Rethinking the shop

Quality and quantity should never be mutually exclusive in the maintenance shop. Just as fleet owners ignore either or both at great peril, they can't afford to emphasize one of these performance factors over the other. Above all, the shop must be viewed through the work it exists to perform. And this should be measured and improved upon by applying a range of management tactics and productivity tools

Quality and quantity should never be mutually exclusive in the maintenance shop. Just as fleet owners ignore either or both at great peril, they can't afford to emphasize one of these performance factors over the other.

Above all, the shop must be viewed through the work it exists to perform. And this should be measured and improved upon by applying a range of management tactics and productivity tools to advance the strategic goal of maintaining and repairing vehicles as quickly as possible (read “quantity”) and as efficiently and safely as possible (read “quality”).

All of this is woefully complicated by the challenge of improving upon what, despite the brick and mortar housing it, is really a moving target. The type and amount of work accomplished by any truck or trailer shop — the process to be improved upon, over and over — varies day by day and hour by hour, and by the individual workers handling it, not to mention such other variables as seasonal weather, vehicle mileage and trade cycles.

Shops are not assembly lines. They are workrooms in the truest sense of the word. The mechanics and technicians (which for simplicity's sake will be interchangeable job descriptions here) who toil within are apprentices, journeymen or masters of their craft — vehicle repair — and it is wise not to expect them to work, let alone be treated, as robots.

All that being said, how the maintenance-and-repair process is conducted in the average fleet shop often allows ample room for improvement. And to be sure, the same holds true for many vendor shops — fleets need to be as exacting of them as they are of their own facilities and employees.

There's nothing like working off a clean sheet of paper, but for most in trucking any rethinking of the shop usually must stick with improving what's inside existing buildings. Nonetheless, much can — and should — be done.



No matter how far along a fleet manager may think his or her garage operation is, it pays handsomely to review the fundamentals and make sure they're sound before even thinking about layering on the latest advances in maintenance software and shop equipment.

Management consultant and veteran fleet manager Darry Stuart ( says one measure above all is critical.

“Everything that happens in the shop should be tied to repair time,” Stuart advises. “Every minute wasted in a shop is worth something. Repair time can be valued at $1 a minute minimum for a fleet and runs around $1.35 for a dealer shop.”

And it does not take rocket science, let alone complex time-motion studies, to positively influence this key variable.

“For starters, techs need space to work efficiently,” Stuart says. “The minimum bay width should be 24 or 25 ft., but often managers do not allow for space in the middle of the shop. The techs need to be able to work around the truck. This is not hard to analyze. Just stand in the middle of the shop and look around and you will see where the lost productivity is.

“It's easy to blame the mechanic [for lost time], but so much can be gained just by how clean and organized the shop is. I figure 70 to 80% of the productivity loss can be gained back by cleaning up and organizing the shop.”

Stuart suggests keeping the image of a supermarket in mind when tackling this — wide, clear aisles, a clean floor and “a place for everything — and everything in its place.”

If building a shop from scratch, he says PM bays can be set up so that waste oil is pumped out.

For existing shops, Stuart recommends using oil and antifreeze drain carts “to keep it clean.” And he says each technician “needs to clean his or her assigned bay at the end of the shift” in keeping with the supermarket theme.

Save steps, too, says Stuart, by installing small cantilevered benches off the wall around the shop with each fitted with a grinder and a vise. “It's a small investment to avoid lots of walking around,” which consumes valuable time. “Always think of what you can do to buy minutes,” he adds.

Stuart contends that “mechanics need to understand the basic principle of cost per minute. If in five minutes they can't figure it out, they need to consult a supervisor to keep the repair cost from ballooning.”

He adds that much time gets eaten up by techs going online to seek out technical info “given most of what goes wrong [with a truck] is well known.”


Although originally developed for manufacturing operations, such process-improvement regimens as the famed Six Sigma methodology (introduced at Motorola in 1986) are being adapted and scaled down to boost productivity and quality in the truck shop.

Greg Caldwell, co-owner with his wife Christina of the Chantilly, VA-based independent garage G&C Express, operates two shops staffed by 16 employees. To better and more cost-effectively serve G&C's customer base of mainly small fleets running everything from medium-duty straight trucks to full-size vans, Caldwell devised his own version of Six Sigma and put it to work.

G&C's campaign started with the basics — super clean floors and work spaces — and then moved into greater detail. Caldwell had red stripes painted on walls where fire extinguishers are located; yellow circles painted where trash cans are to be placed; and shop carts were put together to hold the most common items techs use — flashlights, tire pressure gauges, etc.

“Keeping everything organized allows us to be more productive,” he advises. Higher productivity contributes to faster turnaround time, which is a critical metric for fleets. “Though most are now more focused on price,” Caldwell observes, “how fast you get their vehicles in and out for service remains a constant factor.”

That's also why all of his service managers wear phone headsets, letting them get up and move around while talking on the phone. “It makes it easier to work — you don't have the phone stuck between your shoulder and head all day.”

Caldwell also seeks to keep as little inventory on hand as possible — just the most common parts and tires. “It costs money for us to keep parts on a shelf, not just the money for the part but in terms of taxes, too. So we try to be as lean as possible.

G&C had operated three tow trucks but now just keeps one. “It costs us money to have the trucks,” he explains. “And there are plenty of good tow truck companies out there. We just keep one handy in case there's a customer emergency.”

There's green in being green, too, says Caldwell. “Recycling shop waste is proving to be a big money-saver. Compared to heating with natural gas, waste-oil-fired heaters are saving $600/month. We sometimes have to go to other shops and get their waste oil, but we make sure only waste oil goes in our heaters; oil mixed with brake fluid and other wastes is not good for the heater system.”

Caldwell unobtrusively keeps tabs on what's new and different by sending himself or some of his service managers out to observe how other shops operate. “You learn about how your competitors do things, both good and bad,” he points out.

According to Mike Brannigan, senior vp-fleet management solutions operations for mega-lessor Ryder System Inc., rethinking the shop means “rethinking what the customer wants and the employee needs” to get the job done.

“Customers really want three things,” he continues. “High quality — getting it fixed right the first time. Speed — not done ‘fast’ but done when promised. Better communications — customers want to know what is happening.”

To empower both managers and techs to meet those demands, Brannigan says Ryder has adapted both Six Sigma and Lean process-improvement strategies. He says this amounts to constantly reviewing the underlying processes of what is done in the shop “to drive out inefficiency and increase the quality” of the work performed.

“It comes down to getting better at measuring variations across our shops and employees and working to reduce it; that variation is what the customer ‘feels’ as a negative” cost or experience.

Brannigan says to foster a “process culture” in the shop requires having the right metrics so Ryder is “re-evaluating internally and externally what drives the customers' perception of our service.”

Along with having the aforementioned clean, organized shops that minimize employee “travel time,” he says to consider incentive programs to reward motivated managers and to provide for ongoing employee training and development. “We want our employees to be aligned with Ryder's philosophy” on shop operations.

The desire to keep quality at the forefront led Ryder a year ago to start deploying trained auditors to conduct quality reviews.

“It's been in the last three years that we've moved from a ‘general’ to a ‘functional’ management approach that is process- and quality-oriented,” says Brannigan. “What we keep in mind is rethinking the shop operationally is different than rethinking maintenance practices. The two are separate but equal in importance.”


Of course, there's more to running a shop than mastering the basics. Once those are nailed down is when all the bells and whistles — be they computerized tools or advanced equipment — can best be addressed for maximum impact.

Service director Jim Elkins says Transwest Truck/Trailer/RV, a dealer shop in Frederick, CO, has successfully turned to technology to speed up the repair process for its customers and at the same time boost their satisfaction.

“With the state of the economy being what it is,” says Elkins, “we're trying to do more with less but without our customers feeling any difference in our support. “We began using the Decisiv Fleet Portal service-management platform because it takes service-writing from a reactive to a proactive process.”

According to Elkins, the Internet-based system delivers consistent and timely estimates of labor and parts costs for the most common repairs and maintenance operations, which helps reduce labor rates while increasing the productivity of individual techs.

“Once the system has all the data,” he explains, “it presents the users — in this case our shop and the customer — with what needs to be done in real time and in real dollars. The customer can decide what they want done from there.

“Essentially, this portal system lets a lot more information be leveraged a lot more quickly,” says Elkins. He points out that it reduces repair time starting from the write-up yet the data is there as well to ensure the quality of the work performed.

“Using this system,” adds Elkins, “we gain 4% more gross profit on non-warranty repair orders. That lowers my internal costs, even though the system is making us more proactive” [to the customer].

Larry Chaplin, president of Green Bay, WI-based full-service maintenance provider Master Fleet LLC, in 2006 put all three of his shops onto a computerized maintenance system to boost mechanic productivity. “We got touchscreens for our techs as well as bar coding for parts with TMW's TMT system,” he says.

Along with installing computer workstations, Master Fleet rearranged its layout so its newest facility has the parts room located in the center of its side-by-side truck and trailer shops.

Then Master Fleet put in a “sort of self-service parts checkout,” says Chaplin, “making it easy for techs to do the right thing and charge-out each bar-coded part.”

Linda Joy Vinson, fleet maintenance manager for Caledonia Haulers, contends that in “these changing times, computers and software programs are the most important tools in the whole picture.”

The Minnesota-based liquid food-grade hauler, which operates a main shop and has two contracted operations to maintain its fleet of 155 power units and 200 specialized trailers, understands the power of information.

“Without information, tracking and analysis of the information, what do you have? Lost warranty equals lost money. Lost productivity equals lost money. Lost parts equal lost money,” states Vinson.

“Technicians need to use technology to stay sharp and be included in the big picture,” she continues. “Programs like Paccar's ‘Connect System’ do an excellent job of managing repairs, parts and people.”

But Vinson stresses that the fundamentals still apply. “Companies need to implement and stay on top of preventive maintenance programs.”

When it comes to “other shop upgrades, like lifts and pits, comparisons need to be made of money paid and time saved [before making a decision to implement],” she adds. “In these economic times, the payoff may not be worth the expense.”

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