Auto Repair: How Can They Screw Up An Oil Change?

“It’s all about beating the clock.” This quote comes from a wise old service manager, advising me on how to maximize my income as a flat-rate technician. If you have ever wondered why your car doesn’t get fixed correctly, or all your concerns weren’t addressed, you can blame, in part, the flat-rate pay structure.

Flat-rate simply means that your mechanic is paid a flat fee for a particular repair, regardless of how long the repair actually takes. In other words, if your car needs a water pump, which pays two hours of labor, and the mechanic completes the job in one hour, he gets paid for two.

In theory, this can work to your advantage. If the job takes longer, you still only pay the “predetermined” labor amount. In THEORY, not reality!

The flat-rate pay structure is designed to drive productivity. It’s very effective. The flat-rate pay system encourages technicians to work hard and fast, but it does not promote quality.

In terms of getting your car fixed correctly, the flat-rate pay structure has disastrous effects. Flat-rate technicians are constantly looking for shortcuts to beat the clock in order to maximize the number of hours they bill. Experienced flat-rate technicians can bill anywhere from 16 to 50 hours in an 8 hour day.

It’s these shortcuts and the breakneck speed at which flat rate technicians work that result in some of the most idiotic mistakes. In the rapid-fire pace of a shop I’ve witnessed technicians start engines with no oil. I’ve seen transmissions dropped, smashing into little pieces onto the shop floor. And I’ve seen cars driven right through bay doors—all in the name of “beating the clock.”

Flat-rate technicians can get quite elaborate with shortcuts. My favorite was the implementation of an 6-foot-long 2-by-4, which was placed under the engine for support while a motor mount was removed. It made a job predetermined to take 1.5 hours achievable in twenty minutes. A win-win, right? The technician makes extra money; you get your car back faster.

Actually, in many cases the placement of this 2-by-4 damaged the oil pan. Moreover, it caused the car, your car, to balance precariously 6 feet in the air, while the technician manipulated the car lift to access your engine mount.

This tactic was abruptly discontinued when a technician’s 2-by-4 snapped causing the car to crash nose down onto the concrete floor.

Sometimes the shortcuts create very subtle disturbances, which create problems overtime. A quick example: a vehicle had its transmission serviced with a new filter, gasket, and fluid. During the procedure, the technician was able to save time by bending the transmission dipstick tube slightly, in order to get the transmission pan out faster. The vehicle was reassembled, and the technician re-bent the tube back into place and off it went—no worries….

Six months later, the vehicle returned with an intermittent misfire. The engine wasn’t running on all cylinders. After extensive diagnostics, it was discovered that the transmission dipstick tube had chaffed through the engine harness, intermittently grounding out an injector. Hmm, that’s strange. Don’t usually see that.

The high-speed environment and the subsequent shortcuts illustrate the devastating effects of the flat-rate, sales-driven pay structure on the quality of car repairs.

No wonder even an oil change gets screwed up!

The poor quality of work encouraged by the flat rate pay structure is disconcerting enough. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop here. The negative effects of flat-rate get exponentially worse, as it opens “wide” the door to rip you off!

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