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Lean collision repair shops: the big picture

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 - 00:00

If the idea of yet another explanation of such “lean processes” as “5S,” “constraints” and “blueprinting” has you moving on to the next article, stop for just a moment.

Because beyond the symposiums, consultants, panel discussions and trade press attention focused on lean are some real-world shop operators ready to share their experiences – both good and bad – with trying a new model in their shops.

Aaron Marshall has seen lean make a positive difference at his shops. Marshall, operations manager for Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis., touts some numbers that have to make even the most jaded give the idea of lean another look. Marshall said thanks to implementation of the Toyota Production System and related philosophies, the shop is now turning annual sales of $3.6 million – $200,000 more than two years ago, with one less production employee and 85 fewer overtime hours a month.

But Marshall and others say making the shift to a new model isn’t always easy or painless. Click on lean production at Marshall Auto Body to see a related article. Ken Friesen of Concours Collision in Calgary, Alberta, another proponent of lean practices, said that unlike Marshall, he saw his company’s bottom line take a beating during the transition.

“We lost a lot of money in profitability that first eight months,” Friesen says, echoing the experience of some other shop owners who found lean paying off, but only after a rough transition.

Rather than yet another explanation of the core tenets of lean, here’s a look at what shops say can make the difference in the success or failure of a shop’s move to a new operating model, along with some practical advice for what those going lean should think about before and during the transition.

Understand the theory, not just the tools. Marshall said he thinks too often shops implement one aspect of lean without grasping or implementing all elements of a true “value-focused” process. They will start, for example, with blueprinting – the complete tear-down of the car to determine (and order) all parts and get all necessary approvals before the car moves into a non-stop production process – which is an element of lean, but just one part.

“Without literally chaining everything together, and pulling all value through the organization from the end where the customer picks up finished work, shops will never attain the cultural change needed,” Marshall says.

In Marshall’s system, for example, each stage in the repair process looks behind it for the next car to work on that’s moving through the process, “pulling” that work through. A monitoring system lets all employees know if any point in the “flow line” won’t be ready to move a car forward every 80 minutes or if there’s a backlog of work at a given stage.

But all those systems aren’t as important as the purpose they serve, he said: looking at what the customer views as valuable, and considering as wasteful any actions that don’t contribute to what the customer values. It’s an understanding and focus on this bigger picture, rather than any of the lean tools consultants often help shops implement, that really indicates whether a shop is lean, Marshall said.

Expect some employee turnover. Patty McConnell of Old Dominion Collision Repair Center in Eugene, Ore., has worked the past three years with her son (and shop general manager) Dustin Caldwell to implement lean concepts at the larger of their two shops.

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