Monday, 26 June 2017 14:32

Lean Thinking of America’s Greatest Body Shops

Written by Dave Luehr


Luehr lean blueprinting 1

Dave Luehr teaching a lean blueprinting workshop


When mentioning the word lean, most people in the collision repair business conjure up images of large corporate lay-offs attempting do more work with less people. Others think of lean as an attempt to do car repairs faster, also conjuring up false images of people working harder with less resources. To America’s greatest body shops, lean means something entirely different.

The word lean was popularized decades ago in James Womack’s book, The Machine That Changed the World, which described some of the innovative production systems being utilized by Japanese manufacturers. Toyota Motor Company popularized it through their Toyota Production System (TPS) which caught the attention of many as they became leaders of the auto manufacturing business. But to understand the true meaning of lean one must simply understand this...

• Value stream = the process required to get the customer what they want from start to finish
• Value added activity = the activities in the stream that the customer is willing to pay for
• Waste = any activity in the stream that the customer is not willing to pay for

Lean is a way of thinking and the actions taken to remove waste from the value stream. As my good friend Rich Altieri says, “Lean means hands on car!” In other words, a practitioner in the collision repair business, is a person who develops systems or takes some kind of action to keep technicians continuously touching cars!


Hands on car = Lean
Hands off car = Waste

Lean does not necessarily mean a particular vehicle moves faster through your production system. Lean thinking seeks to remove the obstacles and waste from the value stream, so most vehicles do end up getting finished faster and without the chaos usually experienced in traditional body shops. Think of it like a freeway. The purpose of a freeway is not to get you to your destination faster, it is to get everyone to their destination on time. The reason we experience traffic jams is because of “variables” caused by factors such as everyone driving at different speeds. Some people are going 80MPH while others, 45MPH, all sorts of problems occur and soon we have a traffic jam. A lean freeway system would have everyone driving at the same speed and everyone reaching their destination in a predictable manner. On-time, every-time!


Luehr lean shop body shop express 

What a “lean” high volume shop looks like. (Body Shop Express – San Diego, CA)


Sadly, most collision repairers operate like the first freeway system I mentioned, where some vehicles are expedited because they are behind schedule or because an insurance partner requires favoritism. You feel like you are stuck in a traffic jam when you visit most of the body shops in our country!

Variable reduction

A big part of lean thinking in collision repair involves removing the variables from a vehicle repair prior to entering it into our production system’s flow lane. It is a process of adding some “essential waste” in order to remove a much larger amount of “unessential waste” later on. Like an attempt to get all the cars traveling down the proverbial freeway at the same rate and making sure none of them break down and stall the roadway for everyone else. The most popular method for achieving this variable reduction is what we all know as repair planning or “blueprinting.”

Many other industries remove variables in their systems, and they don’t call it lean, they call it preparation. Imagine if in an operating room the doctor would cut open a patient before prepping the person; forgetting to verify what part of the body is supposed to be operated on, and not locating the tools in advance he or she may need to keep the patient alive throughout the process. In the restaurant business, chefs frequently perform prep work (Mise en Place – French for “put in place”). Chef would quickly be terminated if he just heated up a pan, threw in the chicken, and then began searching for the kitchen tools, spices, diced vegetables and other things required to successfully create a delicious dish. Unfortunately, these are the very behaviors that many body shops make when working on a modern, high-tech, vehicle! They stick the car in a body man’s stall and start the repairs before we even know the full extent of the damage. This madness must stop!


In the lean world of America’s greatest body shops, they are disciplined enough to take the extra time required at the beginning of the process to properly diagnose vehicle damage by incorporating OEM information, scanning for diagnostic trouble codes and then disassembling the vehicle completely to find any potentially hidden damage. Only then, do they order the parts and have them delivered in one single order on one invoice to further reduce wasted activities. This my friends, is lean thinking.

At many body shops they employ a person with the title of “production manager.” At most shops, this person would be more appropriately be titled “Chief Fire-fighter!” In a lean shop, most administrative efforts are laser focused on the pre-production activities such as blueprinting, mirror matching parts for correctness, etc. When vehicles are properly prepped, the guys out in the shop don’t usually require much supervision or “management” because they will have everything they need to properly repair the vehicle without all the obstacles experienced in traditional shops. At many of America’s greatest body shops that apply “fire-prevention” a production manager is non-essential!


Dave Luehr is co-author of “The Secrets of America’s Greatest Body Shops” and founder of the collision coaching and consulting organization “Elite Body Shop Solutions.”

To learn more about The Secrets of America’s Greatest Body Shops, visit www.bodyshopsecrets.com.

To reach Dave Luehr email david.luehr@elitebodyshopsolutions.com