AKRON (July 8, 2002)—I believe it was that modern philosopher Yogi Berra who said, “When it comes to observation, I've found you can learn a lot just by watching.”
Indeed, as I travel I do learn a great deal just by watching service personnel at a variety of automotive repair facilities across the country.
This column contains several observations—shop vignettes, if you will—and a corresponding lesson we should learn from each one.
These last two weeks, I happened to be testing vehicles and photographing components, gathering material for the technical training seminars I deliver to various companies, including tire dealerships. The blazing summer heat and drenching humidity are sobering reminders that only the hardiest souls are cut out for this work.
The energy-sapping heat always heightens my respect and admiration for the handful of progressive bosses I know who have air-conditioned their service departments. They assure me that the increase in shop productivity, technician efficiency and worker loyalty more than offsets the cost of the A/C.
As the sweat streams off of me, I can't help but think about our perceptions of professionalism. Doctors and lawyers—people we always refer to as “professionals” —wouldn't tolerate these working conditions. So why do we? Could it be that we really aren't ready yet to be called professionals?
The next observation concerns accountability. On a busy Friday afternoon, a talkative technician makes no secret of the fact that he's itching to leave early and head for the beaches. He's in such a hurry that when he wraps up a repair job on a fairly expensive luxury car, he fails to reconnect a wiring harness securely. As luck would have it, the harness connector shakes loose just a few miles from the shop. Although the customer returns just before closing time, the careless tech is already long gone.
There's a terse verbal exchange with the service manager and then the shop's lead technician is told to fix the car. Fortunately it's an easy fix (reconnecting a harness connector) this time.
But it isn't and hasn't always been easy picking up after the fellow who bolted for the beach. Usually, quitting time on Friday is a happy occasion, but the mood's gloomy now. They fear the fellow's going to get away with another easily preventable mistake.
Sure enough, the tech who caused the comeback is his usual happy-go-lucky self on Monday morning. But I can tell his nonchalance is making the other techs that much gloomier. I can hear them griping that verbal reprimands are rarely given and written notices are never given at this business.
The scuttlebutt in the shop is that this younger tech—who happens to log the most labor hours—is never called on the carpet for his mistakes. They're saying it's easier for the bosses to just dump such a comeback in the lap of a responsible, more-mature technician.
The humidity is already bad enough, but this angry mood makes the shop atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. You can watch the bad mood hampering efficiency and productivity.
The moral here is to have the backbone to hold all workers accountable for mistakes. Hold a team meeting and, where necessary, amend your em-ployee manual. At the meeting, give workers written ex-planations so there are no misunderstandings.
Typical of what's called “constructive discipline,” for example, there's a verbal warning on the first offense, accompanied by a written notice in the employee's file. Successive offenses bring written reprimands. A certain number of written reprimands are grounds for punishment or dismissal.
Apply these rules consistently to all workers and you'll be amazed how morale in the shop improves.
The last vignette for this column is about meeting expectations, especially when the customer's vehicle has an intermittent problem. Too often, service writers and managers raise motorist's expectations en-tirely too high when they agree to tackle an intermittent electrical or driveability problem.
For example, I watched a tech diagnosing an intermittent stalling problem on a vehicle at the shop where I was doing “homework.” Drive the car long enough in the searing summer heat and the engine would die out unexpectedly.
After experiencing the symptom several times during a road test, this savvy tech pulls off the highway, opens the hood and raps on the engine control computer (ECM). Thankfully, this ECM is very easy to reach. Every time he raps on the computer with a plastic screwdriver handle, the engine dies.
When he returns to the shop, this tech uses proper voltage-drop test procedure to verify that the critical electrical connections to the ECM are all good. He gets the authorization to try a remanufactured ECM in the vehicle and indeed, the car seems to be fixed. The service writer is anxious to return this car to its owner, but the technician wisely insists on conducting a follow-up road test.
Trouble! The engine begins idling poorly and occasionally stalls. This time the ECM is thinking clearly enough to set a trouble code for the idle air control motor. Literally, this is the little electric motor that controls idle speed.
The service writer nearly flips out when he hears that the car has a second problem. Obviously, he had wrongly assured the owner of this 1995 car that the new ECM would fix the intermittent stalling condition.
The moral of this observation is: Don't over-promise and under-deliver on intermittent problems. Instead, be candid with the motorist.
First of all, no one ever guaranteed you that a 7-year-old car would only have one problem in it. Second, unless the car acts up while the technician is testing it, pinpointing the real cause of an intermittent failure can be tedious, painstaking work. The tech needs ample time to do his job and a commitment from the customer to pay for that time.
If the service writer or manager cannot or will not get that commitment from the motorist up front, what's the point in touching the car? Without this commitment, all that job will ever net you and your staff is untold heartburn.
And if diagnosing intermittent failures was so easy, the other service shops that already worked on this car would have already fixed it. Nuff said?
Meanwhile, I have to get to my testing. In case you're wondering, that's me in the end bay—the guy without a company uniform.