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Finding the root cause of squeaky brakes doesn’t have to be a squeaky experience

May 2, 2008

By Michael B. Tatham, President, The Tatham Group

These days almost everyone has a car, and therefore, at one point or another will have to take it in to be repaired. Now, maybe it is just me, but bringing my car into be serviced is about as exciting as going to have a cavity filled. In all these years, it has yet to be a pleasant experience.

But, just as cavities occasionally spring up, so do car problems, and so recently I brought my car into the shop to get a quick detail for the spring and to fix squeaky brakes. In fact, the day I brought it in, I was thrilled to hear my brakes squeak consistently. You might think that’s odd, but as a process person, there’s nothing worse than having something happen inconsistently – or as I like to say an ‘unstable process’ where the defect appears intermittently.

As usual, the service department provided outstanding customer service: they were pleasant and they even came to get my car. When the day came for me to pick it up, I was happy to see my car looked like new. I couldn’t wait to hear it purr like a kitten again. So, you can imagine my horror when I heard brakes still squeaking!!

Immediately I thought there must have been a miscommunication. I called the relationship manager at the shop to explain my dilemma. He suggested they take it back in for service. (If you know process, then you would know this was some serious REWORK!) Perhaps someone was not following the process or maybe this was even the result of human error. Regardless, they picked up the car and I left town on a business trip, confident things would work out.

Upon my return, there was a message from the technician. “I’m sorry Mr. Tatham, but there is absolutely no squeaking in your car. I even had several people test it before calling you back.” I couldn’t help but think, “Great, now the sound is an unstable process.”

My mind was racing with hundreds of potential variables that could be causing the problem; air temperature, the road, the weight of the person in the car…the list was endless. Whatever the problem was, I knew I hadn’t imagined the sound and I knew there was a root cause for it.

I called the service technician back. To my great surprise, not only did he make me feel incredibly stupid for thinking there was something wrong with the car (when he clearly believed there wasn’t), but then he went on to recite a list of potential root causes and he offered me a long list of solutions!

By this point, I’d had enough. I firmly said, “Mr. Service Technician, I do not want any more work done to my car unless you know the root cause of the problem.”

Understandably, he was a little confused, so he pretended not to hear me and instead explained the costs of replacing the brake pads. Frustrated, I decided to take a different approach. “In that case, Mr. Service Technician, I would like you to keep my car as long as you need to re-create the squeaking.”

Obviously unhappy with this suggestion, he again suggested another potential root cause with an accompanying solution.

Clearly this man had no intention of spending any more time experimenting with my car. So, it was time for me to engage. I asked him to return my car and when the brakes started to squeak, I would come back so they could hear it for themselves. He quickly agreed to the terms and promised to return my car promptly.

Minutes later, I received a call from the technician to tell me that the person who was returning my car had heard the squeaking and they would go back to experimenting with finding a solution to the problem.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the situation had turned around so quickly. After a lengthy conversation with the technician, here’s what surfaced: the reason some cars are not repaired the first time is because they are under warranty. (If this sounds strange, bear with me.)

Given that the whole world is always in a hurry, it looks much better to the customer to have a quick and free turn-around, rather than having to wait for weeks to get their car back.

Moreover, the shop has hundreds of cars that need to be serviced and technicians are pressed for time, so the faster they can ‘fix’ the problem, the happier the customer will be, and the more they can get done.

However, when the warranty is up, customers pay much closer attention to what issue is being resolved. As such, their cars generally get serviced with more attention.

There’s a moral to this story, and if you’ve gotten this far, then I promise you will be rewarded.

When a process is inextricably linked to the customer, (in this case, the customer was out of pocket if they are not covered by a warranty) the service technicians have much more incentive to find the root cause of the problem. But because they are being measured by time, not by quality, the quality of service suffers for those clients who are under warranty.

Bottom line? Change the way people are measured, and you’ll change the way they behave. Give your technicians the time to find the problem, and you’ll only have to visit the shop once. Who knows, maybe you’ll even enjoy the experience.

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