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Creating flow at the Car Wash

Managing Partner, Susannah Clarke recently visited a new local car wash and witnessed first-hand how an otherwise excellent service was being compromised by a lack of ‘flow’.

I do love it when I stumble across the application of our tools and methods in my everyday life. There’s something about seeing people recognise the need for change through continuous improvement techniques and the simple and smart solutions they employ. On this occasion, it was all about creating flow.

Flow is one of the principles of Lean, and it really is what it says on the tin: eliminating waste to ensure your product or service “flows” to the customer without any interruption, detour or waiting. To take it a step further, “flow is where demand from the customer is pulled through a process with minimum waste”.

Most of us are familiar with seeing examples of Flow at our local supermarket where they pay great attention to the process for re-stocking shelves or the management of the queuing systems at the checkout. But I recently came across a great example of process re-engineering to create ‘Flow’ at my local car wash.

The car wash opened on a closed showroom forecourt. I thought I would give it a try and at first, the car wash team seem to have established a capable process.

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From a customer satisfaction perspective, I was very happy with the service: I can arrive anytime between 9.00 – 19.00, any day of the week; my car is returned very clean and smells nice; it is good value for money.

Everything was going really well, I had been 4 or 5 times but I noticed that each time it was getting busier. Clearly, they had a formula that was working for other customers, not just me.

Success is compromised

However, on my next visit, I found myself in a queue, waiting for the ‘receive vehicle’ process step, which extended off the forecourt and onto the main road. This was causing havoc and concern. Traffic was trying to negotiate past our queue; some customers had driven onto the pavement to get out of the way of the through traffic; other customers were pulling out of the queue, perhaps deciding to return at a less busy time.

It was an accident waiting to happen and I found myself thinking that all my previous delight factors were rapidly disappearing because of the risk of my car being crashed into by an irate motorist trying to get past.

In addition to the car chaos, the operators were also in trouble. Operators from the upstream process stopped to come out onto the road to try and help, waving people forward into gaps on the forecourt.

This had a couple of effects: their process stopped, therefore cars were not moving on to the next step, therefore making the queue worse; the order of cars was confused so the receive vehicle operator didn’t know who was next.

So there I was, witnessing a successful start-up business, with a great service, floundering as a result of its increased success and unable to cope with the peaks of customer demand.

A change is made

A couple of weekends later, I was driving past when I noticed a change. There was no queue on the main road and customers were being directed to access the forecourt from a different entrance. In addition, yellow arrows had been painted on the tarmac to guide the direction of travel. This change was giving much greater capacity for queueing cars. It meant that it was now possible for them to manage a pull system.

The ‘receive vehicle’ operator was in the new location to manage the flow. When the ‘apply pre-wash’ operator was ready they signalled, and all the cars are moved along. This method of work continued until the car was finished and either returned to the customer or parked on the forecourt at the front, which was now available because there weren’t any queueing cars. None of the operators had to leave their station to manage the new customers because there was plenty of space for demand at peak times.

I asked the ‘receive payment’ operator how the new system was working for them, and he said that in addition to the chaos that the old system had caused, they were actually in danger of being closed down for causing a hazard, therefore they had to change. He said that having made the change, not only had they solved the problems, but they found they could wash more cars per hour and that if they had known that in the first place, they would always have designed it this way, it was just common sense! Ahhh how often do we wish for that elusive ‘un’ common sense?

Tackling the waste known as “Mura”, from the Japanese for unevenness, emanated from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and if you read Toyota’s brochure on TPS, this quote is what they say about the benefits for business. A perfect description of my car wash!

"A smooth, continuous and optimised workflow, with carefully planned and measured work-cycle times and on-demand movement of goods, reduces the cost of wasted time, materials and capacity. Team members can concentrate on their tasks without interruption, which leads to better quality, timely delivery, and peace of mind for customers."

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Ten things to think about when looking at flow:

  1. Data is key – a sound understanding of how much ‘work content’ each process has is vital
  2. Be aware of variation. All too often averages are used without regard for the spread
  3. Gather information to determine the timing of each process and between each process
  4. Seek to identify all of the barriers which prevent flow
  5. Look beyond the processes which do the work and consider the enabling processes
  6. Visualise all the barriers to flow as stop signs in your process
  7. Where you can’t flow, look to create ‘pull’, but avoid ‘push’ whenever you can
  8. Understand what process(s) currently determine how and when work is done
  9. Don’t give up before you start! Many organisations say flow isn’t possible because their work is ‘too unique’, or they ‘don’t resemble a car production line’. With the right guidance and creativity, nearly all processes can use the principles of flow to achieve greater performance
  10. Create theories for improvement, try them out and study if your theory is true, adopt, adapt or abandon them

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