Fixing the way we fix things

Guest editorial
By Jeffrey Messer and Cullen Martin, Messer Truck Equipment

This article was published in the February 2017 edition of NTEA News.

We like to fix things, so when our customers’ equipment stops working, we want to repair it. But despite our best intentions, we discovered we were not providing optimum value when doing so. Multiple attempts over several days chasing an issue, mounting repair bills with no solution in sight, swapping parts hoping it would fix the problem — there had to be a better way.

We participated in lean training sessions at The Work Truck Show and on-site at our facility, and decided to implement a value stream mapping approach. This method involves analyzing the current state and working toward your ideal future state. While this may sound simple enough, it’s not always so easy to take a hard look at what you do.

The old way
With the help of shop leadership, technicians, select customers and management, we outlined our basic repair process flow.

Issue recognition and diagnosis
Most repair issues were identified by a customer phone call or visit. Calls could be challenging, as some customers expected us to fix the problem over the phone, yet they had limited understanding of the equipment and its components. Frustrated, they normally broke down and drove to our shop.

Customers who stopped by often sought quick resolution, too. Unfortunately, our technicians were actively working on other jobs, so they had to stop what they were doing to diagnose an issue in the parking lot. Not to mention, the check-up was quick and cursory because the techs needed to return to work.

Getting into the shop
Once we had a diagnosis, we scheduled the labor. If possible, the job was shoehorned into an already heavy schedule that same day (displacing other work). Alternatively, we sometimes asked customers to leave the vehicle so we could try to “work it in” (possibly getting lost in the shuffle and being forgotten about until the customer called to complain about the delay). On occasion, a firm appointment was set for them to bring back the equipment and wait while it was repaired. This was a better solution, but often, there was no real understanding of how long the job would take.

Doing the work
This presented a whole new set of challenges. Repair orders were not typically written with clear direction (what the tech was actually doing), issue description, equipment information (what the tech should work on), part numbers (or whether or not the part was in stock), supplies needed, labor estimates, and other pertinent data. One repair order simply stated: Plow broken. Please fix.

As a result, technicians spent time getting answers to these questions before any work began. Then, they focused only on the description of the basic issue (which was often just a symptom of the root cause). They stumbled their way through, relying on swaptronics, or swapping components, to try and correct the problem. Either they failed to solve the real issue or succeeded in only uncovering yet more symptoms of the root cause. This would continue for some time, until they located a senior technician (pulling that individual away from the job) to help.

All of the activity to that point would likely generate a large bill for the customer, who was not prepared for additional labor charges and parts costs. As such, a manager would be left having to decide if the customer was worth placating (which meant eating all the additional costs) or risk losing them and having a powerful and motivated new advocate for the competition.

Committing to a better way
Once we had a greater understanding of our processes and the waste they created, we were able to define the following core list of what customers find valuable for repair transactions.  

  1. Accurate diagnosis of the issue — getting it right the first time.
  2. On-time delivery of solutions — getting the job into the shop when originally stated, and making sure the work is done on time, with no wait for parts once the job is started.
  3. Quality — of parts and workmanship, as well as information and communication.
  4. Value — a derivative measurement of the above points and cost to the customer for the work.

With these four factors in mind, we designed a new workflow. Here is how we now support and resolve customer issues.

Issue recognition and diagnosis
As soon as customers inform our shop of a problem, they are scheduled for a diagnostic session with a senior technician. We designated two individuals and separate shop space for this purpose, which takes a minimum of 30 minutes and maximum of one hour. There is no troubleshooting over the phone or guessing in the parking lot.

Getting into the shop
With a firm diagnostic appointment, customers come in at their scheduled time, are brought into the shop immediately, and know their wait will be no longer than an hour.

Doing the work
During this appointment, the focus is on discovering the root cause of the malfunction. The end goal for the technician is an accurate diagnosis, with repair being secondary. This results in:

  • Identification of the issue
  • List of parts needed
  • Estimated labor cost

This information is used to give customers a comprehensive estimate, as well as lead times for parts that need to be ordered. By doing this, we eliminate sticker shock and allow customers to make informed decisions about what happens next and how much it will cost. Once we receive approval on the work, we schedule it. More than 70 percent of the time, these repairs can be accurately identified and completed during the diagnostic appointment. If a more complex, extended repair is required, it is scheduled into the shop’s normal production flow.

Upon delivery, customers understand what the issue was, what work was performed and what they’re paying for. The fix is tested and documented before the vehicle leaves the shop, and customers sign a checkout sheet attesting the work was completed satisfactorily. In the end, customers leave with functional equipment and the understanding that they received excellent value for their repair dollars.

All of this sounds great, but what does it mean to the company? For us, what used to take eight to 10 technicians (and essentially shutting down the shop on a heavy snow day), now only takes two to three technicians and does not meaningfully disrupt workflow. It means better quality and more consistent work, greater communication, more value to the customer and reduced stress for all. That’s how we measure success.

Lean resources
The Work Truck Show 2017, scheduled March 14–17 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, offers sessions on boosting workplace productivity using lean practices. These courses will provide insights on taking business to a new level through organization and streamlining. Learn more about the Show and the variety of educational programming offered at