Is lean production a viable concept - or just the latest catch-phrase

Is lean production a viable concept - or just the latest catch-phrase

“Lean production” appears to be among the current key catch phrases being used by progressive collision repairers and the industry consultants they work with. The key to success in this industry, they say, is going lean: finding ways to do more with less.

The truth is, for an example of what lean production can do for a company, collision repairers need not look far. As Toyota Motor Company continues its track to becoming the largest automaker in the world; it has done so using the concept of “lean production.”

But does such a concept, clearly successful in the production world of manufacturing, have an equal place in the every-job-is-different, service-rather-than-manufacturing world of collision repair?

Steven Feltovich, for one, believes it does – if “lean production” is understood and implemented at its core level. Feltovich conducts estimating and other training as the manager of business consulting services for Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes. He is no stranger to Toyota’s efforts to implement lean production concepts in its dealership collision repair facilities.

But Feltovich believes too many shop owners are looking for “lean-in-a-box” or a quick and simple way to get “lean” implemented within their business in a few weeks or months.

“Lean is a journey that never ends,” Feltovich says. “It takes a long time and a lot of effort. But is it worth it? You bet.”

A simple concept

“Lean production” is based on W. Edwards Deming’s principles for “achieving maximum productivity with the least amount of effort or expense.” Deming was the American business consultant whose concepts Toyota has worked successfully to implement over the past 50 years.

Deming’s views of lean production can really be summarized in just a few words. It’s really a chain reaction that begins by improving quality. That quality results in lower costs and higher productivity because it eliminates the time and expense involved with quality issues such as rework; mistakes and delays; and inefficient use of equipment and materials. In turn, this better quality and its lower costs allow a company to capture more market share and grow.

Going lean, therefore, entails creating “a process that delivers quality the first time because it’s cheaper than defects and errors,” Feltovich said. “Some programs out there suggest dealing with bottlenecks, delays and snags by throwing more people, equipment, or materials at the problem, or by building a bigger building. Deming is quite the opposite of that. In lean manufacturing, you need fewer people, less space and equipment. Toyota’s output, for example, is four times as productive as some of our domestic (automotive manufacturing) systems.”

That doesn’t mean, however, the key to becoming lean is just shedding employees or other “visible” costs, Feltovich said, because such ruthless cutting often results in “hidden costs.” Instead, he said, it involves seeking out waste and anything that negatively impacts quality.

“For body shops, you’re stripping out redundancies and rework, the time and effort, for example, involved in multiple supplements and parts orders,” Feltovich said.

Key elements

Although Feltovich repeatedly points out that “lean production” is more of an ongoing improvement process rather than specific actions, there are elements of shop operations that can indicate a shop is “going lean.” This includes:

  • Blueprinting. When a frame rack or a paint booth becomes an “expensive parking space” for a vehicle because of a delay, or when in-process cars sit untouched for days waiting for a part, that is a sign of a process that needs to be improved to eliminate waste, Feltovich said. Lean production calls for adequate damage assessment up front, by completing the necessary teardown to determine all necessary parts (one parts order should be the norm and goal) and obtain all insurer approvals before the vehicle moves into non-stop production.
  • Equipment in use. Feltovich said that during two consecutive days he spent in one shop for which he was doing some consulting work, two of the shop’s four frame racks sat unused. But eliminating the problem of cars tying up a rack waiting for insurer approvals, for example, can often mean a shop can get by with fewer racks. Shops that go lean, Feltovich said, often find they can sell such excess equipment without any loss in productivity and throughput. Too often in the past, he said, bottlenecks have been solved by buying more equipment while the current equipment in the shop isn’t being used to its full capacity.
  • Quality in process, not just at final inspections. You can’t inspect quality into a job, Feltovich says; it has to already be there. Many shops do a final inspection of a vehicle just before the customer arrives, but by then it is too late to avoid the expense of fixing any problems found. The expectations for quality must be adequately communicated so such problems ideally, don’t occur in the first place, or at worse, are caught and corrected before the vehicle has moved forward in the process.
  • A facility and employee headcount that are in line. If a technician is not apt to have any delays once he has a vehicle that has been put in process, how many vehicles and stalls does he need at any one time?, Feltovich asks. If your shop has more than two stalls per technician, look at improving your processes long before you look at adding more space (and the overhead expense that accompanies it), he suggests.
  • General cleanliness. Improving quality to reduce costs doesn’t mean polishing vehicles more; it means reducing the need to polish. That may mean understanding that good housekeeping in a shop is a lean-style investment in improving quality and reducing rework and wasted time and materials.
  • Training. Quality isn’t about sanding a panel more or grinding a weld smoother, Feltovich said. It’s about knowing how to use the right sanding technique and materials the first time, It’s about welding more effectively so grinding isn’t necessary. Lean shops have well-trained employees, Feltovich said.

Lean isn’t mandated, but…

Feltovich and others touting “lean production” generally don’t go so far as to say it is necessary for survival in the collision repair industry. But they point out you will likely be competing against at least some repair businesses that have moved to get lean.

“You can dig your heels in deep and hard and say, ‘I’m not changing. I’ve been at this 35 or 40 years, and this is the same way we’ve always done it and I’m not going to change.’” Feltovich said. “But guess what? I can tell you your future then is getting dim.”

The five why’s of lean production

“Lean production” involves looking at every aspect of your business to determine if there is waste or duplication that can be eliminated, or if there are processes (or a lack of process) that interfere with getting quality built-into the system.

Getting to the root cause of problems is key to making such improvements. One technique that can help with this is the “five why’s.” You often have to ask “why” at least five times to get to the root cause of a failure.  

Here’s an example:
Why was Mrs. Jones’ not satisfied with our service?
Because her car wasn’t ready until a day later than we promised.
Why was her car delivered a day late?
Because we were waiting for a part.
Why wasn’t the part here?
It didn’t get ordered until the car was ready to go.
Why didn’t it get ordered sooner?
Because we didn’t know until then that we actually had the wrong part.
Why didn’t we know we had the wrong one?
Because the technician didn’t check it when it arrived.
After five why’s, you usually begin to see a root problem that needs to be fixed. It is a simple, yet effective process that virtually anyone in management can use.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988. He can be contacted by email at

John Yoswick

John Yoswick is a freelance writer and Autobody News columnist who has been covering the collision industry since 1988, and the editor of the CRASH Network... Read More

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