Eliminate This Big (And Expensive) Time-Waster in Your Service Department


Time Really is Money

Years ago, I took a job as a technician for a dealer that had 22 techs. The first time I took a work order to the parts department to get prices for an estimate was a shock. There was a 20-minute wait just to hand the paperwork to a parts person.

I asked him if I could simply have left the work order for him to work on later when he got a free moment. “No,” he said, “We might have to ask you a question about it. That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Three times that day I stood in line with other technicians waiting for prices, but rarely did any such questions come up for anybody. When you work on only one line of car, you’ve seen everything before. When the jobs eventually sold, the wait to pick up the parts was a little shorter because the part numbers and prices had already been logged into the tickets. Nonetheless, on average each tech seemed to spend 60 minutes (or more) every day standing in line at the parts counter, time they could have gladly spent working on cars.

Waiting Needlessly Builds Friction Among Employees

Needless to say, the almost constant presence of techs standing in line (and not earning money) made the parts people feel like they constantly had techs impatiently waiting for them to ‘hurry up.’ Added stress for everybody, and needlessly too.

That 22 man-hours (OK, people-hours, we had female techs too) wasted standing in line every day was 110 hours of lost productivity during a typical five-day week. On Saturdays, we ran a smaller staff of techs, so there was no wait time to speak of. As you can surmise, the 110 lost hours of productivity every week amounted to over 440 lost hours each calendar month, time that could have been spent producing billable work hours. You don’t charge customers for the time techs spend standing in line.

Wait Time Adds to Congestion in the Overcrowded Parking Lot

On top of lost time and added personal stress among employees, the wait times meant that cars stayed in the parking lot longer before being looked at by techs. Overcrowding on the lot, and keeping cars longer than necessary, was a by-product of a poorly designed work flow system.

Time and Motion Studies Are Not New

You recognize the concept I’ve been alluding to; the same concept Henry Ford became famous for using to design his assembly lines. He did not invent time and motion studies, but he sure perfected them to a science. Refine your systems to reduce the wait times between all the steps in the service process, and your service department will profit greatly from it. People will be happier too. Nobody enjoys being made to wait.

But how could that (typical) dealership I worked at have eliminated the unnecessary waiting in line at the parts counter? By taking an idea from somebody else’s system.

The Problem of Wait Times Was Solved in the 1950s

In the 1950s a restaurant owner hired the very best cooks and waitresses he could find and paid them the highest wages in his town. Despite that, turnover among his staff was extremely high, people did not like working there, and the owner was at wits end from the constant searching for new employees. In exasperation, he was ready to sell the restaurant. As one last effort, he half-heartedly hired a friend of his, a management consultant, to look at the problem.

The consultant observed waitresses standing in line waiting to hand over their order tickets to the cooks. It was first come, first serve, regardless of how long customers had been waiting for food or how large or small an order ticket was. The wait times made the waitresses feel like the cooks were ‘making them wait’ and hindering their work as waitresses.

The cooks, though, felt like they were being bossed around by, and ‘taking orders’ from, the waitresses, even though cooks and waitresses were all on the same rank. Friction among staff was very high, and that’s the reason people quit despite the high wages.

The solution was simple, as it often is when people work as part of a large system. The consultant invented a wheel, strangely enough. And if you are old enough you might recall seeing them in restaurants.

The Solution Was Simple – And Everybody Liked It!

Before the age of computers, you would have seen a large wheel in restaurants, hanging from the ceiling between the dining room and the kitchen. The waitresses would clip their order tickets to the wheel and immediately walk away to attend to more customers. No more waiting in line to hand over tickets.

The cooks, then, would spin the wheel and see the entire line up of work waiting to be done; big tickets, small ones, and the clock times the individual orders had been written, along with any special cooking instructions duly noted on the tickets. The cooks managed their own business. They determined in what order they would work on tickets. They could group orders together to work on simultaneously, and in doing so increased their overall efficiency (by a lot) over the old ‘first come, first serve’ system. With freedom to control their own work flow, the cooks now found pride in their work and things ran a lot smoother for everybody.

It was very efficient system for all concerned. Wait times were all but eliminated, friction among staff went down drastically, employees stayed longer, and the restaurant owner was happier.

What Would You Do with an Extra 110 Billable Hours Each Week?

I’m not saying you should install order wheels in your parts department for techs to clip their work orders to. But you are smart, and so are your techs and parts people, so ask them for ideas. Any similar arrangement you can come up with would serve the same purpose. The point is still just as simple as Henry Ford knew it to be almost a century ago: don’t make your employees spend time waiting for each other to accomplish tasks. Streamline your systems. Devise a better way for parts people to ask questions of techs instead of making them all wait in line ‘in case they have a question.’

Businesses around the world reduce wait times, speed up the flow of work, and reduce friction by using racks or similar devices to place paperwork in (computers can’t do everything), allowing employees to get back to producing billable hours sooner.

Efficiency Builds on Itself

With extra man-hours at your disposal, your service department could conceivably operate with a smaller number of techs when you lose some due to attrition. That means more work for the techs who remain, and less insurance and benefits costs for you. On top of that, don’t forget the extra service bay space your techs can share among themselves, when you don’t them cram into the building like sardines.