By Jim Kerr

Competition improves the product. This is an axiom that automobile manufacturers have used time and time again to advance their participation in racing. Usually the race is against other manufacturers, but sometimes the competition is an internal one, designed to build excellence within. A while ago I had the opportunity to participate as a judge in one of these competitions held annually at Nissan’s western regional office in Richmond, British Columbia.

NISTEC is the name of the event, and it brings together the top ten Nissan automotive technicians from across western Canada to do battle. The enemy: malfunctioning Nissan automobiles.

One objective of the competition was to find the #1 Nissan technician in western Canada. Over 80% of all Nissan technicians participated in the selection process for the NISTEC competition. Tests based on knowledge of Nissan vehicles were written at all the dealerships, and the ten finalists were selected as a result of their scores. Those selected were transported to Vancouver for the “hands on” part of the competition.

Each technician had to repair problems in four different vehicles. One vehicle had an electrical problem with the interior lights. Another vehicle’s air conditioning didn’t blow cold air. A third vehicle had a driveability problem that caused the vehicle to use too much fuel, and the fourth vehicle had a problem with the anti-lock brakes. Now I am not suggesting these are common problems found on Nissan vehicles. These were carefully designed “bugs” or problems installed on these vehicles by the Nissan managers to test the skills of each finalist.

The morning of the competition found the technicians engaged in nervous but friendly conversation. The pressure of competition can make stomachs turn and thinking logically almost impossible. Each technician would have one hour to complete the repairs on one of the “bugged” vehicles while a judge carefully watched how they diagnosed the problem and completed the repair. Then the judge would evaluate the skills of the technician on a score sheet and reset the problem for the next technician. Each of the technicians would have a chance to work on all of the four problems installed in the vehicles.

Snap-On Tools generously provided the loan of hand tools for the competition so the technicians were provided with all the tools that they would need to repair the vehicles. Even so, working with someone else’s tools in unfamiliar surroundings makes repairing the vehicles more difficult. Add to this the one-hour time limit and having a judge watch your every move and even the best technicians tend to make mistakes. Although the competition was set up to simulate repairing a customer’s automobile, the situation made the mental difficulty much higher.

The skill of these competitors quickly became evident. Each of the technicians had to use all their skills, sometimes in areas of repair that they seldom worked on. The success rate for correct diagnosis and repair was extremely high. Shop manuals were used efficiently, and each of the competitors used the recommended four-step process to repair the vehicle. These four steps are to 1: verify what the problem is; 2: diagnose and isolate the fault; 3: repair the fault; 4: re-test the system to ensure it works properly. All skilled technicians use these steps to repair vehicles and if done it ensures the customer has their vehicle fixed right the first time!

At NISTEC, the technicians treat the test cars with the same care a customer’s car would receive. This care was so automatic, it was obvious this was everyday practice for each of the finalists. Even small touches like wiping the finger prints off the door handle or checking the engine oil level before starting the engine demonstrated their care of the vehicles. It is small items like that, which often goes unnoticed, but separates the best technicians from the rest.

Out of the ten competitors, only one technician could finish in first place and move on to North American competition in the U.S. and perhaps even international competition. The results were impressive! All the technicians finished well. Only a few points separated the first place finisher from 6th place. I work with many technicians and the skill level of all the NISTEC competitors was inspiring.

So how does this competition improve the service you get at a dealership? There are several ways. First, each technician at the dealership has to study and learn about how the vehicles work in order to finish well on the competition’s written tests. This means you have knowledgeable people working on your vehicle.

Second, the finalists at the competition had to work hard, but they also had a pleasurable time. The contacts they made and information shared at the competition will be carried back to the dealerships so all technicians can share in better approaches to working on vehicles.

Finally, Nissan’s support for this type of competition and the technician training that precedes it gives the technicians the correct knowledge, skills, and attitudes to work on modern cars. Attitude still plays a big part in the successful repairing of any automobile!

Other automobile manufacturers also promote competitions for their technicians. Occasionally you will see these technicians recognised by the dealerships in newspaper ads and more commonly with certificates in their own service department’s waiting rooms. The next time you see a technician recognised publicly for their achievements, you can be sure that there is a dealership with a better than average service department.

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