Opinion: As the Wrench Turns
By Michael Buck
MCB Fleet Management Consulting
This Opinion piece appears in the April 15 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.
It’s no secret that the mechanic shortage is as prevalent as the driver shortage, and the fleet that manages to retain its service technicians — and keep them content and productive for the long term — has a huge financial advantage. That’s because as the fleet wrenches turn, their efficiency will mirror the profitability of the organization.
Controlling mechanic productivity is imperative for reducing maintenance costs and freeing up capital that can be used to improve life-cycle management for assets and augment the organization’s bottom line.
In the 21st century, controlling mechanics’ productivity begins with understanding who they are, how to lead them, how to hold them accountable — and how to do all that without losing sight of the company’s overall goals.
Mechanics are a group whose sense of accomplishment derives from tackling and solving mechanical problems. It’s what makes them willing to crawl under a piece of equipment dripping with dirty slush or mud — or, at least, it’s what holds the interest of the ones born to be mechanics.
Today’s shops are staffed by service technicians who are a mixture of baby boomers (1946 through 1964), Generation X’ers (early 1960s to early 1980s) and Generation Y’ers (early 1980s through early 2000s) — a complex palette of diversity. Most will do an assigned job if they understand why it needs doing and can agree with you on how it should be done.
That’s not easy. Successfully managing a variety of generations while remaining impartial takes a talented leader. He or she needs to understand, for example, that while boomers tend to be more “old school” and cooperative, Gen X/Y mechanics are young, smart and brash. Rather than fighting that, the successful manager takes advantage of it.
The boomers are a comparatively cooperative, known quantity, but large numbers of them are at, or nearing, retirement. In a few years, the mature workforce will be predominately Gen X/Y mechanics who want to work, but don’t want work to be their lives. Dealing with them means specific expectations and guidelines must be established. Individuals who are brought up living a certain economic lifestyle will strive to maintain it at that level.
Moreover, because the industry lacks enough good mechanics at the moment, many individuals become mechanics specifically to fulfill their economic aspirations, realizing that the old adage that it’s more lucrative to be a good mechanic than a white-collar office worker is often true.
The majority of shop managers come from within the ranks of service techs, and while they have strong technical skills, many lack the management and leadership skills required to oversee the copious details of a large fleet cost-effectively. However, leadership skills can be acquired if the individual recognizes the need and is compelled to develop them.
It’s not easy — 85% of the knowledge needed by a front-line manager is how to manage resources, human ones included. Unfortunately, many managers are dead set on improving technical skills rather than stepping out of their comfort zones and working to improve the management skills needed to enrich the bottom line. Poor leaders eventually are replaced, and the resulting chaos drives costs even higher.
In fleet budget terms, labor is the maintenance cost-driver that lags slightly behind fuel and tires. Unfortunately, many companies strive to keep mechanics’ wages as low as possible, buying into the outdated notion that blue-collar workers don’t qualify for competitive pay rates. That attitude is, as the old saying goes, “penny wise and pound foolish.”
A competitive wage structure is one of the major pillars of a successful maintenance program and should include defined competencies and a progression plan allowing technicians to advance. Adopt that program, combine it with respect for the mechanics and an overall culture of trust and integrity, and your technician shortage vanishes.
Once the right shop staff are in place, reducing maintenance and procurement costs is only a matter of developing and implementing defined processes and holding individuals — and vendors, if you outsource any part of your maintenance program — accountable for following them.
In this highly competitive and regulated industry, the two procedures where a stringent process is imperative to keep cost, service, productivity and utilization in check are: (1) during the troubleshooting process and (2) while performing a preventive maintenance inspection (PMI).
Moreover, solutions to complex problems must be communicated throughout the organization to further reduce costs and improve service and utilization.
Here are some techniques to prevent problems that might throw a clog into the machinery of profitability:
• Charge for repairs at standard repair times (SRTs), not actual repair times.
• Hold repair costs within 10% of estimates.
• Accurately monitor “direct” versus “indirect” labor, a measure of time actually spent twisting those wrenches.
• Opt for performance-based vendor contracts.
• Agree on metrics and a scorecard to control mechanic and vendor productivity.
• Communicate solutions throughout the organization.
• Look for shop leaders and mechanics willing to develop their skills continuously.
• Institute a rigorous PMI process.
• Institute a methodical troubleshooting process.
• Treat mechanics with respect and acknowledge the unique skills and mind-set each offers.
• Retain personnel through leadership, accountability, development and competitive wage structure.
In an industry with paper-thin margins, it’s vital to get the most out of the maintenance dollar. The maximum return on investment is captured when all the shop’s wrenches are on the right nut, turning in the proper direction.
MCB Fleet Management Consulting, St. Simons, Ga., offers fleet maintenance advice and guidance to private, public, corporate and government fleet operations.