'Blueprinting' a Vehicle's Damage Versus Traditional EstimatingPosted 8/18/2006
By Steven J. Feltovich
Faced with demanding customers and aggressive insurance companies, body shop owners around the world confront this question daily: "What can we do to improve the customer experience and our own profitability in a fiercely competitive market?" Leaders in the collision repair industry say an accurate estimate is critical to the success of their businesses. In fact, nearly every one of the shops we have worked with over the past year has emphasized the importance of the estimate or, as they commonly referred to it, the "blueprint" for damage repairs.
Some might refer to the improved process as "blueprinting," "damage analysis" or "repair planning." Regardless of what you decide to call your comprehensive damage assessment process, the fundamentals remain the same. Let us see how we can achieve estimating excellence. To begin, let me throw out a significant question: "Why does traditional estimating still exist if it is so ineffective?"
You can probably come up with several answers to this question on your own. Many of us were taught to do it this way. Management within some shops would claim their customers expect a traditional estimate. Some would say insurance companies demand a traditional estimate as the preliminary estimate. Often, we simply fear the attempt to try something new. Many people in our industry have proven these obstacles are not insurmountable and that there is a better way to assess collision damage.
Many shops have moved toward a more comprehensive damage assessment process, which consists of initially identifying all of the damage, both visible and hidden. This approach provides tremendous value in terms of cycle time reduction alone. There is so much lost time and money in the redundant steps associated with traditional, visible damage estimating. Consider the amount of time consumed by ordering parts multiple times per repair order, writing supplements, rescheduling delivery dates, extending rental car provisions, and reallocating technicians to vehicles they can work on.
This ultimately creates an environment of internal friction, without any positive energy being directed toward process improvement.
The real winners in collision repair are implementing and refining the "blueprinting" process. This process is designed to lower the shop's overall costs while increasing their productivity. Does it work? Absolutely. The objective here is a 100 percent damage assessment before loading the vehicle into the production area. The result is phenomenal: more customer confidence in the shop's capabilities. Faster throughput, predictable delivery dates, increased technician touch time per day, and less administrative work - all of these benefits and more are achievable with a process-driven damage assessment program in place. The correct process will reduce the common errors, variations and redundancies that are inherent in traditional estimating activities.
When we are involved in facility analysis to determine the root cause of scheduling problems, we frequently find the cause to be directly related to an inaccurate initial estimate. Since jobs are scheduled into the production area based on labor hours and the parts that are needed, inadequate estimates prove disastrous for a shop that is using them as a guide for workshop scheduling. If the estimates are half right at the time they are used to load vehicles into your workshop with what you consider to be a week's worth of work, you will have actually scheduled two weeks of real work into a one-week time slot. This creates bottlenecks and fires within your business that consume you and your staff, slow production and stop your business from ever moving forward - fast!
Due to the weaknesses of traditional estimating, we have become an industry of excess capacity to compensate for the flawed estimating practices - more facility space and equipment than we really need. Wait a minute! I almost forgot the reason why we do need that extra space ... so we can park all of those dead cars in it. You know, those dead ones that are waiting for parts, supplement approvals and/or available technicians. How much does it cost your business to park and store those dead vehicles on the expensive real estate of your available production floor space? In some cases, they are even parked on the frame machine for a day or two due to a deficient estimate. How much more expensive can storage get than using the frame machine as a means to park dead cars?
Ultimately, our customers are the victims of our broken and failing practices. We must implement a comprehensive damage assessment process designed with one goal in mind - get it right the first time. This requires getting the parts order, the number of body labor and refinish hours, and the costs for paint and material right the first time and every time.
Some shops I visited recently have begun to make their frame repair pulls before completing the final damage assessment. This arrangement provides outstanding accuracy in the areas of parts orders, labor times, and other associated products and services needed to complete all of the repairs. There must be a higher level of awareness of the estimate's importance and its impact on our business. The estimate directly affects the following:
At this point, you will begin to understand the motivation that some shops have for pursuing estimating excellence. The estimating process is the beginning and ending of the shop's profitability - signifying the power held within an accurate estimate. Perhaps the time has come to change our old habits and begin to design and implement some new "lean" processes, starting with the estimating tasks and activities. You will soon come to find that your entire operation can be transformed by simply taking control of the estimating process - this is truly the "blueprint" for profit improvement.
Removing the obstacles to implement a comprehensive damage assessment process is not easy. If it were, every collision repair shop in the country would have already embarked on this new frontier. But in today's marketplace, an effective estimating process is no longer a "wish list" item. It is a crucial component to gain a substantial competitive advantage and remain a profitable organization.
Without adequate and appropriate training for the body shop management staff, estimating vehicle damage will continue to be a disorganized and underutilized tool. Our research and experience shows the collision repair industry lacks estimating skill and knowledge: only 3 percent of the frontline estimators have had any formal training within the past five years. However, with training and some exposure to a more complete process, it is far more likely to yield positive results - for the collision repair center, the insurers, and most importantly, the customers.
Steven J. Feltovich is the manager of business consulting services, Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes Corporation. He can be reached at (412) 916-9235 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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