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Getting Work Done – What a Year at a Mechanic Shop Taught Me About Process

I took a gap year later in life and worked at an auto shop while I contemplated my next career move. It was really interesting to work in an industry that was completely different from technology. One of the most fascinating things was seeing how patterns of work evolved at the shop. They mimicked many of the patterns that are used in the technology industry.

That experience taught me that working styles evolve regularly, and attempting to adhere to a formal process isn’t always necessary. Finding the best way of working with your team, product, and company is what really matters.

Daily Standup

Every day, mid-morning, after all of the cars had been dropped off for the day and everyone was ready to start working, the mechanic team would gather to review all of the work that needed to get done that day. They discussed things like timelines and rides (constraints), which cars needed to be worked on first (prioritization), and anything that was held over from previous days or was unable to be completed (blockers). Just like a daily stand-up in technology organizations running scrum, they found this to be a good way to connect the team with the day’s work and to discuss any outstanding issues.

Product Owner and Scrum Master

The auto shop had both a manager and a coordinator. They were responsible for keeping the team focused on delivering efficiently and interruption-free.

They scheduled work and made sure the mechanics had enough work in the queue to keep them busy. There was rarely a day in which there was not enough work to do, as idle mechanics are not profitable. If there was not a car to work on, the manager made sure that there was other work for the mechanics to do that would improve the shop in some manner. Those tasks could be scheduling in-training, tool maintenance, or rearranging the shop to make it more efficient.

Both the manager and coordinator were constantly in motion. Moving cars around in the parking lot, washing them, cleaning the bathrooms, fixing broken windows, shaking hands, chatting with customers, soothing hurt feelings, resolving conflict, washing dishes, ordering garbage pick-up…on and on and on. Not all of this work was immediately visible, but it enabled the mechanics and customers to have great experiences.

A major part of these people’s job was to anticipate and remove blockers in order to keep the work moving. They ordered parts and picked them up, made sure tools were sharpened, and ensured that customers had been called and answers were received. In addition, they spent lots of time communicating with car owners, suppliers, and insurance companies in order to keep all stakeholders informed about the process and progress toward completion.

Continuous Improvement

At the shop, feedback was given regularly and informally, and problems were dealt with in a timely manner. Feedback cycles included conversations around under/over-scheduling, improvements to the triage process, and ways to handle conversations with customers.

Changes in Priority

Every day, some kind of unplanned interruption would happen. Whether it was a customer who had an emergency situation or a part that couldn’t be located or a tool malfunctioning, the team dealt with change and unexpected interruptions gracefully.

Often, interruptions would lead to customer delight–as the team went out of their way to assess situations and take care of the person to the best of their ability. I recall a situation in which a loyal customer left an item in a loaner car, and the manager delivered it personally to their office. The easiest path would have been to call and ask the person to come pick it up, but the manager understood that going the extra mile for the customer would pay dividends in the future.

Product Success

Another thing I found interesting was the attention paid to shop appearance and service levels outside of fixing a car. The reputation of the shop relied on excellent customer service as well as quality repairs. Everyone understood that it was their responsibility to deliver on both aspects as well as they could. Protecting their brand was important to the success of the shop.

Vegetable and flower gardens flourished at the shop and were tended to regularly during the workday. In the summer, baskets of freshly picked tomatoes sat on the counter for customers to take home. Branded shirts were sent to customers as a thank-you, and new babies received a onesie. Artwork was displayed prominently, and annual concerts were scheduled.

All of these things were investments in the brand and reputation of the shop. The owner knew that they wouldn’t pay off immediately, but they could lead to referrals and higher ratings. They knew what their differentiator was, and they worked hard to keep it in view.

Team Dynamics

Most days, the team gathered for lunch together and the shop “closed.” Phones went to voicemail, and work stopped temporarily. This provided an important opportunity for the team to bond over matters that weren’t work-related. It was a time for everyone to connect as humans, develop skills that would help them solve conflict when it came up, and see each other through a lens that wasn’t focused on work.

I was surprised to see how much the principles of Agile and scrum were present in an environment without any training in, or knowledge of, these methods. It affirmed that these principles are worth utilizing, especially when they develop organically and evolve because that’s what the team needs in order to stay successful.