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  Collision Feature

Overcoming Collision Bottlenecks: Putting 'Theory of Constraints' into Practice

Posted 2/2/2007
By Rachael J. Mercer

What is the weak link in your body shop that limits you from being as efficient as possible and also keeps you from earning the most money for your bottom line?

Imagine this situation and its implications, if you will. Once upon a time at a body shop in Somewhere, U.S.A., cars were being processed and repaired with great efficiency. But suddenly the owner realized that three cars were waiting to be painted, which tied up the taping and preparation area. Two vehicles that were ready to be prepped were still sitting in the repair bays. Quickly, the business owner watches the efficient machine that was once his body shop come to a halt. Unfortunately, this situation is not imaginary; in fact, this scenario may be more real to you and your business than you would like to admit.

This problem of "bottlenecking" is not unique to the automotive repair and service industry; in fact, bottlenecking can affect most any business. No matter what dictionary you use, bottlenecks boil down to a slowdown in business. One theorist identified this component of business and developed the theory of constraints (TOC). In his book, "The Goal," Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt defines constraints and suggests five steps to alleviate the lost time, money and business that can result from bottlenecks in your business.

Al Kollinger, owner of @ccelerate Inc., helped explain theory of constraints. Kollinger, a body shop owner for 32 years, now operates a consulting business with two other body shop owners - Steve Schaefer and John Thompson - who have experienced success in delivering value to body shop owners and managers by assisting them in establishing and implementing holistic solutions. Follow these steps to learn how you can you apply theory of constraints to your shop's bottleneck(s).

Step One: Identify Your Constraint

The constraint in your business limits your company from producing more to make more money. The constraint is the weakest link - and can often be identified quickly. Begin by looking around your business. Is paperwork constantly backing up? Is your accounting system defunct? Do you have unreliable employees? Or, is your constraint found in the process of your repairs - whether mechanical or collision? Don't be afraid to identify the weak links in your business chain.

John Beckworth, co-owner of Collision Works in Beltsville, Md., began to identify his constraints after a startling revelation. Nearly three years ago, he was cleaning out an office - once again - and came across some old magazines. In one of the magazines he had given an interview discussing some of the problems and challenges he faced in his business.

"Here I was 15 years later, reading the article and realizing that the issues I talked about in 1989 were the same issues I was dealing with in 2004," said Beckworth. "I began then working toward a better way to perform our processes. We now have a sustainable business model that keeps us from dealing with the same issues day after day."

Step Two: Exploit the Constraint

"So often the word 'exploit' has a negative connotation," said Kollinger. "In this case, 'exploit' is a good thing. You want the constraint to produce to its maximum capacity." Exploiting the constraint by getting as much out of it as possible will help maximize its output. For example, if the constraint in your business is the spray booth, then exploit it by staying on top of getting vehicles in and out of there. Look for ways to squeeze as much out of the constraint as possible.

Joe Carubba, owner of Carubba Collision in Buffalo, N.Y., explains how his business exploits the paint booth in their day-to-day operations. "The theory of constraints fits into what our insurance company partners and customers ultimately want - which is to get their car back in a more timely fashion," he said. "Since we implemented TOC, our average cycle time has dropped from more than eight days down to four days."

Carubba explained that each day in his business, everyone in the shop is focused on exploiting their paint booth by scheduling its use. "In the past, we just picked a certain number of cars and hoped to get them painted and out of the shop by the end of the week. Now, we schedule every job around the paint booth," he said. "That scheduling has eliminated the bottlenecks and has worked great for us."

Step Three: Subordinate the Constraint

Let's return to the example of a spray booth as the constraint. When a shop owner subordinates his spray booth, he doesn't keep making more vehicles ready to paint so that they stack up outside. Instead, he subordinates the constraint by having his employees prep, tint and tape vehicles so that they are ready to be painted just as soon as the spray booth is available for use. Additionally, vehicles would be removed from the spray booth as soon as possible, seizing every moment for forward progression and time maximization.

Mike Anderson, owner of Wagonwork Collision in Virginia, shares two ways that his business has worked to subordinate the constraints they identified. "We found that we had a problem with parts not being ordered or the wrong part being ordered," he said. "So we worked to find a way around that. When we take apart a vehicle, we have '100 percent teardown.' That is, a team coordinator leads the teardown process and asks thought-provoking questions of the technician."

Together, they work through each part that is broken or damaged and make sure if a new one is needed, it is ordered. Anderson explained further, "When very small items are needed to be ordered and replaced, they are taped to the parts request form and put in a folder. Once the replacement part arrives, it can easily be checked for accuracy by pulling out the old part, which is kept in that vehicle's folder.

"A second problem we experienced happened when our painters would paint a vehicle and then during the reassembly process we would discover unpainted parts," said Anderson. "Now, we remove all small parts that must be painted, such as the gas lid or the door handles, and we place them in the right front floorboard." Anderson explained that although the painters are still responsible for reading the estimate to be sure all parts that need painting are painted, they can easily check to be sure all the small parts are removed simply by looking at the right front floorboard.

Step Four: Elevate the Performance of the Constraint

Many body shops whose spray booths tend to back up may only have one booth. Kollinger suggests doing everything possible to maximize the use of this booth before purchasing a second one. For example, ensure your current booth is equipped with a quick fire burner. When you elevate the constraint by doubling the work that is produced, you have circumvented some of the problems caused by the constraint initially.

If the constraint in your shop is keeping up with the billing, perhaps the person in charge of the billing should focus only on billing instead of also being required to answer the phone, order parts and handle payroll for the employees. Hire someone else to take care of those other assignments and the constraint surrounding billing may clear itself up.

Step Five: Don't Allow Inertia to Begin

Isaac Newton's first law of motion states, "An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force." This law of motion can be related to businesses by recognizing that we tend to do things the same way we've always done them. Inertia is the resistance an object has to its change in motion. Certainly, you will experience some resistance from your employees (maybe you will be resistant, too), but the key to using the theory of constraints successfully is to continue to make positive changes despite that resistance.

Goldratt stresses that using the theory of constraints to improve your business is an ever-evolving task. Identifying and fixing the biggest constraint in your business brings about ways to identify and fix other constraints.

Application to Your Business

Kollinger said that one thing many business owners mistake for success is an identification and "quick fix" to the problem. For example, many people look at the theory of constraints and they oversimplify it, he said.

Kollinger's consulting company, @ccelerate Inc., deals with businesses that evaluate the problem by thinking that all they need to do is find where the cars back up, fix that problem and all their problems are gone. In fact, fixing that problem is just the beginning of the journey.

"Success is achieved when business owners get to the root of the problem," he said. "They can solve and eliminate symptoms all day, but the sustainable value to this theory is to solve the problem at its root."

Beckworth echoes Kollinger's message. "The difference in our business today and that of four years ago lies in how we control and manage our challenges and constraints in a sensible manner," he said. "We have more control over our business and it operates in a more predictable manner each day. Ultimately, that is the benefit of putting theory of constraints into practice."

Steps to Overcoming Bottlenecks in Your Collision Shop

  1. Identify your constraint or problem.
  2. Exploit the constraint in a positive way.
  3. Subordinate the constraint, which means talk through the process of solving the problem.
  4. Elevate the performance of the constraint by removing the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving its fullest.
  5. Don't allow inertia to begin. That is, make positive changes despite any resistance that you might face (including from yourself).

Rachael J. Mercer is a freelance writer based in Moultrie, Ga. She can be reached at

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