The better shop is the smarter shop— smarter in how it is managed, staffed, and equipped for the challenge of maintaining commercial vehicles, which must incur minimum downtime, operate at the lowest possible cost, and meet all regulatory requirements.
While maximum uptime and minimum cost have been and always will be watchwords for top-notch maintenance shop management, make no mistake that meeting regs has never been more crucial than it is now. That’s thanks to the negative impact violating provisions of the Vehicle Maintenance category within the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA enforcement program can wreak on a fleet’s highly essential safety rating.
In our estimation, the management toolbox for effectively tackling that triple job order should contain six dedicated and well-stocked drawers, labeled as such in no particular order:
- Recruiting Techs
- Remote Diagnostics
- Environmental Compliance
- Preventive Maintenance
- Training Techs
- Information Sharing
- Parts Inventory
On the following pages are case-study reports on the processes and tools that vehicle-maintenance managers can access to help ensure they are operating the best shops in the business.
Case Study: Recruiting Technicians
Maintenance technicians are literally the lifeblood of any vehicle shop operation. But thanks to changing demographics and the wide array of technically skilled jobs now available in a range of industries, fleet owners are finding it harder to recruit entry-level techs. And they are needed not only to replace retiring maintenance veterans, but to bring 21st century technical skills to work in the shop.
Pay is important when recruiting techs, according to David Hooper, customer support manager for W.W. Williams, a member firm of WheelTime (a U.S.-Canada nationwide network of truck service/repair providers, which has nearly 200 service facilities, 33 training centers, and 1,500 mobile-service vehicles).
“However,” Hooper elaborates, “I’ve found that technicians are usually looking for better circumstances, such as a more preferable shift, closer commute or better environment, rather than higher pay. We‘ve hired several techs over the years that were fine with a matching or even slightly lower pay rate as long as they could get a better work schedule.”
As to where to seek techs, fleet consultant Bruce Stockton, president & CEO of Stockton Solutions, advises seeking new techs who are fresh out of school vs. competing for those already in the workforce. “When fleets recruit away from dealers or other fleets, they typically only raise their cost of doing business within their cities or regions by creating a bidding war for labor, thus increasing their costs while having to compete within the same market for the work to be performed,” he explains.
“My best practice [in my time as a fleet manager] was to focus more on the high school vo-tech programs, knowing that a definite percentage of those students would not attend college but had already been exposed to a vehicle vo-tech program for two years during high school,” Stockton advises.
“Their track record in school, attendance, performance and instructor recommendation were the key factors I looked for to find the most likely candidates to make long-term career technicians,” he adds.
Hooper says WheelTime member-firms have found it to be beneficial to partner with local or regional vo-techs. “Members also find that tool allowances, incremental pay increases during a probationary year, or even help with relocation are well received by prospective techs,” he relates. “A fresh graduate could enter into a contracted year in return for relocation assistance, a tool account and a guaranteed pay scale that increases with time in grade and training level.”
Fleets are often in a good position to hire such new tech talent, points out Hooper. “Typically,” he explains, “fleets pay less for hourly technicians than independent shops because of the experience level, tooling status, and training required. Entry-level and recently graduated students make good hires for service and repair shops at fleets for that reason; they’re usually not looking for a large payday from their first employer. Also, fleets tend to have a certain way of doing things, such as inspections, tire maintenance, policies, etc., that are easier to apply to a non-seasoned technician.”
“I always recommend to fleets and even dealers that they recruit young and promote from within,” says Stockton. He says it’s key to provide a career path for both responsibility and level of compensation. “I call it ‘staying ahead of the student curve’ by always evaluating the performance of each tech on a minimum annual basis; asking techs what they want to be doing in the next one, three, or five years; and explaining what skills they need to acquire to meet their goals.
“Fleets must then help techs develop those skills so they can meet their goals,” he continues, “and so they can ‘earn’ the compensation that comes with the added responsibility and skill level.” Hooper says techs tend to seek positions that offer stability, preferable hours, and a good working environment.
“The tech needs to know their job is safe, that the company is strong, and that the folks they’re working with are credible,” he points out.
Case Study: Remote Diagnostics
Bryan Burningham will tell you his company, Ontario-based Challenger Motor Freight, is very big on testing all sorts of new technologies. It has been the fleet’s experience that new systems offer one of the best ways to improve efficiency while simultaneously reducing costs. And it’s accomplishing this exact “one-two punch” that encouraged Challenger to help test-pilot and then adopt Volvo Truck’s new remote diagnostics package.
“We look to deploy technologies where we see intrinsic benefit for our operation,” explains Burningham, director of maintenance for Challenger. “So when Volvo introduced us to the remote diagnostics concept in late 2010, we agreed to help test [the system] starting in the summer of 2011.”
According to Volvo, remote diagnostics provide proactive diagnostic and repair planning assistance through detailed analysis of diagnostic trouble codes gleaned from the truck’s computer and then shared with the fleet through the company’s Volvo Action Service (VAS) 24/7 communication network.
When a fault code appears, the remote diagnostics system alerts VAS, which then works with the customer via the communication medium of their choice (email, phone, texting, Saving a dayetc.) to establish a course of action.
If the trouble code is urgent or the vehicle is too far away from a carrier’s maintenance facility, VAS can work with the nearest Volvo dealer to schedule the truck for service and ensure the needed parts are on hand—all well before a truck arrives at a service location, thus helping to maximize vehicle uptime.
The remote diagnostics system also provides communication and documentation between VAS, dealers and customers through the company’s Automated Service Initiation System (ASIST). This web-based service management tool was developed in cooperation with software provider Decisiv and comes free of charge for two years or 250,000 mi. with the purchase of any new Volvo truck.
The package is only available for Volvo-branded trucks equipped with Volvo-branded engines built after May 19, 2010. Two levels of warning are provided: “yellow alerts” flag problems that will eventually affect the truck, giving time for the fleet to make repair arrangements, and “red alerts” indicate problems that demand immediate attention.
For Challenger, allowing the maintenance department to literally see, in real time, every trouble code a driver sees is what Burningham calls one of the big advantages of the remote diagnostics program.
“When we can see [fault] codes right as they happen, we can make better planning decisions about what to do,” he explains. “Does the code indicate if it’s okay for the driver to keep going? Or do we need to use VAS to push that driver and vehicle to the nearest Volvo dealership? In essence, it allows us to avoid vehicle downtime while reassuring the driver about the problem; it helps us coach them through it.”
That’s a big deal for Challenger, as its fleet of 1,500 trucks and 3,500 trailers provides a wide range of services from traditional full TL van operations to specialized services, heavy haul, bulk, and even refrigerated service, with all of its freight offerings roughly split 50/50 between the U.S. and Canada.
Since Challenger began using Volvo’s remote diagnostics system, Burningham estimates Challenger shaves about a day off the repair time per fault code event. This is largely because the advance warning provided by the system allows the fleet to begin troubleshooting the problem long before the truck arrives at one of its four shops (staffed by a total of 170 technicians) or a Volvo dealership.
Case Study: Environmental Compliance
As a necessary evil to avoid regulatory fines, liability suits and public-image disasters, compliance with environmental rules must be followed by managers as requiring nothing less than a “best practice” approach at all maintenance shops. And it is not enough to get into compliance; efforts must also be made to continuously stay on top of any new or changed environmental reg, be it promulgated at the federal, state or local level.
“Operations personnel should informally observe and enforce environmental and safety compliance issues on a daily basis,” says Mike Costanza, director of environmental services for Penske Truck Leasing. “Managers and supervisors should observe site conditions and their employees’ work practices during the course of daily activities, and should be reinforcing best management practices.
“More formal documented compliance audits would normally be conducted monthly using a checklist designed to focus on key compliance issues (e.g., waste storage practices, storage tank compliance and spill management) relevant for a particular facility,” he continues.
“Finally, an annual comprehensive compliance audit should be conducted to identify program areas that may need to be modified,” Costanza points out. “In addition, periodic third-party reviews (e.g., consultants and college outreach) of compliance programs may also be helpful to gain an outside perspective and to identify innovative best practices.”
According to Nanci Tellam, group director of environmental services & sustainability for Ryder System Inc., the best environmental-management programs will “incorporate some type of ongoing and routine review to monitor and ensure compliance exceptions are identified as soon as possible.
“This would include environmental checklist reviews for high-risk areas such as waste storage, employee training, and fuel system inspections,” she continues. “With this operational oversight integrated into routine shop employee responsibilities, management audits can be conducted annually to validate controls are working and exceptions are being corrected.”
Tellam also advises that “it is absolutely critical that a shop-designated and responsible point of contact, such as an environmental coordinator, be identified at the operational level. Ryder has designated environmental coordinators for every operating facility.”
Penske’s Costanza contends that “ultimately someone at the facility will need to be responsible for implementing compliance programs and ensuring that policies and procedures are being followed on a day-to-day basis.
“Depending on the size of the facility, that person may be dedicated solely to compliance, wear several different hats, or have responsibility for multiple facilities,” he advises. “It also depends on the services being provided; facilities dispensing fuel and generating waste materials will need to have someone with an in-depth knowledge of regulations.”
“It is always important to have a local component to any compliance program,” Costanza continues. “Someone has to take responsibility for the day-to-day activities that cannot be monitored from a corporate office.” At multi-shop operations, it may be necessary for compliance programs to be handled at the corporate level, especially for multi-state operations where programs need to be modified to meet state-specific requirements, Costanza notes.
“If you have only a few shops, a ‘customized’ approach may work without difficulty,” states Ryder’s Tellam. “However, if your business has locations in numerous states, counties and cities, it can be a challenge, and it may work better to take the most restrictive rules and apply them across all your operations.”
Case Study: Preventive Maintenance
As Keith Klein, COO and executive vice president of Minnesota-based TL carrier Transport America, sees it, preventive maintenance (PM) is critical to not only keep tractor-trailers on the road delivering freight, but also to ensure they are safe to operate alongside everyday motorists on highways near and far.
The Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program introduced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2010 significantly amplified the ramifications of even small deficiencies in any of the multitudes of parts that make trucks and trailers function.
“Take trailer marker lights, for instance,” Klein notes. “In the past, if a driver noticed one was out, he’d make a note of it and just push on until he reached one of our facilities. Now, however, even something that small could count against their record under CSA rules.”
Taking care of even small maintenance- related issues created some difficulties, especially for a fleet of 1,100 tractors and 3,500 trailers spread out across the Midwest and East Coast.
Transport America received a bit of good fortune that helped it get ahead of the curve in terms of how to address CSA-related vehicle maintenance items. Its home state of Minnesota ended up as one of six states where FMCSA pilot-tested CSA.
As a result, Transport America got an early taste of how the agency’s new safety regime might impact its operations, resulting in what’s been informally dubbed “Quick Lane,” a vehicle compliance check system that tries to put more “eyes” on the inspection process so the burden of making sure a vehicle is CSA-compliant doesn’t rest solely on the driver.
There’s always the possibility that a driver might miss something small during a pretrip inspection, Klein says. Quick Lane is a way to “close the circle on vehicle inspections. These lanes are all about catching the little things—items that used to get pushed off until the next PM interval— and fixing them then and there,” Klein points out.
He added that Transport America runs its vehicles through the Quick Lane even if the driver didn’t note anything on his pretrip.
“If the truck is in that terminal, it goes through the lane, and that’s because it is helping us not just to identify CSA-related maintenance items, but identify bigger issues as well,” Klein explains.
Back in 2010, Transport America initially established one Quick Lane at its North Jackson, OH, terminal, with two technicians taking roughly 20 to 25 min. to comb the entire tractor-trailer looking for maintenance issues. The concept was such a success that the carrier added Quick Lane to its Janesville, WI, and Atlanta, GA, terminals as well, with a fourth planned for its Dallas, TX, terminal once it finishes relocation efforts.
Klein also stresses that the key to making the Quick Lane system work is speedy yet accurate throughput of vehicles through the inspection process, while maintaining enough volume of tractor-trailers through the lane to warrant the dedication of personnel to it.
To date, Transport America has gained some critical takeaways from its strategy.
“First, we really needed a certain level of volume in and out of the terminal to make it work, so these lanes really are not a good fit for our smaller shops,” Klein says. “Second, we’ve found it offers a great opportunity for our younger technicians to step up and play a new and sometimes more critical role in the care and maintenance of our fleet. Folks like to witness the impact of their jobs, and our Quick Lane offers a good line of sight for our technicians to follow in terms of how their work pays off.”
Case Study: Training Technicians
Maintenance technicians are not so much trained these days as they are provided with the information and hands-on experience they need to develop their skill sets and advance their career paths so they can contribute to furthering the equipment-related goals of fleet operations.
“Most of our members use good old-fashioned observation to assess what training is needed for techs,” says Jane Clark, vice president of member services for NationaLease, the association of independent truck lessors. “The service managers give techs various jobs to assess their skill level at handling each type of job, and if they struggle with any particular job, that area is noted for training.
“Our members typically have formalized training reviews either every six months or annually,” she continues, “but assessment is ongoing. By observing the day-to-day performance of the techs, managers can quickly determine where training is needed. The training areas emphasized currently include electronic diagnostics, brakes, and DEF systems.”
Clark says the consensus of NationaLease members is that new techs need the most training. “They tend to give new hires as much training as possible to bring them up to speed,” she relates. “With experienced techs, training is seen more as a fine-tuning of their skills.”
“A best practice is to have a senior technician—someone who’s been around the business and may not physically be capable of doing technician work eight to 12 hours a day—become each new student’s mentor,” advises fleet consultant Bruce Stockton, president & CEO of Stockton Solutions.
“Showing and then watching the new tech perform the job steps from start to finish is ultimately the best training,” he continues. “Computer-based training as a follow-up on a regular basis is also important and much more acceptable today to tech-savvy students than it was 20 years ago.”
He also advises that “within a true production shop, the quality and productivity of techs is measured daily and reviewed monthly, good or bad, to determine what corrective action, training, etc., is needed to ensure success for the company, fleet and the technician.
Start with the basics, advises David Hooper, customer support manager for W.W. Williams, a member firm of WheelTime (a U.S.-Canada nationwide network of truck service/repair providers, which has nearly 200 service facilities, 33 training centers, and 1,500 mobile-service vehicles). “Every tech needs a level of ‘basic training’ that includes tire training, basic safety, OSHA regulations, and PMs,” he explains.
“Beyond those basic principles,” he continues, “what’s needed will depend on the task the tech will be performing.
We’ve also found that it’s better to train only in the area of work that will be required of the technician. Any other effort will be wasted because the information will get lost without task repetition. The exception to this rule is if a tech is being cross-trained for a newer or larger role.”
Hooper advises that new techs receive more training in the form of the “basics” until they get to the level of seasoned workers. “At that point,” he says, “training should be distributed based on the needs of the fleet, such as new updates to equipment, campaigns, bulletins or cross-training.”
He also notes that WheelTime members have found that “train the trainer” is the best approach when it comes to a fleet or independent shop. “In-house training takes the raw information from the outside and adapts it to fit the needs of the company or shop when applying it to their technicians.”
“Most of our members see supplier training as a supplement to the training they are doing in-house,” says NationaLease’s Clark. “Industry suppliers can provide the technical training, based on industry best practices as needed,” Stockton notes. “I believe fleets need to focus on making sure the technical training occurs while helping the technician manage his or her career.”
Case Study: Information Sharing
Getting dealer technicians, drivers and their fleets all on the same page when it comes to managing vehicle repairs can often seem like an impossible task, but Rush Truck Centers (RTC), a division of Rush Enterprises, is taking a stab at solving it nonetheless.
“What frustrates fleets most is when they have no idea how long a repair will take or how much it might cost,” explains Mike Besson, RTC’s vice president-service operations. “What frustrates technicians is when they ‘chase ghosts’ in terms of diagnosing the problem, then go hunting through many different sets of resources to figure out how to fix it.”
To that end, RTC equipped all 78 of its locations two years ago with Noregon System’s JPRO “all-inclusive” software system designed to help truck technicians rapidly diagnose maintenance issues regardless of truck or engine brand.
Thus, rather than hook up diagnostic tools from a half-dozen manufacturers to a truck one by one, JPRO steps in to become a “triage” product. Technicians will be able to quickly figure out what and where the problem is so they can then get the specific OEM tool or specific software program designed to deal with it.
Besson says RTC is now going a step further by establishing a dedicated JPRO “cart” in each of its facilities. This allows the diagnostic gear to be easily wheeled anywhere in the shop.
While RTC is making the use of JPRO standard operating procedure for its 1,400 or so technicians, Besson says that only about 20% of the company’s shops are currently equipped with the carts.
Find and Fix
“The plan is to use JPRO immediately to identify the problem quickly, then estimate how long the repair could take and cost to fix,” he explains. “So, if it’s a problem that might take four hours to fix, we can get started on it right away. But if it’s something serious that may require several days, that allows the customer to start making more proactive decisions especially if the truck is under load.”
RTC’s technicians derive an added benefit from using JPRO via a partnership Noregon forged with Mitchell 1 in early 2012 that adds a complete set of information to the diagnostic process. This includes displaying schematics, repair procedures and other information alongside specific diagnostic codes so technicians don’t necessarily have to go look up all that information as a separate task.
“It’s all about saving time for the technician,” emphasizes Brent Hamil, Noregon’s director of national fleet accounts. The integration of JPRO’s software with Mitchell 1’s Repair-Connect.net network means important vehicle data, including vehicle identification number and diagnostic trouble codes, is automatically made available to the technician. “One technician told me that what we’re doing now with JPRO would allow him to collect required information in about 30 seconds, compared to the 30 to 40 minutes his current process takes,” Hamil says. “With that kind of time savings over a day, you can probably fit an additional truck repair into his schedule.”
More succinctly, it helps remove the big hassle of diagnostic information collection that technicians must deal with on a daily basis. Modern trucks come equipped with 10 or more onboard computers that control everything from emissions to gear selection, vehicle stability, and countless other features. Collecting the vast amounts of information is a time-consuming task without a technological aid.
Down the road, RTC’s Besson wants to add another layer to this information- sharing process to create a measuring stick for truck repairs regardless of location—standard repair time (SRT) data.
“We’re still a few years away from this, but by incorporating estimated SRT data into the JPRO analysis, we can provide customers with an even more accurate estimate about how long it will take to get their truck back on the road and how much it will cost to do so,” he says. “It’ll also help us develop even better repair time and cost consistency across our network for repairs. That also helps our customer too.”
Case Study: Parts Inventory
A troublesome problem for fleets and truck dealerships alike is never having the right part on the shelf when needed. This also can be an expensive problem, as both fleets and dealerships can tie up millions of dollars in parts that rarely get used.
There’s a regulatory component to this issue as well, as truck exhaust emissions mandates, for one, are putting a further squeeze on parts availability at times, notes Mitch Barker, service manager for Farmers Oil in Anthony, KS.
“You have to carry a lot more parts in stock for the different engines. With the [exhaust gas] regeneration systems, it takes longer to do a preventive maintenance service,” he says.
At the same time, Barker says there is a greater need for different, lesser-used parts that can be easily overlooked during parts ordering, such as those associated with the wide-base tires the fleet runs. “We need to stock more S-cam brackets,” he explains. “Since we haven’t had to order those parts as often before, it can be an easy item to overlook until you go to the shelf and it’s not there.” For those and other reasons, third-party providers and OEMs them technology-driven systems in order to help both fleets and dealers manage parts inventory more effectively, both by reducing the amount of money invested in parts while at the same time speeding up delivery of critical items.
For example, take Navistar Parts, an arm of truck and engine maker Navistar Corp., and its Dealer Inventory Alliance (DIA) proprietary parts control system. To help dealers strike the right balance of parts availability and inventory cost controls, the system identifies what parts dealers absolutely need and what parts they don’t need.
“It’s all about order response time,” explains Joe Kory, vice president-global distribution operations for Navistar Parts. “For the last couple of years, our initiative has been to analyze more precisely what’s being sold and not being sold, not just in specific markets but to specific customers. That way we can better identify any gaps in what is being stocked at the dealerships serving those customers.”
It’s about developing customized inventory plans for dealers based on their sales history, notes Jon Brouwers, DIA program manager for Navistar, so the right part is at the dealership when a specific customer truck comes in to be fixed.
“That requires us to develop more intricate forecasting and replenishment algorithms for the system, as we compare a dealer’s daily stock orders to what they’ve sold over the last 12 months in comparison to what’s already on their shelf,” he emphasizes.
Kory adds that this “automatic” restocking algorithm links to the specific vehicle identification numbers for particular customers, helping improve the parts response rate for individual fleets. “For example, we had one customer where our fill rate clocked in at 90%; we had nine out of every 10 parts they needed on the shelf of the dealer serving them,” he says. “Once we engaged the new algorithms, that fill rate jumped to 95%.”
More Uptime What does such a metric mean for fleets? “Basically, every time you have the required part on the shelf, that reduces vehicle repair time by about a day on average,” Kory explains. “And that translates into more vehicle uptime for the customer.”
The other advantage to using the modified DIA algorithms is that once confidence is established in the system’s ability to maintain a high fill rate, less inventory needs to be carried, reducing the amount of money that needs to be invested in parts inventory.