If you examine the collision repair process, I mean really watch what goes on in the average shop every day, you’ll notice that more time is spent not working on cars. This has nothing to do with a technician’s ability to make the repairs, but rather the required starting and stopping of work caused by the fragmented systems we use. For example, the need for approvals on newly discovered or supplemental damage, or to locate new work or determine where to move incomplete work for a tech, or to locate missing parts or materials for work, or to locate tools and equipment. The need for clarification or coordination of work between departments like paint and detail and reassembly and so on slows down techs too. You could categorize all this stuff as the search for information. In most shops, it’s just built into the normal set of activities that everyone must go through to fix cars. It’s just one of those “the way it has always worked” issues.
Some shops might disagree that these activities outweigh actual repair activities, and in some cases, shops may have improved their processes so they’re better at them. But I don’t think anyone can deny that a lot of time is spent performing “other than repair” tasks. So the reasoning is this: If you can reduce this “other than repair” stuff, you can reduce the costs associated with performing it. You can also increase your capacity to perform the repair tasks without adding any costs.
A lot of things I’ve written about over the years have focused on these principals of eliminating waste, eliminating costs and producing more work that people are willing to pay you for. But often, people will say that this “lean” stuff isn’t for everyone or that it seems too difficult to implement while just trying to survive the economic conditions they face today. The question that keeps coming up is, “Is there anything we can do in smaller doses that might help gain some performance?” The short answer is yes, there are many tools utilized in lean organizations that, independently, may improve their performance. For collision repairers, these problems of “search for information” or start-stop-start seem to be some of the biggest opportunities for improvement – and some of the best fits for entry-level lean activities.
Get Information Out There
So before we talk about solutions, let’s break down the problem for a moment. What is it about this need for more information in collision repair that causes all these stoppages? I think the origin goes back to how shops have been historically managed. Technicians have been viewed as tools in the organization. Like a piece of equipment, you bring them in, turn them on and feed them product to be processed. Compensation systems are built to support this thinking: pay per piece or unit produced. In this model, decision-making or even thinking on the part of a tech isn’t required, much less sought out. By default, this model says that management’s purpose is to understand the state of all the business’ components, sort through the issues, make the required decisions and dispense the answers and directions for the organization.
I’m not trying to discredit this way of thinking. Clearly, there’s value in keeping the important business decisions in the hands of those most accountable. But today, with the level of knowledge and expertise our workforce has, doesn’t it make sense that many of these management decisions could just as easily be made by them? In the historical “gatekeeper of information” model, doesn’t it work like this? The people report the problems to management. They, as the owners of all the information, can sort through the issues and dispense the best decision available. But isn’t it true that many of the questions raised throughout the day could simply be solved by suggesting that the rest of the information that resides in the managers’ minds simply be made available to the rest, publicly?
What I’m describing here is visual management, or the process of simply and visually posting all of the information around. For example, the current state of things vs. where they should be, how things are supposed to work, who has authority to take action and how to do such, and so on. Could some simple visual management tools reduce the need for management intervention? If technicians, estimators and parts personnel could read the manager’s mind and know the right answers or at least the same answers, wouldn’t that allow more actual work to continue to flow?
As an example, think for a moment about sitting at a busy traffic intersection. If you’re sitting at a crowded four-way stop and your turn at bat finally comes, what do you have to do to safely make your way through? In most cases, it starts by watching what has been happening prior with the traffic pattern – who went first and second and so on. Then you have to determine if the rest of the group understands the prior pattern and is going to follow it. There’s some eye contact between drivers. You’re also looking at turn signals, maybe trying to rethink the flow if turns are now involved in the upcoming maneuver. Usually there are some hand signals going on between each other, waving someone on while they’re waving you on until you both go at the same time. The experience is really about trying to collect all of the information you can to make a good decision about moving through the intersection safely. Because of the lack of ease with which to gather this information, this process clearly should be considered an example of a poor visual management system.
So what’s a better way? A traffic light at the intersection with colors that indicate when to move and arrows that indicate when it’s safe to turn. It’s painted lanes to move your vehicle into with clearly labeled signs indicating what the lanes are for. It’s signs that use pictures instead or words so no one will misinterpret their meaning. This is clearly a better way that not only makes it easier to move through the intersection but also increases the speed, volume and quality of all traffic moving through it.
Where are Your Intersections?
Could you create these simple visual management systems in your shop? Could this thinking be applied to getting through all the intersections in your shop with the same level of improvement a traffic light delivers? If so, where are your intersections? Where do your people need to gather information about moving forward? The most effective systems should be placed at the areas where most stops occur. Where are some of these areas in your organization? Here are a couple examples of common ones as well as some thoughts for your own signaling of information.
The big intersection of supplemental damage discovered. It’s clear that a lot of these stops may be unavoidable, for example the situations where approval is required from the insurer or vehicle owner on things like field claims and customer pay work. But what about where agreements are in place that allow you to keep going? Maybe it’s just a matter of properly documenting damage and communicating the change. Simple visual management systems could be created to:
Visually signal to management that an issue has been discovered.
Visually indicate to the technician where work can proceed.
Visually indicate how to document and communicate.
Visually communicate to all that changes have been made and what they are.
Visually indicate what else needs to be completed.
I’m not going to lay out what that looks like for you because that’s not the point. I’m sure there are many great ways to do it. You could use boards in the shop that show all work and issues, or big, colored hats on the ceiling indicating what’s happening and what help is needed. The point is that maybe you could build a simple system that communicates what’s happening and what to do next so work can continue. Can’t some of the repetitive decision-making that management goes through each day be eliminated by just making all the pertinent information public?
The jam-up that arises from, “What should I work on next?” How often are managers distracted from bigger objectives when the sudden need to find another job arises? That dreaded knock on your door saying, “What do you want me to do next, Boss?” I know most managers take a longer view at production over a day or week, and might even plan out the next few jobs into a tech’s bay. But this doesn’t solve much when unexpected changes throw the entire plan off track. You know, when the customer doesn’t show up, or someone calls off, or the parts don’t arrive, or a big supplement is discovered, or the booth shuts down again. Typically, an entire recalculation of plans occurs until something else goes wrong and you recalculate again. Simple visual management systems could be created to:
- Visually communicate what work is available to be started.
Visually sort this work by type so skill sets could be matched.
Visually indicate if the level of work available is too little, too much or just right.
Visually indicate which work has problems that need to be resolved before start can occur, and what those problems are.
Again, what that system looks like will vary and is up to you. But I’d be thinking about what my parking lot looked like and should look like when building this type of visual system.
Some other common intersections that typically need improvement might include:
- Missing or incorrect parts.
- Waiting for insurer approval.
- Scheduling – too much or too little.
- Deliveries – too much or too little.
- Final billing and uploads/invoicing.
The list could go on for awhile, and many businesses are different. It’s up to your organization to identify your biggest areas to support with visual management systems. So here are some things to support the business with visuals once you know where you’re going.
Laying Down the Rules
Once you know where to build, you need to know how. We use a simple formula when building visual systems, which is the same formula to audit the systems’ effectiveness.
Good visual management systems must tell the following:
When it’s time to begin something. Simply put, this should be determined by how to achieve the most favorable outcome, whether that be driven by profit or customer experience or whatever you feel is right. This visual should show you both when it’s time to begin something and if it did or didn’t begin. (If you missed, it should be visually understood.)
Where you can find the work to be done. There can be no guesswork. If the product(s) sit in several different places, the specific place where this one can be found must be understood.
How the work should be done. You can bite off as little or as much as you see fit, but visually the system needs to indicate what should happen to the product, i.e. “bumper cover repair” or “parts needing verified.” This detail is designed to keep the producer of the work from needing to stop and ask questions about the work, so design it to support that objective.
How to know if it’s correct. Does the system tell you visually that all prior steps needed have been completed? No incomplete work or open issues? If other open items are left, what are they and what should be done about them?
Where the work should go once complete. Visually, is it clear where to move the work once it’s complete, and is there a way to signal that it’s complete? In good systems, this signal that work is complete is the same signal used to indicate the next step. Good systems require little activity to keep information up to date because it’s already built into the system.
The overall objective of visual management systems is to publicly display as much information about both the status and the expectations as possible in a simple visual format. That way, as many minds as available in your organization can be thinking about how to keep things moving forward, as well as solving common problems that arise. The understanding is that in doing this, less activity is needed in discussing issues one-on-one, or multiple times, and that more value can be produced throughout the day.
Kanbans and Andons
Many organizations use clever tools like “kanbans” when building systems. The word originated in the Japanese culture and comes from the Geisha whose job it was to refill sake glasses once they were empty. An empty glass became a signal to refill it.
You see kanbans at supermarkets, which are those specific and indicated places where product must go. For example, on a shelf there may be 10 spaces available for soap. If you look at this spot and only see five containers of soap, you visually understand it’s time to reorder five more. We use kanbans for things like indicating how much work we have versus how much we should have to match our capacity. This allows us to keep all work moving through consistently. It also shows everyone visually when we need to open up the schedule or shut it down.
Many organizations also use andon systems. Andon means “enunciate” or “yell.” Some andon systems you may be familiar with are bells that sound when you walk through a door or lights that turn on in one area when problems occur in another. They’re great ways to signal any important activity that has or hasn’t happened.
It’s in our nature to create these simple visual systems. You can see them everywhere, even in the natural world. Some poisonous snakes are red or have rattles to warn you and so on. Some shops use great visual systems today without even realizing it, like when the parking lot gets full and you stop scheduling work or when the frame tech starts lubricating the wheels on the toolbox and you realize you better start running a help wanted ad! People even use body language to subconsciously send you important visual information. For some reason, though, it becomes less likely when people build business systems.
Nothing to It
When implemented properly, visual systems serve to replace much of the redundant and non-value added activities undertaken by management and producers when attempting to share information. While it’s critical that good information flow throughout an organization, it’s important to understand just how much effort is spent in trying to do that. The truth is that this process can be greatly simplified. Even better is that the cost of doing this is almost nothing. You don’t need elaborate software systems to help predict what will happen or organize what actually is happening. Simple tools like colored cards or hats can be used to indicate status. Work or parking areas can be labeled indicating that “if a car is in this spot, then this needs to happen,” or the lack of a car there means something else needs to happen to get one there. The key here is visuals that are so easy to understand that anyone, even a stranger to the organization, can within a few moments not only tell you how your system works, but also if it’s in good shape or in trouble.
With or without implementing lean philosophies in your organization, simple visual management systems can make you better instantly. It’s truly worth a day or two’s time to look for all the big ugly intersections in your organization and put in a couple simple and inexpensive traffic lights. If nothing else, it may just buy you the few hours per week you need to start working on solutions to the bigger problems we face.
Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ (www.thebodyshop-at.com). 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].