How Critical Thinking Can Help Your BusinessPosted 1/11/2007
By Deb Van Batenburg, AAM
Shatter your old ideas and ways of doing business. Implemented correctly, critical thinking steps can be key in addressing the problems that plague your shop
As the manager of a repair facility, it's a given that you keep learning, training and doing what it takes to stay ahead of the competition. Many times, in visiting shops around the country, I see a familiar sign posted that says, "Don't Forget the Basics." Good shops and their owners/managers have created their standard operating systems (SOPs), written company manuals, and - in many cases - attained their accredited automotive manager (AAM) credentials by committing themselves to the dynamic training offered by the Automotive Management Institute (AMI). With the challenges independent repair shops face in today's market, having another "tool" in your management toolbox is always a good thing!
What's the buzz about critical thinking (CT) and why does it pertain to you and your business? Why would it be worth your time to learn and embrace another concept in management? The answer to "why" can be as simple as the critical process itself. To be clear, to problem solve effectively and to be free to think at the highest level is a useful tool. Running a repair shop is a complex business. It is challenging to master all of the different areas. Shop owners/managers encounter all kinds of problems and issues in addition to the technical demands of each day. In only eight hours, an awful lot is required to successfully meet the demands of customers, employees and the schedule itself.
As an aside, business writer Jeffrey Gitomer tells us, "Most time management training is a waste of time. We know what to do, we even know when to do it. We just don't always choose to do it!" Critical thinking is somewhat in the same category. The system is available to you, but you have to choose to use it.
In understanding critical thinking, it is helpful to write down the steps and use them as a guide until this becomes a familiar, workable tool.
Step 1: Identify, define and clarify the problem
This seems simple and straightforward. But at times, in a busy shop, we are dealing with only the symptom of a problem ... not the true problem. After identifying the problem, ask these simple questions: "Is this the problem or just a symptom of a problem?" It may be necessary to ask this question more than once to get to the core issue. The first questioning may only uncover another symptom. Continue the questioning until the problem is completely clear.
To apply each of the five steps, the following two examples will be used.
Problem A: The shop always seems to be out of shop rags.
Problem B: The service writer continually misses vital information on the final work orders and is costing the company money.
As the manager/owner, it is worthwhile to pinpoint and investigate these kinds of issues and resolve them. Resolving them in a logical way will save the stress of an emotional reaction in the moment when these issues arise. This process responds to numerous subjects and situations. It also connects the whole logical thought process instead of short circuiting it with an explosive outburst, which results in using energy, but has no solution attached to that energy.
In Problem A - the shop rag example - here are some questions that will lead to the core issue. Is anyone in charge of ordering the rags or is it an afterthought when the uniform delivery arrives? Is there an ordering system? Is there a system no one is following? Are there any "helpful" guidelines like a tag put on that reads, "This is the last bag of rags - please tell someone." Is the shop being careless and using too many rags? Is the shop careless because it seems like no one cares or is not paying attention? Is someone taking a bag of rags home? Is the uniform company really delivering them when you do order them? In clarifying the problem, the real issue will come out, and that is the one you want to work on.
Problem B - the service writer example - could look something like this:
Is the service writer asking enough questions? Is there a technician who does not like how the service writer is getting the information from him? Is the service writer too rushed at the end of the day? Is the service writer too afraid to ask the boss for help? Is the service writer in over his/her head but everyone seems to like the individual? Any of these scenarios could be the issue. But without deciphering this, the problem remains and becomes a shop "tolerance."
A "tolerance" is some type of aggravating thing that annoys everyone at work but no one is willing to take the time to tackle the problem. And so it becomes a tolerance we live with but without acceptance. For example, in our shop, the tolerance was the first-aid kit. I could have killed myself half a dozen times getting the thing down off of the top shelf, not to mention knock myself unconscious if I dropped it on my head. But everyone knew where it was and although everyone complained, no one wanted to be the one who moved it. In hindsight, we could have easily had a quick shop meeting, used the CT process and resolved it with a new location that everyone would like.
Step 2: Gather information
Once the problem is defined, it is time to gather evidence or information. This doesn't have to take a long time. The ease of critical thinking is the simplicity of the process. But it's here that mistakes may happen because the full facts are not gathered. Critical thinkers can gather information or evidence from communication, experience, note taking or observation. This step may require asking someone in the shop or the office to do the research and/or phone calling.
Problem A: It's clear that no one is in charge of anything regarding shop rags.
The information gathering would involve looking at the last six months of uniform orders/delivery slips and see what's really coming into the shop. Surveying techs as to what they think is going on with the shop rags or lack of rags could be the other investigation.
Problem B: It has been defined that the service writer and the lead technician are having a personality clash that is affecting their ability to communicate. To address this situation, Step 2 could be to locate the work orders that involve these two individuals. Additionally, ask if there's a written process about work orders or a written standard about respect or positive interactions in the workplace and make copies of those. Is there a signed copy of the company manual in their personnel file? It may be useful.
Step 3: Evaluate the information.
This step addresses not only the validity of the information but also the opinion and biases of you and/or your staff. As human beings, we have a logical skill set and an emotional framework. Emotions play a powerful role in the workplace. They can help us or hurt us. They can help or hurt others. They can be based on insight or prejudice. Step 3 is useful in separating the two perspectives. The key to Step 3 is rational, not emotional.
In Problem A, evaluating the information keeps the staff from blaming each other. It can dispel judgments employees are holding against each other.
In Problem B, as the manager, you may be holding opinions about the service writer or the lead tech or both. A bias may be present that, left untouched or uncovered, can prevent good information gathering. Biases and judgments should be consciously suspended during information gathering to allow for effective evaluation in the next step.
Step 4: Choose the best alternatives and present them.
This is where your creativity can be put to use. Are you still reading? Good, then you are willing to learn new concepts and ideas. You are willing to learn a new discipline. Step 4 is about thinking and creating. It is best to create three choices that will be presented. Why three? Because as human beings, when we are faced with change or new ideas, we are required to make a choice. My two previous careers in sales and the restaurant business taught me a lot about people and choices. Three is the optimal number because it lets those involved reject one of the three (rejection gives them some control) and then choose between only two. Choosing between two alternatives is a simpler, clearer process. In Step 4, it is also important to have those who are doing the choosing or voting "buy" in as powerful decision makers. If they are not an integral part of this step, they will not be effective in the final step.
In Problem A, the choices might be:
Problem B could offer:
The final step is often the most difficult.
Step 5: Implement the solution.
As human beings we don't like change all that much. Even when we know that change is the answer to our problems, we resist it in ways we don't even realize. Change is inconvenient, time consuming and often requires a commitment we don't feel like making. It is helpful to discuss this with those involved. Acknowledging that change can be humbling and having some humility when asking for change is a good thing.
The road to the new solution may have some potholes, but if we take the knowledge, understanding and insights that are gained by thinking critically, awareness is raised to a new level. Using critical thinking as a problem-solving method for your business raises the standards of all involved. It is a linear, logical and professional approach that gives real results. It helps us be better managers and people. If we are willing to become critical thinkers, we will be less stressed, more efficient and more productive in our lives.
Remember: critical thinking can be applied to any problem. It is a valuable tool in every area of shop management, office management and lifestyle management. The real bonus is that if you learn this process, it works in your personal life, too!
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