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Leading Through Training

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This was the last straw. He was fed up. Annoyed. Frustrated. Defeated. Disgusted. And it was time to find a new job.

“I’m quitting,” the technician said to Adam Robertson. “I’m looking for another job. I want to do some things to be more productive around the shop and they’re stopping me.”

Robertson, an instructor with the CARQUEST Technical Institute (CTI), remembers this moment following one of his classes well because, as a shop owner, he completely understood the irritation this technician had experienced.

“You’re a prime example of something that pisses me off,” Robertson remembers saying to the technician. “I’ve never seen your owner or your shop manager in class. The things you want to do to increase productivity in your shop are the things I’ve been teaching you for the last several years, and you’re not able to put it into place because they’re not here to see how important it is.”

Robertson is in a unique position: As both the owner of EuroAsian Garage in Seattle and an instructor for CTI, he has seen firsthand how his teachings can translate directly to improving shop productivity.

Unfortunately, he can also recognize when an owner isn’t taking full advantage of his seminars. Robertson has seen shop after shop fail to use training as an opportunity to not only improve shop performance, but also do some team building. Over the past 17 years, he’s finely forged his teaching approach, using real-world case studies to educate his students on complicated repairs and diagnostic procedures, and evaluating what trends typically define the shops most successful at utilizing training opportunities.

Being an instructor is like being a shop owner—you’ve got to be multifaceted. You could take the sharpest technician in the world, put him up in front of a class and his wheels will probably fall off. It takes a special kind of person.

You have to be part entertainer, but also knowledgeable and ready to answer your technicians’ questions. To be successful, to really get through to your guys, you’ve got to get up there, be full of energy, be able to stay on the track, but vary enough to keep these guys interested, keep them laughing, moving forward. I can get them to laugh, which helps them open up and ask questions about my processes and ideas, and they’ll bring up similar situations they’ve had in their shops.

I choose my topics based on my students. I usually cover diagnostic procedures, because that’s my expertise, but if this region has expressed interest in something else, I’ll research and form a class. I start pretty broad and simple, giving an overview, allowing for questions and thoughts, and then I move into case studies and specifics.

It’s all what CARQUEST refers to as “minds-on training.” It’s important to do hands-on training in the shop, but with minds-on training, we bring real-world experiences from the shop to the classroom. Through my presentations, students can see pictures of the car and recognize the parts.

FULL ATTENTION: A shop owner, Adam Robertson teaches technical courses four days per week, year-round. Too many techs and too many shops don’t put enough emphasis on training, he says.You’ve got to keep things as simple as possible. Even the most complicated situations, circuits, diagnostics—they are still, at their core, very basic. You can break anything down and get to the fundamentals and then grow on top of that, going at whatever speed you deem necessary for your students.

Even looking back to the diagnostics of the earlier years of cars, a car required basic things to start: It required fuel; it required compression. These are the same things cars require today—they just go about it in a much more complicated format. We still find ourselves going back to the basics, starting from scratch and then building back on top of that.

QQT (Quality, Quantity and Timing) is a diagnostic procedure I made up and use to teach my students complicated diagnostic issues. It’s three basic questions you should answer during any diagnostics process:
• Does it have proper Quality (electrical values)?
•Does it have proper Quantity (amount of fuel delivered)?
• Does it have proper Timing (correct number of events at the correct time)?

If it doesn’t meet all three, then we need to break it down and figure out why. When we take it all the way down to the most basic layers in a classroom setting, you can mentally begin to apply that procedure to every job.

I tell my students every class that when I give you an idea or a building block, you have to go out in the shop and practice the very next day. Don’t wait a couple months. If I was teaching a class on scan tools, I would request you take that information, go back to work and plug it into good, functioning cars so you can see what the known, good values look like. If you wait until something is broken to try out new diagnostic techniques for a new piece of equipment, you won’t know what’s right to begin with.

I’ve been teaching technicians every Monday through Thursday of every week of every year for 17 years. I’ve watched the difference between successful shops and what I consider unsuccessful shops. I’ve seen shops that can’t grow. If you want a successful shop, when it comes to technical training, it’s important that everybody from the shop comes to training.

I spend this time teaching technical advice, tips and tricks to the technician, and then you’ve got service advisors, managers and owners who don’t understand the changes in our industry. And so when it comes down to billing for diagnostics and the true need for diagnostic equipment, I get a lot of pushback from students who know their owners won’t listen or understand. The most successful shops are the ones where the whole team comes and understands what each department needs.

“All too often these guys will see great concepts, great ideas, but if they don’t go right back out and try it ... it goes right by them.”
— Adam Robertson, instructor, CARQUEST Technical Institute

There’s one shop in particular that’s a prime example of a shop that takes full advantage of training. They all come to class: the owner, managers, techs, service advisors. They always sit up front together and make an evening out of it. It’s a chance for them to get together and be a unit and get away from the shop.

But the one thing they do that is extremely successful is, after every class, when they go back to the shop in the morning, for the first hour, they don’t work on cars—they practice and talk about what they learned the night before. All too often these guys will see great concepts, great ideas, but if they don’t go right back out and try it or practice it in the shop, it goes right by them, and they might as well not have been in the class.

The shop owner and manager need to provide the support by going to these classes with them, understanding what they're going through. And then they need to give the technicians the time to practice in the shop to become more successful. I challenge my students to take five to 10 extra minutes on every car you work on, grab your diagnostic tools, hook up, and do a couple tests to healthy cars. Get a feel for what “good” looks like.

If the managers and service advisors don’t embrace and agree with what we as technical instructors are trying to get across, if they don’t know the concepts or they don’t see the value, they’re not going to let their guys progress. In a lot of cases, it’s the shop owner or managers that are holding back the performance of their technicians, and they don’t even realize it.

Teaching someone how to diagnose a vehicle is a never ending journey. For 17 years, I have had the same technicians come to my class every other month. I get one evening of instruction to get one point across, so teaching someone to diagnose a car takes a long, long time and a lot of dedication and practice.

As I look out into a group of 40 people, I see several hundred years of automotive experience sitting in one room. Some of these guys have been working on cars for a month, some of them for 30 years. The level of automotive knowledge varies so dramatically from seat to seat.

From an instructor standpoint, this is important for me to remember. If I talk about something very advanced, I’ll glance at my newer guys and see if they’re getting it. There’s a significant difference in the way a student will look back at you if they understand or didn’t understand. It’s subtle, but you can tell when people get your point. I think that translates to how we, as owners and as leaders, can lead within our shops. We need to be taking the time to make sure we’re getting our points across, and that our technicians are actually learning and making the shop better.

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