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Creating a Learning Culture

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After 34 years in the collision repair industry, Jeff Peevy announced last year that he would lead the Automotive Management Institute (AMI) as its next president. AMI was founded in 1989 to provide management education for automotive service and collision repair professionals and now features a curriculum that consists of more than 700 courses taught by 150 faculty members. In his new role with AMI, Peevy is responsible for all operations and developing a strategy to extend AMI’s reach in the industry. He recently discussed his new role, the planned changes for AMI and the importance of creating a “learning culture” in the shop.

What is your new role at AMI and why did you decide to join the organization now?

I’ve pretty much grown up in this industry and started out on the paint side. As I progressed in my career on the paint side and the jobber side, the thing that really hooked me was the training and education. I saw what training could do for my customers when I was a jobber. I just became hooked.

So when the opportunity was presented to me to consider taking the newly formed role of president of AMI, it was extremely intriguing. I saw independent shop owners really struggling with the overall competition within the industry and I felt like maybe I could best serve the industry in a position of trying to develop, standardize and build industry-recognized recognition programs for management growth. That made me accept the position in the middle of May.

With your experience at different industry training organizations, what did it teach you about the importance of a learning culture within a shop?

I led research at I-CAR over the last five years connecting and trying to identify a correlation between technician training and overall repair accuracy, which we identified. From there, we identified a culture in some of the highest performing shops that we called a “learning culture.” That is some- thing that, through my role at AMI, I will work to apply to the mechanical industry. The characteristics truly apply to all businesses.

What are the characteristics of a learning culture? 

The foundational thing is that learning is the only competitive advantage. If you think about that, if you seriously consider the important role that learning has, it’s going to transform the attitude in the shop. It seems like the word training conjures up a negative image of sitting in a boring class. Learning, on the other hand, most people are usually open to. After going through a training regimen, they become a lot better still than the other shops in the study. Next, they promoted and supported that belief through- out the organization. They had a learning expectation throughout all of their staff members. They said, “I expect you to learn and get better every day when I hire you.”

The other thing we identified was that the staff had a commitment to expertise in their roles. They had the attitude that they were going to learn all they could to be the best they could be in their role. That commitment had them very open to sharing knowledge and receiving knowledge from others. One person could go to training, come back and share what they learned with each other. They were open to receiving the knowledge with other people.

The other element was that the techs in the business had been coached to think of the operation as a whole. It’s often referred to as “systems thinking.” There was some debate if that was a little bit “vendor like,” but the fact of the matter is that a tech is typically fantastic at systems thinking, given the systems they work with in the car. They tend to think in systems but you have to expose the tech to the systems of your business and invite them to think of the business as a car they’re working on. A lot of times techs would be working on a car and when they ran across a challenge and start trying to find a solution, they don’t really think about what landed this challenge in their stall, or how will this affect someone downstream. Those premier shops tended to have techs who thought that way.

“Though knowledge is a company aspect, it has a shelf life. ... The only cure is being willing to learn and keep up.” —Jeff Peevy, president, Automotive Management Institute

The final thing we saw was that the staff was very consistent in how they viewed the business. The vision was co-created. It wasn’t just a declaration from the owner. They consistently shared and owned what the business was. They all described the purpose of the business and the vision of the business as serving the community. They took pride in that.

How can owners start implementing a learning culture in their shops?

It’s a moment when they get it. We tend, as an industry, to give lip service to learning. We say, “I believe in education and it’s our future.” That’s different than going, “Gosh, the role that learning plays in my business is what’s going to dictate my business’s future. From this day forward, I’m going to become a sponge.” If you have a tech who isn’t willing
to learn, they’re holding your business back. Though knowledge is a company aspect, it has a shelf life, which is getting shorter because what you know about working on a car yesterday is becoming less relevant to tomorrow. The only cure is being willing to learn and keep up. It seems simple and makes a lot of sense but there has to be this moment with shop owners where all of a sudden the light bulb comes on.

When you hear this stuff, it makes sense. Why wouldn’t we have done that? But it’s the exception, not the rule. You take any indy shop owner who is challenged with all the obstacles of running a small business. If you spend $10,000 on a new piece of equipment, for a brief time it has a competitive advantage to it, but it’s not sustainable because there’s always new equipment coming out. The learning helps you purchase the right equipment and use it to its fullest and know when there’s something better out there.

How will AMI help support the creation of a learning culture?

There are some ways to really evolve their current culture into a culture of learning and we intend to support that. You will see a lot of what I’m talking about on the new AMI website. The first thing up front will be about the role of learning. You will see us focused on the value and the critical role learning plays in competitive advantages. We will likely be using an index of learning styles. When you come to the website, you will take a quick survey and understand how you best learn. And once you do that, there could be multiple delivery methods for a course and you will know which one will be best for you. Those are the sort of things we intend to build to support the industry. 

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