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On the clock

October 11, 2010
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Over the years, I have written articles and given seminars about how to improve detailing time. Yet I remain puzzled as to why operators are still detailing vehicles the same way they have for years. The simple reason is the pain of change.

If you haven’t noticed, times have changed, and continue to do so very rapidly as far as detailing is concerned. Customer expectations have never been higher. To be a successful detailer in the 21st century requires you to keep up with the times.

This article is not about what to do to avoid change. Instead, it will focus on how the old phrase “Cheaper, faster and better,” and how that mantra is becoming the focus of many to make a better mousetrap.

Some will argue you can’t have all three; you must pick two. They’re wrong. With plenty of breakthrough strategies and improvements in detailing technology and processes happening every day, it is indeed possible to detail cars “cheaper, fast and better.”

As a detailer, you will need to slow down long enough to see the opportunities that are out there and how you can take advantage of them. These opportunities take commitment by you and your employees. You cannot simply dictate, you must lead and be committed to the making improvements.

As an employer you can’t just tell employees to work faster; that’s like telling a child to improve his grades. There are probably several thousand possibilities that can affect that outcome. The absolute rule is to change output, you must change input.

Einstein once said, “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” If you want improvements, you must change.

Cycle time and improved processes
Cycle time is the time measured between any two given operations or activities that take place in a business. These can be administrative, pre-production, production or post-production. They can include waste, or what the Japanese refers to as “mu da,” something that adds no value to the service.

There are differences in how cycle time can be calculated.

To improve cycle times, begin by tracking areas within your operation. Without this information, you are often back to improving the child’s grades without providing any adequate direction to do so.

Begin by tracking several event points of time, such as: arrival of the vehicle at the shop, start and completion of job, and delivery and payment. This is the start of what will help you consistently analyze in the future. You can analyze any activity in your detail operation process if you determine a measurement method.

Develop a plan
Look at your detail operation as a series of interrelated events that affect each other and the amount of total time the detail job takes to begin and end the process.

For each major detail function, a process should be in place to perform the event. This process is usually a combination of technology-based and/or people-based services and should be included in your written procedures. Steps actually followed might not be “hands on vehicle” work by the detailer. Systems are designed to include production steps, but also steps like the vehicle acceptance, evaluation, detail, final inspection, delivery and payment.

Each step has a process that, once completed, moves the vehicle to the next step. These processes can and should be mapped out to show you which areas can be improved.

Once your processes are identified you can go deeper to identify each task within each process. Sound like too much trouble? Perhaps it is, but that’s why you can’t simply buy a book with all of this done for you.

Do you really want to take on a mammoth job like this? Is it worth it? The answer is yes, without question. Before you begin, clearly understand this is a journey and not a destination. You probably will never fully complete it, but the benefits realized will result in improvements in your detail process.

This begins the process of continuous improvements or what the Japanese call — the Kaizen way. The change in your detail business must focus on how to make something better than it is today, rather than how you can simply get through each day and go home. That is the most effective way to reducing cycle time in your detailing.

Areas to improve
There are many improvements you can make in your detail operation. The detail of which depends on the current condition of your business — and how committed you are to making improvements.

Improvements come from four basic areas:

  • Environment — The facility, truck or trailer;
  • Technology — Equipment you have;
  • Process Management — The detail process you follow, if any; and
  • Human Resources — The quality of personnel.

This includes shop layout, equipment position, facility and equipment maintenance, and even temperature and lightning. Composing a spaghetti chart will show the movement a detailer must make to get supplies, chemicals equipment to complete a job. Reviewing this chart and acting on suggestions will reduce a great deal of wasted time that costs you and a commissioned detailer.

The movement of equipment, chemicals and supplies to aid production is a very valuable beginning in this area of improvement, along with cleaning house of all the junk that seems to accumulate around the shop. This is what the Japanese refer to as red tagging. Get rid of it! Start by empting barrels, buckets, stacks of floor mats, etc. The key is: a place for everything and everything in its place.

Environmental changes should also include that all equipment is working properly and is maintained. You need a maintenance schedule for every piece of equipment/tool you use. Even if you have a schedule, the question should be, is it being followed? Or is your maintenance program waiting until something breaks before you take action?

This costs far more than performing simple preventive maintenance procedures that can extend equipment life and assure you from unexpected breakdowns at critical peak times.

Finally, look at the temperature in your shop. Extreme heat or cold will affect employees’ production, which affects cycle times. Whether you have problems with extreme heat, cold or both, these can be almost entirely eliminated.

The same idea goes with lighting. If shop lighting is not bright enough, it will take longer to complete the process and result in a repeat of the same process.

Technology includes all the equipment used like electric tools, air tools, heated extractors and vapor steamers. Because vehicle technology is changing it affects how we detail and what we use. Knowing what is available will help improve production and compare its costs to benefits. If equipment can improve productivity and reduce labor time, you simply cannot afford to not have it.

What about your administrative system? Do you have a computer? Is it the latest model, or is it a slow processing unit? Do you have the current software technology to manage your operation?

Technology will go a long way toward improving your operation and you’ll find there are fewer vehicles that require redo work. There’s no question a redo disrupts your detail process and kills cycle time.

An extractor has cycle time that is required to get a solution up to the temperature required for proper cleaning. An improvement you can make is purchasing a new unit with an in-line vs. tank heater or one with a higher watt in-line heater that will heat the solution faster. Heat is key in cleaning.

Using air-powered rotary shampooers vs. a hand scrub brush will dramatically reduce not only the time to clean carpets and upholstery, but reduce employee fatigue, a common factor of poor quality work and slow completion times.

Process management
Have you documented your detail processes? Do you have an employee-hand book? Do you have a standard way to perform key function within your business? Does everyone clearly know what to do when they show up for work everyday without you having to spend a great deal of time explaining the day’s activities?

Do the wash bay prep personnel have a vehicle ready for detailing every morning before the detailers arrive?

Again, there are many quick fixes to look at, each reducing wasted time. An obvious one is multiple shifts. McDonald’s once only opened from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Detail businesses are closed more than they’re open each year, a change in this wasted time when no activity is taking place will dramatically improve your cycle time, if implemented correctly.

Are you working to improve communication to avoid miscommunication? If a detailer needs help on a specific vehicle, how is it handled? Hopefully, not by having the detailers leave the vehicle to find someone to help him/her. Go to a Sam’s Club this week and watch how a cashier gets help — it’s simple, but very effective.

Quality controls in your detail operation can help reduce the time correcting incomplete actions or inaccuracies earlier in the process.

Why do technicians often work in two or more bays? Because a prior process not performed properly stops production and they move to another car while problems are resolved. Anything you do to reduce this will reduce cycle time. Scheduling work properly is critical to reducing cycle time.

Human resources
This department includes employee skills, culture, incentives, pay plans, accountability, evaluations, as well as product, process and equipment training.

What is your greatest strength and weakness? Your staff. The proper management of employees is way beyond the abilities of detail business owners around the world, unless you invest in this area. Most don’t and you know the result.

How often do you perform job evaluations to all your employees? Once a year? Never? When you decide to fire them? Establishing clear objectives and goals is important to everyone. This does not mean the same as giving an employee an assignment or work order with a deadline.

Thousands of books are written about this area alone, so I won’t even try to cover this, but having a staff that is properly trained to perform the job as effectively, efficiently and safely as possible, requires training. There is no way around it, and it pays while improving process — reducing cycle times.

Profitability analysis
If you did a spreadsheet you can see how cycle time improvement translates to dollars. It is often shocking to many detailers when they realize getting one more vehicle through the shop every day may mean adding more than $30,000 to their gross revenues a year.

Does this get you thinking? What about two vehicles per day? Of course you must have the work volume to do it. Yet many progressive detail operators are still looking to get business at minimal costs? Think about it! If one or two more cars a day can mean $30,000 to $60,000 a year in revenue shouldn’t you spend some money to get them?

There are approximately 86,400 seconds or 1,440 minutes a day. However, most detail operations are open at best nine hours, or 540 minutes, which is 32,400 seconds.

Today the pressure is on to find an improved way of doing business. Properly done, processes can be put in place that allow for more customer contact, customer service and professionalism than ever before. The key words, however, are “properly done.”

Don’t worry if it seems getting bigger will make things worse because you can’t continue to think of today’s business model; you can’t do it the same old way you always have and just get bigger. You must change the process so you can achieve the results your customers expect every single time, while having energize employees that are dedicated to accomplishing this goal.

Remember, every minute you save in the detail process translates to reducing cycle time. You just have to take the time to recognize it.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the International Carwash Association and Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. He can be contacted at