Think Tortoise, Not Hare - BodyShop Business

Think Tortoise, Not Hare

Many who attempt to implement ‘lean’ become frustrated when, initially, the business seems more chaotic than before. The key is to create operational stability and organizational discipline – and to be patient.

Most everything we’ve written about over the past year and a half has been related to building a business process. We’ve discussed everything from why a process-centered business works and why you should do it to exactly how to go about building one. Hopefully you’ve seen the value and started considering or even building your own “lean” body shop.

For those of you who’ve worked in a lean organization, you recognize that, in the early stages, it’s not pretty. It’s hard work. There’s nothing more difficult than changing the culture of an entire organization. For example, GM has worked directly with Toyota through their NUMI project in California for years now, but today, GM is in serious trouble. Is it that lean just doesn’t always work? Is it that Toyota’s success is related to something else? If you ask GM, they’ll tell you that they’ve made huge improvements in their capabilities, but being the enormous machine that they are, it’s not easy to move quickly.

But if lean is as powerful a model as we’ve said, why wouldn’t organizations move there quickly, like they do when changing paint vendors or computerized management systems?

To understand, let’s look at the typical experience of those who attempt to implement lean. Initially, everyone is excited about the new project because it all makes sense on paper, but within the first few weeks or months of execution, reality sets in. Often, organizations will become frustrated. Although many areas of the business seem better – maybe more organized or easier to execute – many other areas of the business just don’t seem to be working. Things start to fall through the cracks. In many cases, the business seems more chaotic than it used to be. People seem to be running around, stressed out, trying to deal with more “emergencies” than before.

Why is that? For those of you who are about to implement lean, pay attention. For those of you who know what I’m talking about, see if this isn’t similar to what’s going on in your business. We’re going to examine the two major issues that prevent newly lean organizations from achieving success.

The 5 WHYs
Start with understanding the “5 Whys.” This is a Toyota philosophy that says, “If you ask ‘why’ five times when trying to solve a problem, you’ll identify the root cause.” As an example: The paint shop is struggling with completing all its work on a daily basis, so you investigate. You ask the first why to this problem and you get … 

  1. Answer: “Because the body work keeps coming back to paint with pin holes that we have to fix.” You ask why again …
  2. Answer: “Because the bodyman is rushing the body repair.” You ask why again …
  3. Answer: “Because the bodyman is continually in the office with the estimator reordering the correct parts.” You ask why again … 
  4. Answer: “Because the wrong parts were ordered on the initial estimate.” You ask why again … 
  5. Answer: “Because the estimator didn’t check his estimate before he

As you can see, the initial problem looks like a paint shop issue when, in reality, it’s an estimating issue. By asking “The 5 Whys,” you’ve now moved closer to the root cause and closer to fixing the problem — forever.

Still, most organizations don’t put nearly enough time into understanding the situation or identifying the root cause. Shops are more prone just to fix the issue in front of them and, in most cases, management is praised for their ability to do such.

Cycle of Improvement
Another philosophy of Toyota is their “cycle of improvement.” They call this the “Plan – Do – Check – Act” process.

It states that you must first PLAN the work that needs to be done. This is a large part of the kaizen activity we’ve discussed. It ultimately becomes the standard work we wrote about a few months ago. It’s a definitive and well-thought-out way to perform the work required in a step so that it fits in nicely with all the other work … and is correct.

Next comes the DO step of the cycle. This is when we begin to execute the process that we’ve spent so much time designing.

Following that is the CHECK step. This is when we examine the effectiveness of the process. This means checking to see if each work step fits in nicely with all the other steps (that it delivers on time, as in “just in time”) and that it’s being completed correctly.

The last step of the cycle is the ACT step. This is when we actually solve the problem, when we go in and change the process based on our doing the planned work and checking to see if it’s OK.
This is this first major problem causing frustration around a new “lean” organization. Instead of the Plan – Do – Check – Act cycle, most businesses (especially body shops) practice the Plan – Do (a little or some) – and ACT cycle. Management jumps from a problem surfacing to immediately changing something. For example, the pinholes surface and quickly a decision is made to either buy some new material or maybe even fire somebody. The problem with this is that the root cause is never identified.

Remember, the problems we experience throughout the day aren’t really the problems; they’re just the symptoms. What ultimately happens is that the initial process built during the kaizen event, which took so much time and thought to develop, is quickly dismantled by these small changes. Within a short period of time, it just doesn’t seem like the process is working very well (which isn’t true because it can’t work very well if it doesn’t exist)! This is a methodical approach, and not having the discipline to stick to this cycle will only make things worse.

Just Do It!
Now here’s the second major issue that keeps newly lean organizations from realizing success. One word: discipline. It’s the DO part of the improvement cycle. As in the “5 Whys” exercise, in almost every case where an issue is discovered in a newly lean organization, the fifth why winds up saying, “We just didn’t follow the standard work.”

How frustrating do you think that is? After all the time and effort you went through to create this new “machine” that’s clearly a MUCH more effective way to run the entire business, someone, somewhere, just decided not to do it that way. This is what GM talks about when they say, “It’s hard to move the organization.” This is why it’s critical to involve the employees when you’re building the new way.

You see, when you break down the work into steps and then connect them, each piece has an effect on every other. One seemingly small task in one step may have a huge effect on a downstream operation. But your people aren’t always going to realize this. This is why the more they can be involved in the design, the better chance you’ll have of everyone understanding why you do things — thus keeping these
“just didn’t do it” issues from happening.

But the truth is, you can’t have everyone involved, and even if you did, not everyone is going to take it as seriously as needed. This is where the Toyota philosophy of “Just Do!” comes into play. If you talk to someone who has apprenticed in or has experience in implementing a successful lean organization, you’ll find that there’s a certain level of impatience with leadership.

Because much of what is different about a lean business is so hard to explain without actually experiencing it, many leaders won’t spend a great amount of time trying to explain why things need to be done. As we’ve said before, you can only learn lean by doing, so at some point, you just must do.

This is the critical and usually missing element in a newly lean organization — the discipline to just do it! This is the difference between taking a couple months to start realizing great improvement and taking five years to
do it.

Things won’t get any better and frustration levels won’t ever decline if you don’t create discipline in your organization. So why wait? Take the “Just Do” position right away. I liken it to firing that horrible employee that you and everyone else have complained about for years, but you always found some excuse to put it off. Once you’ve finally gotten rid of that person, you always sit back and wonder, “Why didn’t I do that two years ago?” There’s no difference here.

Creating Operational Stability
This is a patient approach. Many say that you must be the tortoise, not the hare, in order to achieve the level of success that Toyota has achieved. The whole Plan – Do – Check – Act cycle of improvement clearly displays this patient approach. But when executed properly, you cannot argue with the results.

The key is to first create a level of operational stability. That means on average, the process runs as designed.

Realize that you’ll never achieve any real success until you start improving the standard process. But you must have a standard process to improve one! If you’re not capable of this level of discipline, that’s OK. Just put someone else in charge. But be prepared: If you want to be lean, you must have organizational discipline. A half-hearted implementation of lean brings a thousand harms and not a single gain. This stuff is for professional use only!

As always, feel free to e-mail with questions and good luck!

Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ ( 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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