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Hitting the bottle
Posted to Shop Management Forum on 3/24/2013 33 Replies

I always enjoy it when I get a turn working on the front counter every day at my shop. Generally, this is not what a business owner should do. However, due to vacations and absentee issues, occasionally this experience can give great insight. Other times, it can give great headaches. :o)

There's always discussion about those lazy or inept technicians who can't produce billed labor hours faster than "the book" says they should.

Those techs are also talking about those idiot owner/managers who have no idea how to run a shop.

The truth is, the front office really controls most of this. They are responsible for a shop that is clean, well-lighted and equipped with all the necessary tooling and information to do the jobs that they take in.

The office determines WHO comes in the door and WHEN they arrive. If the techs come in at 8am and the first job arrives at 9am, we have a production issue right away.

If you hear the office staff on the phone informing a caller that "we can't look at those noisy brakes for a few days" and the shop is empty of work at 3pm, we have another problem.

So, the first problem is regulating the flow of work, or being the gatekeeper.

I just discussed the "when", now a quick word about the "who". In the last 2 weeks, I turned down 2 very profitable tire sales and another easy-money job. None of the 3 were Honda or Toyota products and that is all we work on at our shop. We are not an "import specialist", nor do we specialize in Honda or Toyota products. We are ONLY Honda and Toyota, which includes Lexus, Scion and Acura. So, why won't I put a set of tires on a F-f-f-f-f-f-ord? (See, I can't even say it). Because, if the wheel stud breaks taking the lug nuts loose, I'm working on a Ford then, aren't I? If the brakes crumble to dust, or the bearings are powder… You get the idea.

This isn't so much about what you DO decide to take in as what you don't. Taking in strange stuff that goes totally wrong and eats time will often show to be a bad decision. It's just like what happens after the famous words are uttered, "here, hold my beer and watch this".

The office regulates this, the techs have little to no control. Think efficiency. Learn to say no when the job involves tooling and experience you don't have. It's counter-productive.

The second problem is that those "times" that are so important that the techs bill are for operations that the front office has either offered to a customer or that they have made up in advance.

The first example is diagnostic time. If the front office doesn't have a program for this, such as what exactly will the tech do, what specific steps will be taken, what information will be reported and, most importantly, where will the tech stop, how can this be sold for a profit?

Look, every tech wants to fix the car, every tech thinks if they just take a little longer, they'll have it. I don't mean to dictate what specific tests a tech should run, but rather a time limit and general strategy that does involve time. It doesn't have to account for every second, but stopping points must be kept in mind.

If you can't make money at things, you shouldn't do them. This doesn't mean that you have to make money on every last thing you do, but at the end of the month, each type of work must pay its own way. It's the job of management to outline how things will proceed, what they include and when you stop and report. Diagnostics is a simple series of tests and inspections. Often times there are sales to be made and decisions to be determined in that process. If you do this long enough, there may be cars you don't fix. It's not your responsibility to bail out the person who bought a butchered car or one with a salvage title by fixing it for a flat fee.

The next issue is the time sold on given operations. Are allowances made for the operations that aren't listed correctly in the book? Are there rust or other mitigating factors that should be taken into account?

Another issue is the culture of the shop. Are new techs given training on the value of the technician's time? If you take the dollar amounts of the average parts sales per labor hour sold and add the parts prices to the labor hours billed, then divide that by 60 minutes in an hour, the result is the average sales expected to be produced by each tech, PER MINUTE. Once a person understands how much they need to produce every single minute, then it becomes more important to change the layout of the shop equipment and stop wasting time wandering around looking for things and waiting for things. Problems should be fixed, just like cars.

I firmly believe that every person in the shop should get management training on shop efficiency and how it gets done.

Now, it's the job of the front office to provide the techs with a steady supply of 3 things--cars, parts and information.

I've covered getting cars in in a timely fashion. Let's talk briefly about parts.

At my shop, parts are pulled in advance and put into boxes before the cars even arrive. I know, how do I know what each car needs? I don't. But I do know what some of them need and those parts are put into boxes. The labor operation "PP" is entered onto the invoice and shows up on the summary to tell us the "Parts are Pulled" for that job. That way, as each day unfolds and more cars are booked in, we can see which cars need parts pulled and which ones are good.

This enables the office to order the parts you don't have. This enables the shop to find out BEFORE THE CUSTOMER ARRIVES, that the parts aren't available. You can now call the customer and head off a problem before it happens. Parts have to come from 3 days away.

Each day, the cars come in, invoices printed, keys tagged and parts dispensed, without any big effort on anyone's part and, no one waits for parts.

Parts can be a substantial bottleneck. The office is a bottleneck. The office is a bottleneck in booking jobs, they are a bottleneck in approving estimates, they are a bottleneck in ordering parts, pricing parts and getting parts for add on sales.

This is where you must hit the bottle and hit it hard.

Look at any part you sell 4 of in a year. Put it on the shelf, set it up for restocking. Each week, run stock orders for your different suppliers and put it in stock. Don't take the time to call Louie's auto to have them send over wiper blades or an air filter. Take it off the shelf.

Look again at the time you lose in minutes of tech down time. Forget that you can save money or time by calling for the best price. You just cooked yourself by making 2 phone calls.

The plain truth is, a shop has to produce billed hours equal to or better than the time the techs are available for work. This is not done by trying to find a bunch of super techs who can work fast and efficiently enough to cover up incompetence in the front office. This is done by leadership and planning in the front office. There is no reason each and every tech you employ shouldn't bill good hours.

After all, the office controls the throttle on the work flow, they control the parts flow and they control the times billed. So, why should the techs always take the blame?

When working in the front office, look for the things that take a lot of your time and find ways to reduce that time. Having procedures for the techs and parts at the ready go a long ways toward freeing up time.

In short, find the bottlenecks and hit the bottle… :o)

Becky G. Witt
George Witt Service, Inc.
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

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