"We've determined that if we can help a technician complete just three-tenths of a hour more labor a day - just by making sure he has or can find what he needs quickly - that adds up to $3,000 a year," Cantrell said.
Here is a collection of tips that Cantrell and other shop owners have found to improve the organization - and thus productivity - of their office and shop operations:
• Finding the right clips and fasteners can be a real headache and time-waster for technicians. Having a good supply and variety on hand will pay off, especially since a number of suppliers offer a quick barcode and scanner system that will help track and bill for clips and fasteners on a per-job basis.
• Estimators and parts manager are often getting interrupted by technicians asking for additional parts they will need on a job. One suggestion: Let technicians know the estimator or parts manager will stop by their stall two or three times each day to find our about any additional parts they need. This keeps the techs in their stalls rather than in the office, and reduces interruptions for the office staff.
• Simplify your materials ordering and inventory by requiring all your technicians to use the same brands and types of materials. Make sure all your cabinets and other storage areas for these materials are labeled inside and out so that anyone can find what they need (or put newly-arrived inventory away) quickly.
• "Painted lanes" on the shop floor can help ensure equipment and vehicles are placed where they should be. "You can't lane out enough," Cantrell said. "We sweep and mop the floors every night, and all the equipment is moved. To get that done quickly, and so you're not upsetting your tech because you have his toolbox off to the left of where he likes it, line it all out to get everything back where it belongs."
• After watching a technician spend several minutes digging through a box of chains to find the length he needed, Cantrell created a "chain board" on wheels that makes it easy to bring all the chains - which have been color coded by length - to the job.
• Getting headsets for your office staff may help them get more done while they are "on hold" or talking on the phone.
• Keeping all the paperwork associated with a job together - and then being able to find it - can be a real challenge. Consider using color-coded repair order folders - use the colors to sort jobs by insurer, customer's last name or vehicle type.
• Tired of repeating yourself? Create "Top 10" signs for each department, listing the things you find yourself telling people over and over. This might include reminders about signing off on work orders, notifying the office 20 minutes before being ready for the next vehicle, various closing procedures, etc. These signs can be posted in the shop or in employees' stalls or on their lockers.
• Install mirrors in the shop to help technicians check vehicle turn signals and lights without needing someone else or getting in and out of the vehicle.
• Program frequently-used numbers into the speed dial feature of your shop phone system; make sure a current list of other important vendor numbers (scrap metal hauler, garage door repair company, shop alarm company) is posted by every phone.
• Get your tool room or area organized, using a marker to outline where each item is to be placed or hung; this makes it more likely that things will be put away where they should be. (Labels are less effective than outlining because different people call things by different names, and because outlining allows you to see quickly what is missing.) Techs soon see the value in putting things away where they belong (when they start to be able to find what they need more quickly) and will help make sure everyone does the same.
• Use a simple system of colored dots (stickers) placed on the windshield of vehicles when they come into the shop to indicate any unusual or sublet repairs (alignments, AC charge, etc.). Technicians can initial and remove the dots when they perform the indicated repair, placing the sticker on the work order.
• If your shop has an intercom system, make sure it is used to avoid unnecessary trips back and forth between the shop and office. Better yet, provide employees with portable phones or walkie-talkies to help them communicate with one another more easily.
• Ask your parts suppliers to label all parts with the work order number you supply. (A grocery store pricing gun can be used to quickly add a work order number to parts a supplier didn't label.)
• Remember that there's often a lot of turn-over of parts delivery drivers. So if there are systems you want them to follow about where and how to leave parts, post a sign explaining those procedures.
• Also post a sign in the parts area indicating which suppliers have return parts to pick up; Cantrell's sign is wired with lights that can be turned on to indicate which dealers have return parts waiting, but an inexpensive dry erase board can be equally effective. And a simple two-part form that lists the parts being returned makes it easy for you and the dealer to make sure you get all credits earned - just have the parts driver sign the form when the returns are picked up.
• Include with each vehicle a checklist of items each department must complete and initial before the vehicle can move to the next stage of production.
• Use magnetic, color-coded and numbered vehicle cones or "hats" to help you identify and locate a particular vehicle. Cantrell's shop also uses these to indicate which vehicles need to be photographed at various stages in the repair process.
• Supply the detail area with a waterproof box or cabinet with the few tools detailers may need to prevent them from having to go find one to borrow from a technician. And make sure that detailer has a checklist of items to go over on every vehicle to help ensure that something small - a burned-out bulb or a new windshield washer fluid reservoir that didn't get filled, for example - doesn't cause a come-back.
• Get a "jump box" for every room of your shop, so a tech never has to go far when a vehicle's battery needs some help.
• Provide a roll of 36-inch masking paper in every technician's stall, making it convenient for them to protect interiors from grinding dust, etc.; the time saved in vehicle clean-up (and in not having the techs run to the paint shop every time they need some masking paper) will offset the cost of the paper. And keep a hand-help plastic masking machine by every overhead door to help technicians "close-up" a vehicle quickly before it is taken outside.
• If you have a large lot, employees may waste a lot of time wandering around trying to find a vehicle. Striping the lot and numbering the spaces allows you to provide the RO and a space number to speed up this process.
• Keys can be a major source of headaches and wasted time. A color-coded tagging system (even as simple as one color for domestic vehicles and another for imports) can help, and each set should include the repair order and type of vehicle.
• Make sure your estimating area includes a "tool kit" with rubbing compound, some polish rags and drying towels, a small pry bar or spoon, glass cleaner, and the other items estimators often need to see all the damage or help a customer quickly.
"Most shops already do the big things that help production," Cantrell says. "But it's little things like these that can help you gain that extra three-tenths."
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.