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Optimize Workflow in Your Shop

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In checkers, whether the pieces move forward or backward, they all move diagonally. They’re trackable, consistent and easily predictable—essentially, the opposite of running an automotive repair shop.

“The way we look at management, we treat it like a checkers game, where all the pieces move the same way,” says Rick White, president of 180 Business Solutions, an automotive repair consulting firm. “Well, life doesn’t work that way. Business is a chess game. Every piece moves differently, and you have to orchestrate the movement of those pieces to accomplish your objective.”

Until you realize that, White says you cannot possibly begin to improve profits, to maximize throughput, to achieve top-tier efficiency and productivity. Workflow is unique to each shop, and mastering it requires every single piece of your business working in unison. From the moment the vehicle is dropped off to when it’s picked up, everyone must follow your lead and communicate effectively at a full 360-degree rotation.

In fact, that’s White’s term for it: “360-degree communication.” And it cannot possibly be achieved until you’ve completely mapped out your shop’s workflow from start to finish. To help truly maximize those 360 degrees, White and four prominent shop owners spoke with Ratchet+Wrench to outline every consideration when taking workflow to the next level—from “ordinary” to “extreme.”

 

Optimized Space

It’s a feat in and of itself to perfect workflow at any one shop, no matter the size or specialty. Andy Fiffick did just that with his two-bay radiator and air conditioner shop over a decade ago.

But to perfect workflow for a 12-location, $11.5 million MSO? That requires an elevated level of management—which Fiffick has achieved with Rad Air Complete Car Care in the Cleveland area. Each time he opened a facility (nine of which are remodeled buildings, and three of which were built from the ground up), his first priority was ensuring it ran at full capacity and that throughput was maximized immediately. It’s what has allowed productivity to hit 90 percent across all locations.

And while that involves all kinds of planning, from training the staff to marketing the facility, Fiffick says it really starts with answering one question:

“What is your business plan?”

That sort of next-level thinking has allowed each successive Rad Air location to operate at full capacity on opening day. Before you can even begin to tinker with processes and achieve extreme workflow, Fiffick says you must evaluate the shop you’re running: What kind of vehicles do you want to work on? What advantages does the facility offer your employees? Who is your ideal customer?

And, in the end: How will it all affect workflow in the space we’re given?

“If your business does low-dollar oil changes, you can expect to run 20–30 cars per day through the bays, knowing 20 percent will buy something else,” Fiffick says. “You’ll have to set up your shop accordingly to run 30 oil changes a day.”

Each Rad Air shop is set up to accommodate a high number of major repairs, such as head gaskets and transmissions, often requiring technicians to take on jobs that carry 20 hours of labor. Fiffick markets to customers willing to take on those costs—including hospitals and limo companies—resulting in a healthy mix of low-dollar and time-consuming work. Understanding this workflow make-up has allowed Fiffick to build three of his facilities from scratch.

 

"A technician’s time is worth $3–$6 a minute, meaning every minute wasted is money lost."

-Rick White, president, 180 Business Solutions

 

Perfected Timing

Mike Pogojeff’s senior technician’s efficiency rests around 150 percent; his mid-level tech sits a little over 100 percent; and his lube tech churns out 100 percent as well. In total, his three-man team averages 120 percent.

And because he understands the limitations of each technician, Pogojeff can map out the workflow for each day at Automotive Excellence. It’s what allows his Rohnert Park, Calif., shop’s efficiency to remain high, its productivity to consistently hover near 120 percent, and its gross profit margin to rest above 60 percent. All in all, the owner’s focus on workflow allows his seven-man team to repair, on average, 220 cars per month and achieve $1 million in annual revenue.

To pull that off, Pogojeff employs one of White’s most crucial notes when mapping out each employee’s day: Talk to your techs in terms of time.

“Techs, naturally, are not good time managers,” White says. “You ask a tech how long it took to do a job, and he’ll say an hour when, really, it’s billed as three. From the tech’s perspective, he’s counting the number of hoods opened to number of hoods fixed. He’s not counting the hours billed. And that mindset will kill efficiency.”

A technician’s time is typically worth between $3–6 per minute, White says, meaning every minute wasted is money lost—Pogojeff agrees. That’s why he evaluates how many vehicles are coming in each day, and how many hours of work it adds up to. Based on his technicians’ average overall efficiency, he schedules around 30 hours of work for each technician’s eight-hour day (24 hours total). Ideally, that entails several high-hour jobs for his top two technicians, and a steady stream of mid- to low-dollar work for his lube tech.

Knowing your technicians’ strengths and weaknesses is essential, Pogojeff says. Until his lube technician has helped out with enough major repairs and proven himself, that tech’s day will consist of light repair work. Then, Pogojeff has to strategically split up work between his other two technicians. While his B-tech can perform transmission and engine work quickly, he’s much slower on diagnostics. By evaluating the way each technician works, Pogojeff knows when to send his A-tech high-profit work he can finish in half the time.

All in all, Pogojeff keeps “time” top of mind. From phone call to vehicle drop-off to communication throughout the day, maximizing throughput is all about scheduling.

 

“Step outside your own head, decide on everyone’s roles, and work hard to maintain that process.”

-Sarah Kennedy, manager, Auto Emporium Inc.

 

Top-Down Communication

If you don’t understand the plan for each day before you walk through the front door? You’ll do it all wrong.

“You’ll act on impulse, and so will everyone else,” Sarah Kennedy says. “Step outside your own head, decide on everyone’s roles, and work hard to maintain that process.”

With an English degree in tow, the Auto Emporium Inc. manager’s secret to success is top-down communication. The two technicians at her Hilliard, Ohio, shop bust out 106 hours per week and are on pace to hit $850,000 in annual revenue in 2017, all thanks to her ability to effectively communicate the workload each day. To accomplish that, she has continued her father’s practice of “running a shop in writing.”

That starts up top with employee handbooks, which outline job descriptions, expectations, processes and procedures that employees must pen their signatures next to. She updates the book as she realizes policies that need to be established.

While each day’s workload is unique, the workflow is manageable and controlled. It all starts with Kennedy’s service advisor each morning, who evaluates the day’s work, fills out a dry-erase production board sectioned off by technician, and communicates that schedule to employees.

“If there's a ton of tickets in their racks and it’s hard to keep track of everything, anyone can look at the progress board at any point in the day and see how many cars are in the shop, who's assigned to it, and where it is in that process,” Kennedy says. “You don’t have to talk to me or my service advisor.”

Her service advisor takes off a half hour early, so Kennedy closes out each day as it began, meeting with the technicians and going over the board for the following day.

 

Nonverbal Communication 

Sarah Kennedy’s communicative approach plays heavily into one of Rick White’s most important reminders: If it’s done verbally? You can’t audit it.

Here are tips on establishing nonverbal communication in your shop.

Discourage the Walk-and-Talk

One of the biggest productivity killers is the classic walk-and-talk. If technicians and service advisors have to constantly cycle back and forth between one another, those are precious minutes throughout the day that add up to money lost. Improved notes and documentation will allow your employees to remain in their designated departments.

“I don’t care if you have to use instant messenger,” White says. “As long as you can see it, you can manage it.”

Document Everything

As we dip further into the 21st century, the technological tools at your disposal only make nonverbal communication easier. Whether they’re employing a management system or still using highlighters, your employees should be in the habit of documenting all necessary repair information.

“The advisor should be able to sit down and get three pieces of info on whatever the tech is recommending and why,” White says. “Then he can sell the work without having a discussion.”

Use the Duct Tape Method

Well, don’t literally use duct tape—but do choose a day where everyone pretends duct tape is covering their mouths, forcing them to rely on notes and repair orders.

 

Effective Training

At Knight’s Automotive Repair in Ledgewood, N.J., the workflow is like clockwork.

And when you’re as particular and excessively orderly as Peyton Knight, that’s really no surprise.

“I’m making sure they're doing it the way I want it done,” the owner says.

Knight’s Automotive’s system isn’t by any means extraordinary—it’s the execution of the shop’s processes that allowed it to hit $114,000 in a single month this year, despite losing one of its three technicians for two weeks. And that’s largely due to Knight’s training process for employees.

Much like Kennedy’s nonverbal approach, it starts with a written policy staff members must sign off on, and is followed up with a video outlining the shop’s repair process (Knight calls it “visual management training”).

From there, each employee performs live training alongside Knight. He outlines the shop’s courtesy inspection, which starts with a test drive and rounds out with a checklist covering everything from windshield wiper fluid to the horn to lights to emergency brakes to the steering wheel.

“Before they even move the car, they make sure the vehicle ID, production date, tire air pressure, license plate is on the repair order—all pertinent info for the service advisor to order parts,” says Knight, who watches new technicians fill out a checklist and repair order at least three times before training is complete.

Knight has set up “repair order racks” that help visually guide employees, making training more intuitive than instructional. Next to a sliding window that opens to the service advisor, tiny metal wall racks are designated for each technician, indicating whether a vehicle has had its courtesy inspection, if parts are ready, if it needs a post-repair test drive, etc. This way, every employee knows exactly where a vehicle is at in the process.

As employees get used to the system, Knight monitors the employees, following up whenever he spots hiccups or inefficiencies.

“It’s usually the person, not the procedure,” Knight says. “I check the sheet and know if they’ve checked the brakes or put the proper air pressure in. If they didn’t, then I ask, ‘What’s going on? Why did you forget? What is it you don’t understand? If there’s confusion, we fix it.’”

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