Sometimes I think most body shop owners thrive on chaos and “save the day” solutions to keep irate customers from driving a bulldozer through their shop.
When I was in the shop, I dreaded daily release meetings. I prayed the cars “not going to make it” belonged to my most understanding customers.
I worked in a medium-sized facility that did about $2.3 million yearly. Coming from a large insurer and fresh from business night school, I had to throw out almost everything I’d learned in the past.
Instead – in order to survive the onslaught of customer complaints about late deliveries – I authored the most comprehensive book of excuses for cars being late in the history of autobody repair (I understand it’s still a best seller in New Jersey), and I perfected an imitation of Richie Cunningham to garner me sympathy.
Can we please trash my best seller and stop using the “underpromise and overdeliver” rule for determining repair-processing times? Long term, these strategies will fail to attract customers.
Eventually, customers usually get what they want and, believe it or not, they have an excellent idea of how long a car should take to repair. (I was privy a few years back to a statistically valid study asking vehicle owners how long they thought it should take to repair their car; it was scary how accurate they were in guessing what the actual repair times should be.)
If we keep trying to change customer expectations regarding repair times, they’ll eventually seek out alternative solutions. Perhaps, they’ll choose a new body shop in your market that turns cars around more quickly. Or worse, they may decide it’s not worth the hassle of slow turnaround times and buy a replacement car instead. Reality check. Has anyone noticed that total-loss thresholds have been dropping? Am I alone in hearing that some major insurers are talking to auto manufacturers about replacing vehicles with significant damage instead of repairing them?
Isn’t there also a lot of talk about creating separate repair centers that focus only on heavy hits and similarly on drivable hits?
It seems that few understand the value of heavy hits as part of a balanced product mix in a single facility’s repair system. That’s scary because I estimate that heavy hits (average tickets = $4,500 to $5,000 or higher) are around 30 percent of total autobody revenue. And with today’s high levels of uncertainty, can we afford to lose 30 percent of our income?
It’s time to increase our efforts to provide immediate availability, hassle-free services and to deliver quality repairs the first time out – with fast turnaround times. And this must apply to all hits, not just drivable cars.
Shop management has to figure out better ways to coordinate production workflow of non-refinish repair activities so cars flow in a deliberate, calculated manner into and out of the metal department. Why are there always more cars in the metal department than in paint or detail? Don’t the same number of cars pass through all three departments?
We need to accumulate a lot of work-in-process (WIP) vehicles because it’s hard to keep metal techs fully occupied with the right jobs -considering breakdowns and holdups – while keeping a constant flow of cars to paint.
Take a walk through your shop during the busiest time of the day, and count how many cars are actually being worked on compared to how many are just sitting there. If your shop does around $2 million yearly, probably four or five cars a day have to be delivered.
That means four or five cars are painted, re-assembled and detailed daily. And by the time cars reach these last three stages of repair, they’re likely to be processed as they arrive to each work area, with little delay.
To simplify management of the metal department, jobs have to flow between work areas similar to the way they flow through paint, reassembly and detailing. If you can consistently and successfully manage these last three stages, why not try using the same workflow strategies in the metal department?
Lessons from the Paint Department
In the paint department, jobs have to be processed as they show up and at a fairly consistent pace. Paint flow and just-in-time repair processing is demanded in paint departments.
Paint techs and their equipment (paint team and booth) have a defined daily-processing job capacity in an eight-hour shift, and management depends on constant output from the paint department.
Paint-shop production can easily be assessed any time of the day. Think about it. Aren’t we most confident of the actual delivery date when we’re able to pinpoint the time a car will “hit the paint department”? How often do you hear front office people asking, “When will the car hit paint?”
Production managers pull cars from the metal department to keep the paint booth active, and once a car hits the paint department, it’s “pulled through” at a fairly predictable, consistent pace.
How often is your shop manager looking for small jobs on Monday so the paint department has work? The manager is “pulling work” instead of pushing it.
WIP vehicle inventory in paint rarely exceeds the total number of cars that can be processed in a single day. Usually, the paint department will become bottlenecked only when the metal department hands off more cars in one day than the paint department has the daily capacity to produce.
In most shops, the paint department isn’t configured or doesn’t have adequate space to position cars in-line. Yet somehow, paint preparation and processing are repeatedly performed in a step-by-step sequence and at a consistent, pre-determined pace.
An organized paint team never has all the cars in the same stage of preparation at one time. When there’s only one booth, there’s only one car being painted or baking and there’s only one car in the final stages of prepping to go into the booth next.
Paint techs also can’t choose the next car to work on; they have to work on what they get. And all assigned jobs, big or small, usually have to be completed within one shift.
If a problem arises on a job, they have to identify the problem immediately and resolve it. They do this by employing all of the team’s resources. Every day paint techs have to help out and assist each other in finding and resolving problems.
A paint team also has to occasionally deal with jobs that are significantly more complex or time consuming to prep or process than the average job. Yet job size or paint complexity is rarely an issue.
When an exceptional job does show up, it’s somehow absorbed into the workflow of the paint team. The key difference is that the larger job usually isn’t immediately inserted into the normal linear flow of cars being prepped.
For example, when a “complete” hits the paint department, a well-run paint team doesn’t let the job clog the pipeline. Instead, it becomes a “project” that’s put to the side so other jobs can pass.
Typically, all paint personnel have to chip in at some point to prep a complete, while maintaining a continuous flow of normal jobs through the booth.
Consciously or unconsciously, management or the paint team allows a certain number of bypass jobs (or work shifts) before the complete must get painted. Many times when allowable prep-time time gets short, the lead painter or another shop resource (non-paint team) participate in prep work.
The bottom line is that once a “project car” hits the paint department, it can neither “sit” nor impede the flow of other jobs. It still has to move but in a position and at a pace that permits average jobs to pass through and into the booth.
Key features of a well-run paint department include:
Team problem solvers.
Identical processing steps and order for each job.
Adherence to procedures. Every team member understands and follows the same procedures.
Cross-functional team members. Each member can perform or understand each other’s job
A daily production quota.
Job flow not interrupted by complex jobs. They still move, but at a slower pace and with more team involvement or extra non-team resources.
So, how can we apply these workflow practices of a well-run paint department to the metal department?
1: Understand the Challenges of Metal Department
Production management has to control numerous combinations of processing actions for the various job types that run through the metal shop. Certain jobs only require parts replacement or minor straightening, while others require structural, mechanical or sublet repairs. More processing combinations are included when job types are defined and described by each job’s repair complexity (i.e. small straightening job or complex straightening; simple mechanical-wheel alignment or airbags, A/C and diagnosis).
Management also has to control the flow of jobs that are assigned to multiple work cells for repairs. Each work cell, commonly made up of one metal technician, will also have different degrees of processing variability based on technician skill levels and existing workloads.
External factors related to short-term changes in customer demand or work volume and changes in customer-service requirements are challenges that production managers also have to consider.
Basically, the workflow and process design of the metal department is challenged by three factors:
Processing variability based on numerous job-type combinations.
Processing variability based on numerous work cell or technician processing capabilities.
Processing variability based on changing job volume or customer demand or customer-service requirements.
2: Map Out Process Steps
I once counted 66 job types ac-cording to 66 possible repair-processing combinations (including light, medium and heavy designations). You could drive yourself crazy thinking about all of these when you really only need to focus on the most common processing combinations.
Each autobody operation has six basic repair-processing combinations:
1. Repair – Paint
2. Repair – Paint – Parts
3. Repair – Paint – Parts – Structural
4. Repair – Paint – Parts – Mechanical
5. Repair – Paint – Parts – Structural – Mechanical
6. Repair – Paint – Parts – Structural – Mechanical – Sublet
Look at Figure 1. It’s an example of a repair-process map of the most common repair processes. Just like the basic processing flow of a well-run paint department, the objective is to create your own process map of metal department steps and the work order in which the steps should be performed.
The highlighted processes of Structural, Mechanical, Sublet & Other are the hardest to put in some type of consistent work order. Establishing a fixed, repeatable order that determines when these three processes will be performed is the hardest but most important aspect of creating improved workflow through the metal department.
3: Create Workflow that Groups Similar Repair Processes
Management and staff in the metal department have to agree on what the key processing steps are. Think again about paint-department workflow and paint-prep steps that are repeated on each job and in the same sequence. The first prepping repair step is always first, and the last prepping repair step is always last. And the last prepping step always has to be completed in time for the car to be loaded into the paint booth just when the prior job is finished baking and unloaded from the booth.
Now look at Figure 2. It’s possible to group certain repair processes for different-sized jobs by similar processing actions. The idea is to find the repair operations for light, medium and heavy that are basically the same or require the same type of skills and work actions.
Look at the highlighted processes of Metal Structural, Mechanical and Sublet. In the “Light” job category, all three are highlighted because there’s a good chance that all three repair processes won’t be needed for light jobs. For “Heavy” jobs, Sublet is the only repair process that likely won’t be needed on a regular basis.
The idea of highlighting certain repair processes is to understand what are the “most likely” steps that will be needed for the majority of jobs. Filter out the “exceptional” jobs so you don’t create a complicated process workflow just to accommodate them.
4: Identify “Off-Line”
In Figure 3, I created a map of the most common repair-process actions. I combined the three rows in Figure 2 into two “in-line” rows, one for “Light” jobs (which I’m categorizing as jobs not requiring welding and internal metal repair, prime and paint), and the other row for “Heavy” jobs. The “Heavy” row now applies to jobs categorized as both medium and heavy.
In this process map, the three repair-processing steps – Heavy Structural, Mechanical, Sublet & Other – are no longer in the normal linear flow of repair processing. They’re placed in an “Off-Line” row because these repair actions are similar to the paint department’s “complete” paint job, which is handled differently from the average work flowing through the paint department. These jobs need to be temporarily removed from the “Heavy” process flow to allow less complex jobs to pass through.
Jobs going through “Light” repair processing move at the fastest pace and don’t require off-line processing. Jobs going through “Heavy” repair processing move at a slower pace and may require off-line processing.
Like the paint department, even though jobs can vary in size, you should still expect the majority of jobs in “Heavy” to be completed within a designated time frame. If, however, the job has significant damage and requires major structural repairs, it’s pulled off-line at specific point in processing (i.e. after disassembly), the heavy structural work is performed and the job gets inserted back into the process flow of “Heavy.” The same off-line steps occur when mechanical or sublet work is needed.
In order for this to work, you must adhere to the key features of a well-run paint department (listed earlier). And like the paint department, the process maps don’t necessarily represent an actual shopfloor layout but, rather, a workflow and processing scheme. Figures 1 through 3 also begin to suggest a way to formulate teams and assign repair-processing responsibilities.
5: Group Process Steps for Team Applications
In Figure 4, I’ve moved around process steps to put similar ones near each other to identify where we might use work teams. If this were a single spraybooth body shop that needed to repair five to seven cars daily, these teams might be formed:
Team 1: staging – disassembly – reassembly;
Team 2: light – heavy structural – non-structural;
Or you could form teams across all metal repair-process steps based on “Light” and “Heavy.”
Larger shops with multiple booths and higher job volume have even more flexibility when creating team workflow systems.
6: Establish Daily Production Objectives for Work Processes
Let’s say your shop needs to deliver five to seven cars daily. To establish production objectives for each processing team, we have to keep this daily production quota.
We know from traditional management strategies that we would use a five-to-seven-car daily quota for paint and detail. We’d probably also apply the same quota to reassembly. We also know that the shop must be loaded at the same rate that it’s unloaded, so five to seven cars also must be staged and disassembled.
If we use the example from the previous step, Team 2 is the only team left who needs a daily production quota. But because this team combines both structural and non-structural repairs, I’d first recommend that the team complete five to seven non-structural jobs daily that can be handed off to the paint department.
Second, you can establish a structural-repair-processing daily quota based on the frequency in which jobs needing structural repairs initially entered the shop repair system (i.e. if cars seem to come in at the rate of three lights, two mediums and one heavy daily, then one heavy structural must be produced by the time five other jobs pass through).
The objective is to start assigning repair-processing objectives based on cars – and not sold hours. That’s the only way to properly relate metal-production performance to customers. Sold hours can be used for long-term planning and other management measures, but not as a customer-related measure.
Go with the Flow
If we can consistently and success-fully manage paint, reassembly and detailing, there’s no reason we can’t use and manage the same workflow strategies in the metal department. It’s time – time to increase our efforts to provide immediate availability and hassle-free services and to deliver fast, quality repairs the first time out.
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 [email protected]