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When Mistakes Happen

A succession of seemingly innocuous parts-ordering mistakes results in a Mount Everest-sized pile of returns, a lop-sided inventory, a redundancy of effort and a dwindling bottom line can make a jobber want to pull his hair out.


No wonder jobbers tear their hair out when a succession of seemingly innocuous parts-ordering mistakes results in a Mount Everest-sized pile of returns, a lop-sided inventory, a redundancy of effort and a dwindling bottom line.

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Sure, mistakes do happen when we encounter situations beyond our control – like a mid-year production change or a not-so-apparent cataloging error. Nevertheless, the most costly are those cumulative and seemingly harmless mistakes that happen on a daily basis.

To illustrate, an outside sales friend recently told me about a repair shop estimating an in-tank fuel pump replacement for a Chevrolet pickup truck. The shop estimated the retail cost of the fuel pump to be about $90. A few weeks later, the customer brought the truck in for the fuel pump replacement, which the shop completed in record time.

Unfortunately, the shop billed the new replacement pump at $500 retail, which sent the customer through the roof. Because the customer demanded that the shop stick to its original estimate, the shop owner shuffled the blame onto the jobber by claiming that the counterperson had misquoted the price!


Backtracking through his price quotes, the jobber determined that the original estimate was for a 1991 Chevy truck, which uses a separate and less expensive fuel pump that attaches to the fuel gauge sending unit. The pump that the store actually had sold to the repair shop was a much more expensive modular pump that fits a 1997, rather than a 1991 Chevy truck.

How could such a mistake happen? We can only speculate, but the fact is that the numbers 1991 and 1997 can look amazingly alike when scribbled in longhand. Of course, whether that scribbling took place at the service writers or jobbers level will remain forever unknown.



Keeping in mind that approximately 1,700 vehicle models are either imported or manufactured in the United States each year, the vehicle identification number or VIN has become the most critical bit of information we need to accurately order parts. Since a VIN is composed of 17 numbers denoting information ranging from place of manufacture to component options, its very easy to make a mistake reading or writing VIN numbers. To illustrate, the numbers 1 and 7 can be easily confused with the capital letter I. A number 5 and the letter S can similarly be confused, especially when reading a VIN off a dusty windshield tag or blurred door tag. Similarly, the numbers 8, 9 and 6 can often be confused if the information is scribbled in longhand. The simplest remedy for correcting the above errors is to record the VIN directly from a vehicle registration or insurance slip, which is usually more legible than metal tags or labels.


More often than not, however, a number or letter in the VIN can be transposed because human minds tend to remember familiar numbers. For example, a 1425 can easily become a 1475 if, indeed, the number 1475 happens to the service writers or counterpersons post office box number. In this case, its always best to have the counterperson read the VIN back to the service writer. And, the task of sorting out and reading the vital 3rd, 5th, 8th and 10th, VIN numbers can be made much easier if the numbers are written in groups of four like those found on a credit card. A typical 17-number VIN would therefore be written in four groups followed by a single number or letter.


At the shop level, its very easy to read an incorrect VIN, model year or engine application from a vehicle that has had the hood or drivers side door replaced with a used unit that has an incorrect underhood engine calibration or door assembly VIN sticker.

Keeping in mind that the correct VIN is located at the lower left-hand corner of the windshield on all vehicles, its also important to note that this VIN may have also been altered by a car-theft ring! Just remember that the VIN is also stamped into various locations on the body of the vehicle, which allows law enforcement agencies to correctly identify stolen vehicles.



Recently, when I ordered a throttle position sensor for a 1991 Dodge Dakota 5.2-Liter pickup, I discovered that I had become the victim of a mid-year production change. Although I tried the old trick of looking at a 1990 or 1992 application, the buyers guide illustration still didnt match my throttle sensor. My counterperson found the correct replacement number by using an interchange catalog to match the OE number on the part with the jobbers replacement number.

Electronic parts seem to be the most prone to application errors because auto manufacturers often make running production changes in order to correct in-field emissions and performance problems or to increase production by sourcing from alternative suppliers. Whatever the case, automatically cross-referencing the OEM part number will prevent many errors in ordering such parts as EGR solenoid valves, relays, and remanufactured computers, to name a few.



Most of us understand that human error at various levels of the parts distribution process is the sole cause of parts ordering mistakes. What causes human error? Lets face it: At the jobber level, some people just dont have the mental discipline required to be a good counterperson. Other people dont take the time to make sure they understand which part a service writer or technician wants, so they take educated guesses that usually result in a parts order error. In other cases, they dont follow through by reading the footnotes in the catalogs. And, worst of all, they havent learned to ask the right questions, such as, Does it have an air pump?



Human errors are also the consequences of outside factors such as the lack of rest or recreation needed to relieve normal working stress. Although some workaholics feel that they should be able to perform well even when theyre working 80 hours per week, most people actually function most efficiently when theyre working just 40 hours per week.

After all, most of us need personal time to mow the lawn or shoot a few hoops with the kids. When we dont have that quality time, so to speak, a debilitating stress begins to develop that affects our on-the-job performance.


Even at that, few people can perform at peak mental capacity for more than 40 hours per week. So, unless were a Thomas Edison or Winston Churchill, both of whom performed at a very high mental level on only a few hours of sleep each day, we do need our rest and our recreation just to stay fresh and personable for the next days round of taking parts orders.


Sometimes as a result of our corporate bean-counting activities, we create a work environment that becomes dehumanized. To better understand, lets look back to that old 1960s movie classic, A Space Odyssey. In that movie, a computer named HAL takes command of the spaceship during a long interstellar voyage because he determined that maintaining life support for his human masters was becoming detrimental to the completion of the mission. Obviously, HAL didnt understand that, without human beings present to witness an unfolding of events, the mission had become meaningless.


In the same sense, the parts distribution industry needs the human presence to fulfill its mission in keeping the wheels of America rolling. For example, when a counterperson doesnt have the time or energy to interact with customers on a personal level, he or she may be working under excessively stressful conditions that might be caused by temporary understaffing or by a company policy that emphasizes production above all else.

A stressed-out HAL, the counterperson may forget, for example, that Harry Human likes the premium brake pads or that Joe Human prefers Brand Z spark plugs. HAL the counterperson may also forget that auto parts are sold not to solve mechanical problems, but to solve human problems, such as getting a family home for Thanksgiving dinner or getting the kids to the Little League game the next day. Only when the correct part arrives at the right time and place can we say that we, as an industry, have truly developed the human touch.

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