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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    In part one, we looked at the start of the ‘diagnostic process.’ The first steps were customer questioning, confirming the fault and knowing the system and its function. These help the technician to build the ‘big picture’ necessary to repair the vehicle correctly.
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    Step 4: Gather evidence
    It is easy to overlook this step as many technicians think of it as the overall ‘diagnosis.’ However, once the technician understands the system, gathering evidence will provide key information. This step is normally best carried out with the use of test equipment that does not mean the dismantling of systems and components.

    Many technicians have their own favourite tools and equipment but this list can include (but not limited to)
    the following:
    Scan tool – It is always best practice to record the fault codes present, erase the codes, and then recheck. This means codes which reappear are still current. Remember that a fault code will only indicate a fault with a circuit or its function. It is not always the component listed in the fault code that is at fault

    Oscilloscope – An oscilloscope can be used for a multitude of testing/initial measuring without being intrusive. Some oscilloscope equipment suppliers are looking at systems within high voltages hybrid/electric vehicle technology. The waveforms produced by the test equipment can be used when analysing the evidence and may indicate that a fault exists within a system. An understanding of the system being tested will be necessary to understand the information. This may even include performing sums so all those missed maths lessons at school may come back to haunt you. It may take time to become confident analysing the waveforms, so be patient

    Temperature measuring equipment – This can include the use of thermal imaging cameras. Most systems that produce energy/work will also produce some heat. The temperatures produced vary from system to system. Examples include everything from engine misfires to electrical components, as well as air conditioning system components and mechanical components such as brake and hub assemblies. The possibilities are endless and results can be thought provoking.

    Emission equipment – By measuring the end result, an exhaust gas analyser can show you if the engine is functioning correctly. The incorrect emissions emitted from the exhaust help indicate a system fault or a mechanical fault with the engine

    Technical service bulletins – Many vehicle manufacturers produce technical service bulletins (TSBs) that are generated by a central point (usually a technical department) from the information that is gathered from their network of dealers. Some of these may be available to the independent sector either through the VM or through a third party – It’s always worth checking if these exist. They may indicate a common fault that has been reported similar to that the technician is facing. Some test equipment suppliers may provide TSBs as part of a diagnostic tool package

    Software updates – Many vehicle systems are controlled by a ECU. Most vehicle manufacturers are constantly updating system software to overcome various faults/  customer concerns. Simply by updating the software can fix the vehicles problem without any other intervention of repairing a possible fault. This is where having a link to a vehicle manufacturer is vital in repairing the vehicle

    Hints & tips – Most technicians will have a link or access to a vehicle repair forum where they can ask various questions on vehicle faults and may get some indication of which system components are likely to cause a vehicle fault

    Functional checks – Vehicle systems are interlinked and typically share information using a vehicle network. The fault may cause another system to function incorrectly, so it is vitally important that the technician carries out a functional check to see if the reported fault has an effect on another system. By carrying out this check the technician again is building the big picture

    Actuator checks – Most systems today are capable of performing actuator tests. The technician can perform various checks to components to check its operation and if the system ECU can control the component, often reducing the time to the diagnosis, by performing this task the technician can identify whether it is the control signal, wiring or component or it is sensor wiring. This function can be used in conjunction with serial data to see how the system reacts as the component functions

    Serial (live) data – The technician can typically review a vehicle system serial data through a scan tool. Having live data readings to refer to can help you review the data captured. Using actuator checks and viewing the serial data can also help the technician to identify a system fault

    Remember to record all the evidence gathered so it can be analysed during the next step in the diagnosis. We can’t remember everything. If the technician needs to contact a technical helpline they will ask for the actual readings obtained recoding the data gathered will help.

    Step 5: Analyse the evidence
    Analysing evidence gathered during the previous steps can take time. The technician needs to build the big picture from all the evidence gathered during the first few steps. You need to analyse the information gathered, and decide on what information is right and wrong.

    This step may rely on experience as well as knowledge on the product. You should take your time – don’t be hurried. Time spent in the thinking stages of the diagnosis can save time later. Putting pressure on the technician can lead to errors being made. It may be necessary to ask the opinion of other technicians. If the evidence is documented it may be easier to analyse or share between others.

    Step 6: Plan the test routine
    After analysing the evidence gathered it’s now time to start to ‘plan’ the best way to approach to the task or tasks in hand.

    The technician should plan their test routine, decide on what test equipment should they use, what results are they expecting, if the result is good or bad  and which component should they test next.

    Document the plan – this enables you to review decisions made at this stage in the next step. The technician may not always get it right as there may be various routes to test systems/components. The test routine may have to be revisited depending on the results gathered during testing. Documenting the test routine will provide a map.  Also, don’t forget to list the stages, as this is something that could be incorporated into an invoicing structure later.

    The technician should indicate on the routine what readings they expect when they carry out the system testing. This can be generated by their own knowledge/skill or the expected readings may come from vehicle information which they have already sourced. If the information is not known at the time the test routine is planned, then the test routine may highlight what information is required and what test equipment is needed. You shouldn’t be afraid to revisit the plan at any time and ask further questions on which direction the tests should take. If the plan is well documented and the technician becomes stuck at any point, they can pause the process and revisit later. Also the information can then be shared with various helplines that support workshop networks.

    Step 7: System testing
    The technician then follows their pre-determined plan, if it is documented they can record the results of the test(s) as they follow the routine.

    Many technicians tend to go a little off-piste when they get frustrated. Having the routine documented can keep the technician on track and focused on the result. If the routine is followed and the fault cannot be found the technician may have to go back to the analysing the evidence or planning the test routine. The technician shouldn’t be scared of going back a few steps, as I said previously analysing the evidence takes practice and can be time consuming, not to be rushed.
    Summing up
    Remember to follow the process. It is easy to be led off track by various distractions but don’t try to short circuit the process. Some steps may take longer than first thought to accomplish than others. Some distractions may be outside of your control, and it may be necessary to educate others. Practice, practice, practice. Refine the process to fit in with your business and its practices, the business could align its estimating/cost modelling to the process, being able to charge effectively and keeping the customer informed at each stage of the process.

    Coming up...
    In the next article I will be looking at the next four steps which are; Step 8: Conclusion (the root cause), Step 9: Rectify the fault and Step 10: Recheck the system(s). 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 succeed in Top Technician or Top Garage in 2018.

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