Article > Operations

The Path to an Efficient Store

By Dan Maslic

Ever heard of Six Sigma? It's all the rage among parts manufacturers in their never-ending quest to find the zen of efficient operations. At the heart of Six Sigma is Kaizen, and you can use its techniques to create a more efficient business environment too.

The concept of running a lean organization is certainly not new. The automobile manufacturers of the world have been in a constant battle to gain or retain market share, and as anyone watching this manufacturing sector knows, the last ten years have been just brutal. The auto manufacturers have to deal in a business plagued with overcapacity, stiff competition and price-sensitive markets. Sounds a lot like our own part of the automotive world, doesn't it?

Watching the OEs duke it out can teach the rest of us a thing or two about how to better run our own businesses. The OEs have employed some clever techniques and strategies that have helped them sustain profit levels, or in some cases, simply allowed them to survive. Japanese manufacturers implemented a philosophy known as "Kaizen" to their operations to overcome the common perception that their cars were of poor quality. Kaizen means change (kai) to become good (zen). It is this core philosophy that enabled the "lean" organization to develop. Making incremental improvements is also easier and more realistic than waiting for that one big "eureka!" moment that will suddenly vault your organization to the top of the heap.

When you make cars for a living, you concentrate on reducing inventory, maintaining quality control, reducing complexity in operations and minimizing waste. When you sell auto parts, you need to refine the inventory you carry, find ways to add value for the customer, reduce complexity in operations and minimize waste. Applying the Kaizen method requires effective teamwork, discipline, open communication policies and constant input from store associates with suggestions for improvement.

To work towards a lean parts store, we must examine five key elements of the Kaizen philosophy. They are:


  • Teamwork

  • Discipline and Diligence

  • Open Communication and Suggestions for Improvement

  • Quality and Standards

  • Morale and Housekeeping

Effective teamwork is a must for running a lean outfit. Each task a person performs will directly, or indirectly, impact one or more members of the team. Just like a triangulated truss structure that supports a bridge or a roof, if one of the elements is missing or not performing to standards, the whole arrangement is compromised. In order to implement the Kaizen philosophy, it is imperative that each employee understands the importance of teamwork, as well as the benefits. Inviting a fresh set of eyes and ears to take part in a problem-solving situation is just as important as an extra set of hands when there is a truck to unload.

Discipline is required to maintain focus on goals and to adhere to standards that have been put in place for performance and operational procedures. By working diligently, each team member should strive to achieve exceptional results for every task he/she undertakes, no matter how big or how small. The key that allows team members to be diligent in their work is that they have the freedom to do what they know is right. When management empowers team members, it enables the team to do better. Empowering team members requires that each individual understands the goals that have been set and the responsibilities that fall into his or her hands. Ultimately, it is the individual's responsibility to maintain discipline, and the management's leadership allows a team member to be diligent and helpful.

Open communication policies allow team members to express themselves by offering suggestions for improvement and pointing out problems. This opens the door for constant improvement. Discussing problems and shortcomings should be done in a positive manner with an eye toward finding a solution. Management must create a culture that invites suggestions and ideas, embraces debate and encourages everyone to contribute.

For example, a new employee at a store overheard a negative conversation between two customers who were discussing some disorganized fittings. Through open communication, this conversation was constructively relayed to fellow workers and the store manager. When the conversation was considered, the team realized that the customers had a valid point: The fittings were not organized properly because customers had removed packages from the shelf, then put them back in different (and incorrect) spots. The area wasn't being tended often enough to keep it organized and tidy. A solution was presented to move all fittings behind the counter and use the shelf space for lighting accessories. The following month, sales of fittings were still on-track and four sets of fog lights had sold that previously had been sitting on a hidden storage rack for more than six months.

To fully tap the potential of each team member, management must keep everyone in the loop with quality feedback that ties strategy and goals to financial performance. If the team isn't made aware of the direction they are heading in, good or bad, they will simply drift and feel no satisfaction in their work. Another way to think about this is to use a sports analogy. A football player knows the score at all times - do your employees?

Quality in work is made possible by setting goals and standards. If management works together with team members to create benchmarks and set realistic, achievable goals, maintaining quality becomes an objective task rather than subjective. If every process is standardized and made consistent, it is easier to adhere to, and can be adapted or modified in clearer, more definitive steps. Identify the "when, where, what and how" for each process, then implement it, monitor the results and encourage team members to identify areas of improvement.

As an example, a standardized schedule can be agreed upon for facing up the shelves. However, a benchmark for what constitutes the minimum acceptable appearance may dictate facing up more often on specific days of the week when things get a little too ugly. Each task can be approached every day with the question in mind, "What can be done differently today that will make this process better?" If something is tried and doesn't work out, you can always revert back to the previous method and consider other alternatives. When a procedure is working out exceptionally well, document it. This will help when training future employees.

Morale is influenced by the work environment. Maintaining a clean and orderly work environment proves especially helpful in fending off stress and confusion. Good housekeeping practices can include standardized clean up times and procedures, maintaining clean counter space and keeping work areas tidy. Giving loose items a "home" also helps keep waste to a minimum and things running smoothly and efficiently. How much time is wasted over the course of a year looking for a pen or something to write on? These wasted hours and resources have a specific dollar amount. Equally important is the opportunity cost, the lost sales. Every little detail can be improved upon. Keeping things clean and tidy is the first place to start.

Creating a "continuous improvement" culture is not something that can be accomplished overnight. It is learned through practice. As each team member becomes more effective, results improve accordingly. It is good practice to hold regularly scheduled meetings to discuss successes followed by problematic issues. Problems should be documented along with what the respective team members feel are the most pressing issues. After the whole team has had time to digest the information, solutions to the problems may become evident. When the respective ideas have been implemented, the results can be discussed at the next meeting. By keeping meetings positive, your team will eventually find its own ideal way to maintain a continuous improvement culture and run a lean parts store.

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