Prepare your shop for unexpected guests or unexpected new customers.

Do you ever want someone to know that you're messy? Neither do I! That's why, in our company, we always act as if unexpected visitors are at the door. We don't just clean up the place when we know we're about to have company. We want those unexpected guests to see us in our best light, and you never know when they'll show up!

I've always welcomed unexpected visits from our customers, our fellow contractors and people from the trade press. We make sure our employees are in the habit of keeping our place ready for company. We're proud of the industry showcase that we've built, so why wouldn't we want to keep it in top shape?

There are benefits to inviting outsiders (such as other contractors) to visit your place. First, you can learn from them. As active members of many national trade groups, we openly exchange ideas with people with whom we do not directly compete. And these people feel the same about us. My brother, Rich, and I love to travel to see other shops. We get to see successful ideas in action, things that we should consider doing in our own company. Often, we get to confirm that what we're already doing also works well for others. That gives us good incentive to stay committed to those practices. Everyone benefits.

It is tough at first, though, to let others see you as you really are. But the worry and the fear of others' negative opinions are just the thing we need to get motivated to do the things we know we need to do.

Neat & Tidy

So, what should you do first? Clean up the mess! You know what I'm talking about -- the overflowing parts warehouse that is crammed with obsolete stuff, the stripped parts lying around in a pile. You couldn't find what you need in that pile if your business depended on it (and it sometimes does!).

This is where the concept of "less is more" kicks in. Give yourself permission to toss out parts that you know you won't be using regularly. Create an organized space for what you really do need. Go though each shelf, part by part. Test each item:

Does it work? Can it be fixed? If yes, have a helper jot down notes on bright colored tags and make a list of follow- up work to put the stock in shape.

Can it be sold? Contact your supplier and try to sell the overstock back, or take an exchange towards future materials.

Should you toss the item? If you haven't used one in two years, toss it! Sometimes, you can donate the stuff to a local trade school. This helps the industry and gives you a nice tax deduction. Be sure to keep track of what you toss. Give a copy of the list to your accounting department. Damaged inventory is a legitimate business expense.

Next, everything has to have a designated place. If it doesn't, you're silently telling your employees that anywhere stuff winds up is good enough for me. Having designated areas for things is critical for proper ordering and tracking of stock. The good news about taking the effort to do this is that you'll see an almost immediate reduction in the time and money you lose making unnecessary trips to the supply house.

Also, have a standardized layout for things. That will help you avoid having to rely on one person to know where everything is. People do get sick, or quit. They also get fired and die from time to time. And every year, they just go on vacation!

What's Next?

Have a set of stocking lists for both the parts warehouse and for each of your service vehicles. The truck stock should vary with the primary tasks for which you're using that particular vehicle. And you should have a standardized layout with designated places for the truck stock.

Give each service technician a minimum amount of flexibility to customize his or her assigned vehicle. This will allow your stock person to easily see how the technician is caring for the truck, and it will also allow another technician to step right into that vehicle when necessary.

You'll also find that fewer parts will get damaged when you're storing them properly. When you're deciding what to stock on each truck, pay close attention to what your technicians use about 75 percent of the time. Don't overstock.

New technology can help. Bar coding of inventory is commonplace nowadays. Wireless communication with field personnel also allows us to keep track of time and inventory. Today, there are more and more innovative supply houses that are looking to help contractors solve their problems. These people realize that is in their best interest to help get new systems and the latest technology out in the field. They want to be the first people we think of when we're deciding where we should buy our materials.

Even taking electronic photos and itemizing what stock is on which shelf and in what bin helps. It greatly reduces the time your people spend searching for parts and restocking needed items.

That's all great for you, but what's in it for your technicians and apprentices? After all, they will probably think that it takes too long to keep their trucks clean and properly stocked. When I was an apprentice, I sure felt that way! The "old guys" were always nagging me about getting in the habit of cleaning out my van and storing my tools and parts where they belonged after each job.

What they knew that I didn't know at the time, was that by keeping the right materials and tools where I could easily get at them, I was saving time by avoiding extra trips back to the shop or to the supply house. And, by neatly storing my tools, I found I was less likely to leave them on the job or lose them altogether.

When I speak with my technicians nowadays they understand the value of keeping their truck up to snuff, but they often say it isn't practical during our busy season. Actually, the busy season is the most important time to do it.

Think about having to leave a job incomplete because a part that should have been onboard hadn't been replaced. What an enormous time- and money-waster that is! It was hard enough to get there the first time; now you have to make a follow-up appointment during the busiest time of the year. This just makes life that much harder. And it also makes for an unhappy customer who feels inconvenienced not once, but twice.

Commitment Is Key

If you commit to revamping your parts warehouse and truck inventory systems, you also have to be prepared to enforce it. This means spot-checking for compliance. Don't expect what you don't inspect. And believe me, the staff will quickly try to test your resolve. If you aren't willing to spot-check, and then discipline accordingly, don't begin the process.

But, if you are willing to follow though, decide up-front what the rewards and punishments will be. A positive way to implement the change is to give "Reward Points" for the things like the cleanest, or best-stocked, truck.

You can also choose a progressive form of discipline. For instance, the first time the inventory and truck conditions are unsatisfactory, you'll help them get it in shape. But the next time there is a problem, they're off the clock until they are able to pass inspection.

Then choose whether to suspend or fire someone if they continue to fail to meet performance standards. It's the only way I know to let everyone else know that this is important to your business's success, and because it is, it should also be important to your employees.

Practice this every day, and you'll be proud to show off your place to unexpected visitors -- or unexpected new customers!