How to create diagnostic superheroes

With diagnostic power comes great responsibility: John Batten finds that the best technicians are not born – they are made

By John Batten | Published:  05 March, 2018

Have you ever had that sinking feeling? You know the one. It’s 08:30 on Monday morning and your best technician is walking towards you with a forlorn look and an envelope in his hand.

He somehow manages to look at both you and the floor at the same time and mutters those immortal words; “I’m really sorry boss, I’ve enjoyed being here for the last 10 years but I’ve been offered a job of a lifetime (dolphin trainer, Ferrari test driver, or some other unmissable lifestyle change) so here’s my notice.”  I know I have and can still recall the merry-go-round of emotions that race through your mind the moment the words land with a resounding thud in your consciousness.

Here’s the deal thouh; It’s not personal and it just comes with the territory of business ownership. If there’s one thing that serial entrepreneurship has taught me, it’s that, as business owners, we need to be prepared for this day so that when a key member of staff leaves for pastures new our bottom line remains stable and healthy.

The technical drought
You don’t need me to tell you that there’s a shortage of skilled technicians within our industry. If you’ve frequented the parts department of a local main agent recently you’ll no doubt have seen the ever-more common sign, ‘skilled tech wanted’ propped up on the parts counter. In many instances this will be accompanied with a healthy ££££ sign on bonus designed to lure the technician into a new position. This, accompanied by the fact that it costs around £5,000 to recruit a new candidate and then 12 weeks for them to become productive (significantly more if they are your diagnostic tech), is a fairly compelling reason to put a plan in place to train and retain all of your team. In fact, when it comes to your most valuable asset (your team), having an individual plan for each of them and reviewing this regularly will not only work wonders for the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome, it will aid retention and dramatically increase productivity.

Start with the end in mind
One of my favourite sayings is ‘start with the end in mind’ and it’s very apt when it comes to technician development. The independent workshop has many roles that need to be effectively filled, all with differing skill sets and ultimately with none more important than the other. All the cogs need to be well oiled to stop the machine grinding to a halt. It is in identifying these roles, who fills them, the crossover between them and what success looks like, that your skill as a business owner/workshop manager lies. Once documented and gaps identified you have the starting place for your technical team development plan.

Build vs. buy
The role that causes the largest conundrum is that of a ‘Diagnostic Technician.’ Every garage business needs at least one of these, but like buying a new car, finding one with the spec you need, at a price you
can afford, in a suitable time frame is challenging.

Even if you're lucky enough to have a ‘Superhero’ tech you still need a Plan B. Why? I’m fortunate to train and speak to these technicians on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for them to feel spread thinly – other technicians in the business look to them for assistance so regularly that it disturbs their own work which can be frustrating and in some instances drive them to look for employment elsewhere. So what do you do? Quite simply, grow your own talent. Not only will this relieve the stress on your Super Tech, but it will give you options in the workshop, increasing overall efficiency and relieve you of the sleepless nights caused when a key team member finds new employment.

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?
One. But the lightbulb’s got to want to change. That statement is the key to technician development. The most important quality a technician can exhibit is the will to move his career forward, wanting to learn different, more effective ways to complete their work and keep up with technology as it rapidly progresses. This is why attitude should play such a large part when hiring. After all, if our techs have a great attitude then we can teach all the skills they need to be successful.

OK. So we’ve got a tech that’s eager to progress, what next? Appropriate training.

Once a tech has returned from a training course they’ll be motivated to put into practice the new knowledge and tests they’ve learned, but will they have mastered this skill set? No. Is it unrealistic for a business owner/workshop manager to expect them to have become ‘expert’ overnight? Yes.

This is where, with a small adjustment, business owners/workshop managers can achieve success. It’s very simple – create an environment where you encourage your tech to practice, practice, with a little more practice.

When should all this practice take place? Both on and off the job. This is where having a tech with the right attitude really comes in to play. The business owner simply needs to reinforce the need to practice; a tech with the right attitude will embrace that and run with it, putting the effort in both inside and out of work.

An instant ‘Super Tech’ just isn’t possible, but where a long term view is taken (12 months to three years depending on the tech) and a learning environment is created by the business owner, some astounding results can be attained.

The right learning environment
Developing technicians is a two way street for all parties involved. The business owner has to be aware that while a technician is learning a new skill on the job that their efficiency will drop. The flipside is that a technician should be prepared to complete practice outside of working hours as a ‘thank you’ for the commitment that the business has shown. Not only will this expedite the learning process, it ensures a timely return to their efficiency. If this learning environment is created then the magic starts to happen.

On the job learning is crucial but it doesn’t have to be onerous. A technician will discover early on that looking at data on vehicles that aren’t faulty is the key to knowing when one is. In other words they need to know what ‘good’ looks like.

We’d advocate picking a single system (powertrain for example) and a single line of data such as mass air flow (MAF). Then every time you connect a serial tool (to reset a service light for example) you inspect the data whilst promoting the relevant change and note it’s response, noting the result in a book would be ideal. If you did this for two weeks you’d be utterly familiar with how a good MAF sensor should respond and move onto your next line of data. Not only will this kind of CPD reap benefits with data familiarity but you’ll end up navigating serial tools with admirable speed. Now you’re up to speed with serial data, the next stop is oscilloscope waveforms…

Eat, sleep, repeat!

I’m often asked “how much CPD should we do?” My answer is generally the same: ten minutes in the morning; ten minutes in the evening; plus an additional 30 minutes once a week. I challenge anyone not to be able to find 20 minutes in their day to do this. Remember that therapist with his lightbulb? You just have to want to change! Achieve those CPD numbers and you’ll change a technician’s career forever!

Aim for progress NOT perfection
The message to your techs is: aim to progress with each job, not to be perfect. The key being little and often. We’re running a Marathon and slow and steady always wins the race.

If you know what success looks like for your technicians and have a plan to achieve this, you will definitely unravel the conundrum of how to grow your own Super Techs.

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  • The good and the great 

    Being part of Top Technician for the last few years, I have seen many technicians succeed and develop new skills. Typically all are good rounded technicians and have great knowledge, but what makes the difference and makes the good into the great?
    It’s not just that they are lucky. The difference is that a great diagnostic technician will have a well-defined diagnostic process (or procedure) that they stick to every time.

    Some technicians start their diagnostic procedure with a well laid-out and defined process that they have normally learnt, often from training courses. As with any new process, it starts slowly as theory is put into practice until it becomes natural.
    Many technicians typically revert ‘back to type’ during the early stages, as their older method seems to make the diagnostic process shorter. As a result they believe it could make them more money. Yes, in the short term they may be right. However, normally in the longer term a well-defined diagnostic process proves to be infallible especially when the fault is difficult to diagnose or a vehicle that has been to several garages and the fault is still apparent.
    Many technicians also try to shortcut the process, taking out some of the steps that don’t seem to help in finding the answer. Sometimes a simple fault is made more complex by the technician overlooking the obvious in the second or third step, jumping from step one to step four because that’s where they feel comfortable. In this series of articles I’ll be covering the 10 steps that make up a well-planned, well organised, tried and tested diagnostic process. Use the process and refine it within your business, it works.
    Many businesses use a similar structured process and base their estimating/costing model on it
    as well.

    Let’s start at the beginning, with the meaning of diagnosis. Most technicians will look at the word and think it only relates to a computer controlled system and they have to use a fault code/scan tool to be able to diagnose a fault. This is not the case. Diagnosis can relate to any fault, whether that is electrical or mechanical. Therefore, the diagnosis can relate to an electronic fault by the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) indicating a fault exists or a mechanical fault that exists within a clutch operating system.
    The meaning of diagnosis is: ‘The identification of a fault by the examination of symptoms and signs and by other investigations to enable a conclusion to be reached.’
    Or alternatively: ‘Through the analysis of facts of the fault, to gain an understanding which leads to
    a conclusion.’
    Both can relate to various professions.
    With this in mind, what have celebrity chef Paul Hollywood, your doctor, the green keeper at the local golf course and a automotive technician all  got in common?
    They all use a diagnostic process within their profession. Paul Hollywood is often seen as a judge within baking competitions. He uses his experience and process to perform a diagnosis on why a bread is not cooked correctly.
    Meanwhile, a doctor uses a diagnostic process to find an illness. A green keeper uses a diagnostic process to determine why the grass does not grow as green as it should, while a automotive technician performs a diagnostic process to find the fault on a vehicle.

    Let’s begin to go through the steps of the diagnostic process.

    Step 1: Customer questioning

    Being able to question the driver of the vehicle of the fault is always a very important part of the diagnostic process. Using a well-structured and documented series of questions can determine how the fault should be approached. Many experienced technicians do this part very well, but when a business becomes bigger, the customer’s information on a fault can get lost  when passed between the receptionist and the workshop.
    A document can be developed to perform this task, and is often the solution here.
    A customer has often seen a ‘warning lamp’ on the dash. They can only remember that it was an amber colour and it looked like a steering wheel. The document shown has a variety of warning light symbols that they can simply highlight to let the technician know of the MIL symbol and in the circumstances that the fault occurs (driving uphill around a right-hand bend etc).
    Much of the diagnostic process is about building a picture before the vehicle is worked on. Trying to fix the fault by jumping to step 4 or step 5 can often neglect what the customer has to say. One of the last steps in the diagnostic process is to confirm that the fault has been correctly repaired and will not occur again (‘first time fix’). How can the fix be successfully tested if the circumstances where  the fault occurred are not replicated during the final stages of the process?
    The MIL illuminating again (recurring fault) when the vehicle is driven by the customer is not always as easy to fix a second time, as you need to fix the vehicle fault as well as fix the customer, who has been forced to return.

    Step 2: Confirm the fault
    Some technicians just seem to take the fault highlighted as by the job card (or similar document) and diagnose the fault without first confirming, which can take some time to complete. This step might involve a road test to confirm that the fault exists. The apparent fault may be just a characteristic of the vehicle or the receptionist/customer may have explained the fault to be on the other side of the vehicle.
    Therefore, it is imperative that the technician confirms that the fault exists and the situation that the
    fault exists within, all providing additional information on building
    the picture before actually working
    on the vehicle.

    Step 3: Know the system and its function
    In order to fix a vehicle fault(s) a technician will first need to understand how the system works. If a technician doesn’t know how the system works how can they fix it?
    Don’t be shy or foolish and indicate that a technician knows everything (even on a specific manufacturer brand). Every technician sometimes needs to either carry out new system training or just have a reminder on how a system works.  
    With all the systems now fitted to a vehicle, it’s not surprising that a technician cannot remember every system and its function especially to a specific vehicle manufacturer or the model within the range. A technician may just need to remind themselves on the system operation or fully research the vehicle system.
    Most vehicle manufacturers will provide information on how a particular system works and how that system integrates (if applicable) with other systems of the vehicle. Spending some time researching the system can pay dividends in terms of time spent diagnosing the system and it is also educational. System functionality can often be learnt from attending training courses but if these are not available the information can be sourced from various other sources such as websites.
    External training courses can provide additional benefits especially discovering how a system operates and understanding its functionality and how the various components work. They will also allow the technician to focus on the specific system without the distraction of customers or colleagues.
    Once the system is thoroughly understood, the technician may be able to make some judgements as which components are ok and those which may be faulty and affect the system operation.

    Just to recap on the three diagnosis steps covered in this article, these were:
    Step 1: Customer questioning
    Step 2: Confirm the fault
    Step 3: Know the system and its function

    Remember to follow the process and don’t try to short circuit it. Some steps my take longer to accomplish than others and some may be outside of your control (it may be necessary to educate others). Practice, practice, practice. Refine the process to fit in with your business and its practices, align your estimating/cost model to the process to be able to charge effectively.

    Next steps
    In the next article I will be looking at the next four steps which are seen to be:
    Step 4: Gather evidence    
    Step 5: Analyse the evidence
    Step 6: Plan the test routine
    Step 7: System testing

    The last article in this series will indicate the final three steps and how to fit them all together in order to become a great technician and perhaps win Top Technician or Top Garage in 2018. Go to to enter this year’s competition. The first round is open until the end of February 2018.
    Every entry is anonymous so have a go!

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