Lessen the Learning Curve with SOPs

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Training new employees can be stressful – even if you hire an experienced estimator, painter or technician, it’s unlikely they’ve ever done things the way YOU want them done at YOUR facility…after all, they’ve never worked for YOU before, and everyone does things differently.

There’s always a learning curve when a new employee joins your team! Someone who is competent (or even highly skilled) could struggle to assimilate into your shop culture simply because your processes are different than what they’re used to.

But what if there was a way to help them get accustomed to your way of doing things and lessen that learning curve? Having a tenured employee train them one-on-one is an option of course, and while there’s no substitute for that personal attention, it’s not the most efficient use of everyone’s time. Creating and implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) allows you to hand step-by-step instructions to a new employee to help them understand how you want a process completed – and enables them to be successful, a factor that often contributes to employee retention.

So, what exactly is a SOP?

Mike Anderson (Collision Advice) describes SOPs as “the way we want things done.” They allow shop owners to train staff to perform a task the same way the owner would do it.

A SOP is “a step-by-step process that explains exactly what we want an employee to do,” according to Maylan Newton (Educational Seminars Institute), who also points out, “We all have certain expectations about how we want our businesses to perform, but the absence of clearly documented SOPs can create areas of failure because how can we expect a new employee to meet our expectations if we neglect to tell them exactly how we want things done?”

The idea of writing a SOP may seem overwhelming, but it’s easy enough if you follow a few simple steps. 

“First, determine the results you hope to accomplish with your SOP, and then create an outline that identifies which steps must be taken to reach those desired results,” Newton instructs. “After creating the outline, develop a checklist to ensure each step is followed in the proper order.”

He recommends a two-part process to test the checklist. First, observe your employee performing the task and fill in any gaps. Then, print it out and ask that same person to follow it and identify any missing or unclear steps in the written process. Revise the SOP based on that feedback, and then repeat the testing process. 

It may be necessary to test and revise the document several times until defining  “a process that we feel can be handed to anyone and followed, without intervention, to achieve our desired results,” Newton warns; however, “the amount of energy and money you’ll save over time makes it a wise investment. A well-written SOP will allow anyone to complete the task without needing help or asking any questions.”

Once you’re confident in the SOP you’ve written, it’s time to implement it.

Anderson identifies four steps to implementing a SOP: develop, train, test and audit. You’ve already determined how you want things done and developed the SOP. Next, train your staff to ensure they understand how you want things done. Testing them to confirm that they’ve retained that information will take different forms depending on what process the SOP defines. Lastly, audit your team to ensure the process becomes a sustainable habit. 

So, which processes in the shop actually warrant a SOP? All of them! 

“Develop SOPs for absolutely everything you do,” Anderson recommends. “Operating by process, not by luck, means documenting each task – from cleaning toilets to answering phones, from administrative work to damage analysis, disassembly/reassembly, parts ordering and even storing tools and equipment – and then delivering it to employees, so they know what to do and exactly how to do it.”

Newton agrees. “It’s hard to anticipate every potential problem that might arise in a business, but I suggest starting with areas in the business that are often done differently than you would like to see them. It could be anything from opening and closing the shop to vehicle drop-off and delivery. The idea is to create a SOP for any task that you’d like to hand off to an employee so that you, as the owner, don’t have to do it. And ultimately, you want that to include every task that needs to be performed in your business so that you’re not required to be present in the shop constantly!”

Before beginning the daunting task of documenting every process in your shop, Anderson suggests checking with industry partners, such as paint manufacturers, software companies and other vendors that may already have created SOPs which they’ll make available so you don’t have to start from scratch.

Of course, given the complexity of today’s cars, it’s not possible to document every aspect of the actual repair process. “It isn’t too difficult to create SOPs for the front office end of our business, but on the technical side, it’s a completely different story,” Anderson acknowledges. “Every car is different, so when it comes to actual repair processes, collision repair professionals should always defer to the OEM recommended procedures to ensure the vehicle is being restored properly to its pre-accident condition. But tasks like disassembly of a vehicle, the way we want to store parts and how we paint a car will typically be the same, and creating SOPs allows us to build confidence in our employees by developing uniform processes that improve efficiency.”

Improving shop efficiency is a major benefit of creating and implementing SOPs within your facility, but it’s certainly not the only one. Because operating procedures clearly identify each step in the process, there is a solid justification for holding an employee accountable when they miss one of those steps. It also creates consistency.

“We need to establish a consistent way of approaching and performing various tasks to ensure that we are turning out a very consistent product,” Newton stresses. “Consistency creates confidence – each employee gains confidence that they are doing the right thing. When we build consistency, it’s far easier to train a new employee.

“You know that running a successful business means establishing a set of rules, and that’s exactly why procedures and processes are so important for successful shops – these are rules for how you operate day-by-day, task-by-task,” he continues. “When you have clearly defined procedures and processes that each shop employee follows, everyone knows what is expected of them and their peers, and because they’ve consistently repeated these processes so many times, they develop waste-reducing efficiencies that can easily be duplicated by new hires who are trained on your procedures and processes.”

Taking some time away from the shop could be another benefit of developing effective SOPs.

“Processes and procedures take the guesswork out of what you do and allow you to hand someone your handbook and have them follow your policy, enabling them to run your shop exactly how you’d run it – even when you’re not physically present!” Newton expresses. “Creating these documents also empowers you to plan your next vacation with the confidence that your shop won’t fall apart while you’re gone.”

Unfortunately, sometimes, shop owners feel that they’ve followed all the steps outlined above, yet they struggle to see the results they hoped for. Often, that failure results from neglecting to engage employees and obtain their buy-in. 

“I think when you’re building your systems, you have to build in what I call the ‘why factor,’” Anderson says. “People need to understand why you’re asking them to do what you’re asking them to do. And once they understand the ‘why,’ they’re willing to follow the ‘how’ because they understand there’s a good reason for it.”

Realize that the best SOPs are dynamic; they’ll need to be revisited and updated periodically. 

“In this industry, we frequently learn something new, and that means the road to improving our processes never ends,” Anderson observes. “This is a constantly evolving process, and you need to have the right shop culture to approach this journey one step at a time and stay the course.”

Want more? Check out the January 2024 issue of New England Automotive Report!