Less Than Clean Car Wash

Dirty cars, ineffective operations

Shield System, a full-service car wash, in Brighton is an ineffective company. My research includes primary in-field research observing numerous cars running being serviced, Yelp reviews, interviews with an employee of Shield, and conversations with Mr. Jackson Kim, a business owner with 20 year of experience successfully running full-service car wash operations in this thrilling industry.

Business Model: The Company’s business model creates value by offering a convenient service to wash, vacuum, and detail cars. Shield captures value by charging consumers an upfront fee for use of the facilities and aims to service as many cars possible through existing operations. I recognized several elements in their operation that reflect principals taught in TOM such as cycle time, throughput time, and machine utilization. In this instance, leveraging principals from TOM can vastly improve this operating model.

Operating Model: The layout of this specific car wash has four self-service vacuums when a consumer drives in, followed by a one lane car wash with a hot water blaster that cleans the cars wheels. The cars then roll through an automatic car wash.

In addition, there is a separate facility / garage that allows two cars to be detailed two at a time.

Model Alignment: The business and operating models do not align and support each other well. Consumers want a clean car, price, and convenience, but the operating model does not deliver effectively.

Wash Operation

Through my observations, I found the bottleneck was cleaning of the rims of tires and bottom exterior where the grim builds up. Shield only had one worker who was doing the first job of spraying the wheels with a high pressure water blaster. This specific instance took 3-4 minutes while the automatic machine wash took 1 minute even on the highest level of wash. After interviewing the car wash attendance, he commented that when busy, customers left because the line grew to be 3-4 cars and had to wait 10-15 minutes at which point due to lack of space, cars would have to park on a busy street. In addition, the machine utilization of wash is at most 33% assuming continuous car flow through. To improve this aspect, an additional employee could be introduced to cut down the cycle time. Finally, there is no inspection or quality assurance. Customers often leave with areas still dirty as seen in the Yelp reviews in the appendix. A good operation outlined by Mr. Kim has final inspection to ensure the customer leaves happy.



Self-Service Vacuum

Customers can vacuum their own car at one of four stations. However, customers are required to spend time, effort and funds handling the equipment. Yet, the real estate occupied was quite large and according to the attendant, cars would either be turned away because of the wait time or otherwise the area was empty and unused. Therefore, this area is not maximized to service customers and their needs.


Full-Service Vacuum

Shield also offers full service vacuuming through a small garage that can fit two cars. In this area, customers can have their car vacuumed and their carpet shampooed by an attendant. However, the attendant mentioned the time it takes to finish vacuuming is 30 minutes while shampooing is another 30 minutes. Thus, the cycle time is an hour for both services, making the maximum cars serviced in a day to be 20 cars in 10 hours of operation. Thus, customers often need either wait in their small waiting room, wander the neighborhood, or wait at a nearby McDonald’s. In addition, these operations are not seamless or in an assembly line that allows customers to get their cars washed right after. The workers could require training to efficiently vacuum the cars for detailing. After speaking with Mr. Kim, a good cycle time for a high performing car wash is about 1 minute for the vacuuming with 2 attendants working on each car as well as decoupling the detailing process. Furthermore, value can be better captures through a store and nice waiting room for customers to buy beverages through a vending machine or car related purchases such as floor mates and air fresheners. Thus, the customer experience aspect could be greatly improved.


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Student comments on Less Than Clean Car Wash

  1. Tony,
    What a relevant, creative, and well-researched post. I love how you focused on a simple concept and used it to illuminate many of the concepts we have learned this semester. I imagine that the margins of a car-wash are quite low, and I was struck by Shield’s inability to harmonize human and technological processes. In an effort to serve multiple customers segments, it looks like they serve none of them well. Their self-service vacuum operation seems particularly inefficient, and I am surprised that they still provide this service.
    The customer’s expectation for amenities is quite low for a car wash, and I could envision a new entrant focusing on redefining a customer’s expectation for what a car wash experience should be. I imagine that most people view car washes simply as an errand, but I wonder if people would be willing to spend more time at one if it partnered with coffee shops (Starbucks or local vendors) to offer more than what is currently (and historically) offered. If Shield’s wants to take advantage of its wasted real-estate, it should focus on forming partnerships with coffee shops or other trusted and local quick-serve restaurants to revitalize the car-wash experience.

  2. Tony,

    Incredibly interesting post and the most analytical of the ones I have seen. It seems like with only a few small changes, Shield’s could be a much better ran business. I’m curious why they haven’t made the wheel cleaning staffing change already. Seems like a very logical/quick change to add another person into this step when they get backed up. Instead, I’m curious if this is a demand issue where rarely are enough cars backed up to warrant this additional employee. If so, seems like improving customer perception, reducing prices and getting new customers into Shield’s are the most important areas to fix. If not, Shield’s could be a great acquisition target to buy and quickly make this change!

    Also, how does the nearby competition drive/detract from their desire to improve? Appears that no meaningful competition is nearby which may be a big driver into their lack of innovation.

  3. Great post Tony, and it is good to see the primary research you conducted!

    In your opinion, do you believe there is a fundamental flaw in the operating model where the business may fail if changes are not made, or do you think that if operational improvements were made, the operating model serves the customers and company well? There are obviously, several areas of weakness that you have identified (cleaning tire rims, real estate used for self-service vacuuming, and time needed for detailing) but I wonder what the return on investment would be for improvements, especially given varied demand for services throughout the day vs. a continual backlog that would need to be worked through.

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