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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