Some technicians need to embrace a new priority: Brains are now far more important than brawn to a successful career.
What's more, service managers must recruit and train with this in mind. Here's why.
A lifetime ago, it seems, the automotive repair business thrived on the "3-M" philosophy: Muscle matters most!
As the expression suggests, workers who had the physical stamina to pump out repair jobs were the most valuable players on the team. Auto repair required muscle if you planned to produce lots of work and do so steadily.
What's more, the relative simplicity of the vehicles and systems also fueled the attitude that muscle mattered so much more than mental skills. After all, the most-common vehicles were much more similar than dissimilar.
Therefore, the breakdowns and failures seemed much more predictable. Although weird and unexpected problems sometimes stymied mechanics, car troubles just didn't seem as diverse as they are today.
(Full disclosure: My memory, like readers' memories, is imperfect.)
Perhaps it's no surprise that my lasting impression of those days was that "real mechanics" of the time acted first, worried about potential details later.
The odds appeared to favor a very repetitive approach: What fixed the last Ford with this symptom is sure to fix the next one with the same or similar condition.
Of course, times changed and changed quickly. By about the mid-1980s, it appeared that auto makers were revising, revamping and redesigning vehicles and systems in ways we had never envisioned.
The sometimes-conflicting goals of improving fuel economy and reducing emissions spurred designers to add more and more controls to the entire powertrain.
Tighter control of these things meant more and more computerization. In turn, computerization meant more parts, more complexity.
Remember that computers rely on sensors to report operating conditions. A computer needs actuators to execute its commands, make appropriate adjustments to automotive systems.
The end result was more components, control devices and wiring. Some of these newer control systems were the same as or very similar to one another. But it became clear that until you did some homework, you couldn't be certain.
Homework or research — call it what you like — but more and more often, we found ourselves reading one information source after another to ferret out the system details we needed.
Eventually, CD- and DVD-based information systems appeared. Then Internet-based information expanded our sources.
But as time has gone by, it's clear that some workers embrace homework more readily than others do. No matter what the topic, doing homework on automotive systems requires reading skills — especially reading comprehension.
Overall, reading skills demand gray matter instead of muscles. Some of the service personnel I encounter in tire dealerships and service shops are shockingly poor readers, poor thinkers.
After working side by side with them, I can't reach any other conclusion.
An equally disturbing experience is the number of bosses I encounter who behave as if they were operating in 1970.
For instance, they don't understand that the homework required to diagnose a job may take 45 minutes. On the other hand, the repair itself may take just 10 minutes.
Some think the beginning and end of homework is an Internet search of some kind. However, finding accurate information may demand additional reading — competent reading and nothing less than that.
Meeting or exceeding customers' expectations requires service providers to fix the vehicle correctly the first time. The correct fix is rooted in knowledge; reading and thinking are the foundations of knowledge.
Eventually, some owners and managers will realize that the matter between the tech's ears is an essential element in satisfying customers.
Furthermore, techs who resist reading and thinking impede the business' efforts to meet or exceed expectations.
Last but not least, the techs themselves may have to improve their reading skills to maintain their efficiency in the bays.