed only to him, the team leader.

Although this is an example of a training and development team, they were still able to achieve journeyman standards and produce a consistently high volume of quality repairs. They also exhibited all the advantages of teamwork systems. Clearly, the team leader was instrumental in the success of this team, and the shop owner also made a huge difference because he bent over backward for his employees and was savvy in terms of organizational motivation and psychology.

Creating Successful Work Teams
Success of work teams is measured not only by initial quality performance gains, but also by how well the team is able sustain these gains over time. Specifically, sustainability means that gains are continuously able to improve the process or service and accumulate over time.

Teamwork experts often point to two key features of work teams that are needed to maintain quality performance improvements:

1. Substantive participation: Substantive, rather than consultative, participation ensures that improvement ideas are implemented and accrue to the process or product. Substantive participation requires a means (such as direct implementation authority by the work team), access to standard procedures for making changes or the creation of new procedures to translate improvement ideas into action.

2. Institutionalization of work teams: Institutionalization promotes continuity of the work team and an increase in performance gains over time. Mandatory team membership, along with management involvement and support, advance institutionalization by securing the role of work teams in operations and by providing the resources for teams to succeed. Visible management involvement and support are especially important during the start-up period for institutionalization to take hold.

The following are three basic management guidelines for successful work team systems:

1. Mandatory membership: Affirm that the status of the work team is a job responsibility.

2. Management involvement and support: Set a clear direction and provide training.

3. Decision-making authority: Work team members will find continued participation in the team meaningful as their efforts produce results.

Work team systems must also be managed to reinforce substantive participation and to aid the institutionalization of teams. Management must be actively involved in team formulation and training to reduce conflict and resistance to teams. They must promote positive team processes that encourage substantive participation by focusing the team on the performance improvement task.

Once the team is focused, improving team effectiveness further strengthens substantive participation and institutionalization. This management process, however, must be consistently repeated and sometimes be supported by additional training.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It is, but it’s worth the effort. Today’s marketplace — and consumers — will continue to demand more for less … and if you’re not willing to give it to them, someone else will. As the old saying goes, there’s no "I" in team. But there is an "I" in "idiot." Don’t be one. Don’t make it that easy on your competition.

Writer Jake Snyder is the principle of CR Management Systems, a consulting, training and business-development company. He’s been in the industry for more than 15 years, has managed a collision repair facility, held various claims positions with Allstate Insurance Company, and performed consulting and product development for Body Shop Video’s, Business Development Group. Snyder can be contacted at (732) 886-5340 or at [email protected].

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