Go Back to the Beginning: Training and Re-Training the Smallest Details

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Kit Sullivan

Do you find that when you watch your crew as a single entity, they just don’t seem to have it all together like they used to? Do you find yourself frustrated that some, or maybe all of them, have seemingly picked up little bad habits or tiny deviations from the way you want things done? This is the most visible example of the slow erosion that can take place in your shop over time, if you let it.

The problem here is most people think of training as a one-time affair. Once an employee has been taught how to do something properly and efficiently, they should be good to go, right? Well, that’s the crux of the problem. There is no such thing in the laws of physics as a perpetual motion machine, and likewise, there is no such thing in human behavior as perpetual action.

Even with finely-tuned machinery, a 100-percent automated process will not churn out the same product as time goes by. A sheet-metal stamping machine at a big automotive factory stamps out thousands of identical parts, all designed to be exactly the same as the ones that came before it, and the ones that came after it. However, they are not all the same. Many factors work their way into the system to render unalterable deviations into the final product, and, in fact, each part produced is unique and individual from the rest, if you care to look close enough to see the difference. As the molds get used, there is natural wear and tear on them that produces a slightly altered product.

As robotic paint sprayers go through their mechanized daily motions of painting hundreds of panels in exactly the same pattern with the same amount of paint in the same exact shade, the spray nozzles become worn, the paint mix changes temperature and the humidity and temperature in the air is different. These all affect changes, down to the last detail of the finished product. Now, add in the unique sheet metal stamping the paint is being applied to, and you multiply the tolerance factor again. Now, add up these tiny and seemingly-insignificant changes that may occur during the manufacturing process of a vehicle to the other thousands of tiny variations present in any mass-produced, machine-made product, and you can see a vehicle made in January will differ minutely, or in some cases significantly, from the supposed exact same vehicle produced months later in the same plant.

Back before all of today’s massive robotic and computer controlled manufacturing processes, the overall statement was that you should not buy a car made on a Monday or a Friday. The idea was that the line workers were either not quite back into the swing of things on Monday, or they were getting ready for the weekend on a Friday. In either case, the assumption was they were not up to their best performance, which supposedly lead to the production of inferior cars. No doubt, there is some truth to that philosophy. The introduction of computers and robotic machinery is touted as solving this problem, as the human factor is removed as much as possible. However, the problem of production erosion cannot be removed entirely. It can be lessened to a large degree with modern techniques, but never completely eliminated.

The same thing can happen in your shops with your employees. No matter how effectively you trained them originally, they will slowly alter their habits. No matter how diligent they are in trying to maintain their high level of performance, some levels of production erosion creep into their habits daily — and yours, too. You must accept this production erosion as unavoidable; you cannot keep it from happening. It is just the nature of how things are. Even so, there are methods you can adopt that will lessen those performance-eroding habits in your employees and keep them from becoming big production killers.

Get Your Crew Back to the Basics The first, and most important, step in staving off production erosion is to have a clearly-understood and readily-available benchmark for every operation in your shop. These benchmarks, or standards of performance should be thorough for every category in the shop:

• Service procedures • Customer service procedures • Presentation procedures • Employee procedures • Shop maintenance procedures And on and on…

You must have clearly-defined expectations of what you require in each of the categories above. Are your employees to be clean-shaven daily or not? Will you allow facial hair as long as it looks OK? What looks OK to one person is not the same to another. You must set the standard, and it must be applied to everyone in your shop, consistently. We have all had difficult employees from time to time. This situation can be resolved before it even happens with effective policies and training.

Are you training your employees to clean each tool every time they use it and to return it to the correct spot on the tool board every time they use it? Or, do they just leave them randomly laying around the shop, wherever they happen to find a place to set them down? Do you find yourself or your employees wandering around the shop looking for a specific tool when you need it? Do your employees leave tools under the hood accidentally, causing your tool budget to creep up? Again, these kinds of problems can be drastically reduced with specific policies and training regarding tools and their usage.

How about customer service procedures? Do you let your employees talk to your customers in a casual, random manner, or do you have tight procedures on what to say and when to talk to customers every step of the way? No two people have the same vision as to what customer service is or should be, and if you let your employees wing it with your customers, then surely your vision of customer service is not going to be delivered.

You may think you have the best, most loyal customer-service oriented employees around, who share your vision, but you must face a cold, hard reality. An hourly-waged employee is never going to have the same vision and dedication to anything in a shop as the guy who owns it and has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested, along with his business and personal reputation on the line.

Training is not a single specific thing you can do. It is best to think of training as a four-pronged, preemptive strike on potential problems in your shop.

Four Prongs to Training 1. Set the Policies This is what we talked about earlier. Set policies and procedures for every operation in your shop. If you can think of a specific way you want even the smallest thing done, write it down and make it a policy. Leave nothing open to speculation or interpretation — make everything as specific as you can. The idea is to be clear and unambiguous, so there is no question about what the right procedure is for everything in the shop.

2. Train Your Employees This may sound silly, but just because you have a set of policies does not mean your employees know them or care about them. You have to effectively train them to know exactly what the policies are and why you want them that way. You must make it very clear to them that these policies are not merely suggestions they can disregard if they want to. You must explain the policies, show them how to execute the policies and then enforce those policies. Your management skills in rewarding and disciplining are necessary here.

3. Maintain the Policies No matter how well you train your employees, if they are left to their own devices each day without any guidance from you, they will suffer the production erosion mentioned earlier. This is the slow killer in nearly all shops. You must always be watching every aspect of your employees’ performance and tune them up with little pointers along the way. A little warning here — in the beginning, they hate this. Most people don’t like the feeling of being scrutinized all day. But, you are in charge and, ultimately, responsible for the shop’s performance, so don’t be weak. Do what has to be done. Eventually, they come to expect the supervision and scrutiny, as the feeling of pride and accomplishment soon takes over. This is the most important step.

4. Re-Train Them Frequently This is different from the on-the-fly tune-ups you do with them daily. This is full in-depth retraining, where you go over everything you require of your employees in the shop. You will find they have forgotten many things and little touches will improve their performance. Think of it like your computer at home: Closing certain programs that are running may help speed up the system. You can also hit the restart button to start everything back from zero again. This is like the restart button with your employees. About once every six months, you should retrain your employees on your policies and procedures.

Sometimes it is necessary to return to the basics of what made you successful earlier in your career. Doing so does not indicate a failure or a step backward on your part, it is just one way to deal with human nature in this business.

Train those guys!

See ya’ next month.

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