Tuesday, 31 August 2004 17:00

Interruptions: killer of time, efficiency, growth and profit

Written by Tom Franklin

Charlie arrives at the shop an hour before opening time as usual. It seems impossible to get a day's work done between the 8:00 a.m. opening time and the 6:00 p.m. closing time. He rarely gets out of the shop before 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. And this is during a relatively slow period. What is it that is killing his time (and his family life)? 

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It's not that Charlie doesn't have help. He has a production manager, an estimator, and a girl on the front desk to answer the phone. But even with all of that help, somehow the day slips away and everything hasn't gotten done. He thinks maybe it's because so many things have to be done twice or three times. Parts for a rush job are ordered. He thinks that's taken care of, but a call from the dealer tells him half of the parts aren't immediately available. Some have to be back-ordered. This means additional phone calls to find a supplier who can deliver or ship the parts immediately.
A work order calls for unrelated damage repair on the opposite side of a vehicle assigned for repairs by an insurance company. The painter lets the car go to the detail department, but the production manager discovers the unrelated damage hasn't been repaired. More calls are necessary to explain the delay while the car is sent back to production to be completed.

Every time Charlie thinks things are flowing along smoothly, something comes along to interrupt the smooth flow of completing the day's jobs. What is this all about?

Why flows are so important

"Flow: To move or run freely in the manner characteristic of a fluid." In speaking about flows in the human body, to flow is to live! When the blood stops flowing, or the digestive juices and lymph flows stop supplying nutrients to vital body parts, the body dies. When the flows don't completely stop, but only slow up, the degree of aliveness and health of the body declines too. The health of the body is determined largely by how fast the various fluids keep flowing. Motion and flow are major evidence of life! You can guess what happens to a business when flows dry up.

The word "flow" has found its way into many areas of life completely unrelated to fluids. We speak of work flow and cash flow. Flow always means something moving or running freely. When a river dries up, there is no longer any water flow. When our income sources dry up, we have a cash flow problem. When parts can't be obtained and jobs can't be delivered on time, we definitely have a work flow problem! If it continues, we have a cash flow problem. Multiply the flow problems in a shop over a period of days, weeks, months or years, and you may watch that shop die a slow, painful death

The process of growing any business consists of establishing an ongoing flow of business, and continually increasing it until some final goal is reached. That final goal may be passing the business on to offspring or selling the entire business. Over the years, the growth flow will fluctuate. Some years it may decline rather than grow, but if overall growth years don't exceed the decline years, the entire business will die.

The power of "flow"

A powerful growth flow is an exciting thing to experience. A shop owner who sees his numbers climb dramatically month after month should feel a tremendous sense of excitement. A book entitled "Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience" describes it as "a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like."

Business can be a difficult, challenging game with new obstacles arising almost daily, but most of us go into business with the hope that we will overcome the obstacles and master the game well enough to reach our goals. Sadly, not many shop owners start each new year with a specific growth goal for that year in mind, but as the year goes on, the numbers will reveal whether the overall trend is growth or decline. When we fall short of our expectations month after month, the flow can dwindle to a trickle, and our early excitement can gradually become overwhelming frustration.

Interruption: a real killer

"Interrupt: To break the continuity or uniformity of; To hinder, stop, or break in upon an action or communication."

Like navigating any vehicle or craft in the flow of water or traffic, the key is to keep moving. Anything that stops our forward movement, delays our progress and interrupts the flow. An interruption in the flow of blood in the body - like a blood clot - can deprive the heart of the blood needed for the organism to survive.

A comparable block in an organiza-tion's flow can also result in a rapid decline and death. It could be said that any failure to move forward in business is due to both large and small interruptions in the flow. An accumulation of continual interruptions is like being killed slowly by a multitude of small stab wounds.

In any shop, getting jobs completed and money collected are the top priorities. The next top priority is marketing - getting jobs into the shop - so jobs can be completed and money can be collected. But the problem is that if priority number one takes up all of the time, priority number two is never reached. This means that marketing doesn't begin until production nearly comes to a stop - too late to get an immediate result from marketing.


Marketing is a flow

For many shops, marketing is an intermittent activity. Some may think of it as an interruption to doing their normal daily business - getting jobs out. But the fact is, marketing should be a parallel flow, accompanying the production side of the business.

These should include a daily flow of thank you letters after each completed job, requests for customer satisfaction statements, follow-up letters after all non-converted estimates, postcards to prior customers inviting them back for a touch-up, detail, or accessories, promotional cards or letters to potential commercial accounts and fleet managers, and of course the concentrated efforts to acquire DRPs, agent referrals and more.

If these flows are only initiated sporadically, and then just for a short time, the predictable result will be an up-and-down roller-coaster of business. The key to a continual inflow of new business is maintaining a consistent outflow of promotional calls, letters, postcards, advertisements and other marketing efforts.

Interruptions stop the forward flow

Most days are filled with interruptions of one sort or another. Traffic stops, detours, uncertainties and confusions over which way to go, natural disasters and "Acts of God," government interference, delays caused by employee absences or incompetence, parts delays, malicious vandalism, missing resources, erratic power flow, missing information - the list goes on and on. There seems to be no end to the kinds of interruptions that can slow or stop the fast forward flow of the day.

Many of these interruptions are unavoidable, but why do we sometimes tolerate an interruption when we don't have to? Fear of losing a customer or losing money may be some common reasons. Even the most insulated shop owner or manager will come out of his or her office to handle an irate customer, or to prevent the loss of a sizeable sum of money.

But is there something we can do to minimize interruptions and thus maximize the flow of daily business?

Studies blame "multi-tasking"

Insurance companies have recently become very concerned about very common sources of interruptions: Cell-phone calls, pagers, e-mails and other gadget-oriented communication devices can break into a productive flow at almost any time. Health care organizations are reporting more patients arriving with complaints of depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, attention deficit disorder, and many other stress-related conditions. More vehicle accidents are occurring because of the driver being distracted.

Dr. Jordan Grafman, chief of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders says, "Multi-tasking, almost by its very nature, creates stress." He points out that the part of the brain that is most damaged by prolonged stress leads to feelings of helplessness and being out of control. There is general agreement that interruptions can be minimized by concentrating on one task at a time, bringing it to a conclusion, or a controlled stopping point, before moving on to another task.

Controlling flows in the shop

While some interruptions are unavoidable, task management can greatly improve communications, production and even marketing in a shop. The trick is to set aside an uninterruptible block of time for any activity that requires intense concentration. A sign on an office door that says "Do not disturb under penalty of death" may get a smile, but also a measure of compliance. Shutting off the cell phone and refusing to take all phone calls for an hour can introduce a powerful measure of control.

A renewed awareness of the importance of controlling interruptions in your own life may help, but the key to improving business flow is to get everyone more aware of the detrimental effect of allowing interruption to slow or stop flows. Studies of office personnel have determined that after an interruption, the typical worker will take 15 to 20 minutes to get refocused on the task that was interrupted. Multiply this by dozens of interruptions in a day, and you wonder how anything is accomplished at all!

Best of all, the end-result of reducing interruptions may launch your people into that highly desirable state of "flow" described in the aforementioned book: "a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like."

Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty years and is the author of the books, "Business Battlefield Marketing for Body Shops," "Tom Franklin's Top 40 Marketing Tactics for Body Shops," and "Strategies for Greater Body Shop Growth." His marketing company now provides marketing solutions and services for body shops and other businesses. He can be reached for questions or comments at (323) 871-6862, by fax at (323) 465-2228, or by E-Mail: tbfranklin@aol.com.


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