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How to Run Your Shop like a Well-Oiled Machine
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How to Run Your Shop like a Well-Oiled Machine

November 10, 2015

You expect your school buses running smoothly, efficiently and on-time every day throughout the school year. But what about your maintenance shop – does it run like a well-oiled machine?

Behind every First Student bus is a Center of Excellence. These are our safety- and customer-focused maintenance shops that support our fleet of 49,000 buses. Their primary goal is to keep our buses running safely and reliably each and every school day.

First Student Centers of Excellence

Our Centers of Excellence model is based on a framework of principles and best practices for diagnostic and management techniques to create a highly functioning maintenance environment. These practices aim to eliminate waste and improve workflow in the shop, leading to improved performance, increased vehicle efficiency with less downtime and (most importantly) safer and more reliable school buses.

The First Student Centers of Excellence model is based upon a “5-S” foundation: Sort, Shine, Set, Standardize and Sustain. Shop managers use a visual workplace to track current & pending work, shop key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets. To reward our maintenance teams for their dedication to safety and commitment to the highest standards, we evaluate them annually and award them with the Bronze, Silver or Gold Wrench Awards.

Tips from the Pros

Two of our First Student shop managers who have achieved Gold Shop Status are sharing their keys to success.    

  • Technician-in-Charge Brian LaCerte manages First Student’s Chester, Connecticut maintenance shop. He oversees maintenance of 69 vehicles serving three school districts: East Lyme Public Schools, Westbrook Public Schools and Regional School District #4.
  • Shop Manager Warren Weaver oversees 12 technicians and 381 buses serving three First Student customers: Corona-Norco Unified School District, Riverside Unified School District and Morongo Unified School District.

Here are their tips for enabling smooth operations and achieving excellence in the shop.

Plan Ahead

Follow daily routines to meet ongoing goals. This is important to do every day, consistently making sure buses are serviced and PM-ed.  Brian explains, “Before my team leaves for the day, we have a schedule for the next day – what buses we will take out of service, and which buses will be available.”

How to get started:

  • Institute a detailed planning and scheduling system.
  • Identify number of vehicles for preventative maintenance (PM) per day to stay current, and split them amongst the shifts. Find out when each bus will have down-time by talking to the dispatcher.

For example, Warren has 16 activity trip buses; Monday and Tuesday they are sitting, but the rest of the week they are busy. So preventive maintenance on those buses is planned for Monday and Tuesday.

Warren’s shop has achieved 100% compliance, meaning preventative maintenance is “on-time all the time.” Warren explains, “We stay 7-10 days ahead, just so if we have a bad day we can maintain our PM currency,” Warren describes planning ahead for the holidays: “For example, Thanksgiving, that’s two days we lose. Rather than returning two days behind, instead of doing eight we’ll do nine every day.”

Be Proactive

You never know what is about to go wrong, and you only have so many technicians to service your vehicles. A bus that needs major repairs takes technicians’ time and focus away from important preventative maintenance tasks.

Contrary to popular belief – “If it isn’t broke, DO fix it!” says Brian, “Keep a schedule and address issues as they arise; don’t wait until they become problems,” he advises.

Brian teaches his people how to schedule work in order to always be one step ahead, and stay on top of issues before they become costly repairs. If a fluid is leaking – they investigate and address the cause; if an exhaust hanger bracket is rusted – they replace the bracket rather than waiting until the entire exhaust pipe needs to be replaced. This is the culture in his shop, “it’s our way of going about maintenance”, Brian describes, “I guess you could say I have a passion for school buses.”

Have a Parts Strategy

“If we’ve changed a part five times, we keep it in stock. We form good relationships with local vendors, so we can get a part the next day,” says Brian.

How to get started:

  • Develop relationships with parts vendors.
  • A shop can have a lot of parts, but not what they need. Know what the fast moving parts are and keep them stocked.
  • Standardize your fleet to simplify parts stocking. If possible, eliminate buses that don’t fit into standardized categories. “This makes the fleet easier to run,” explains Warren, “If you can’t stock parts, buses are down longer, and you can’t turn them as fast.”
  • Order parts electronically to save time on the phone.

Communicate Openly

Brian works closely with his location managers, keeping them in the loop on any issues or necessary repairs. The location manager can put him in touch with a specific bus driver so that he can gain a better understanding of the issue they are experiencing. They have built a trusting professional relationship.

“Me, plus my two location managers, are like one superhero!” Brian says, “In a company with the resources of First Student, we can make it happen.”

Warren says of Senior Location Manager Lisa Serra, “It’s ‘we’, not ‘I’. We wouldn’t get it all done without everybody working together.”

Troubleshoot Problems

“We have experienced technicians who know how to accurately diagnose problems,” says Brian, “Before we get a new part, we investigate and see if we can solve the problem.”

For example, according to Brian, the average turbocharger may have issues five to seven times a year; a new turbocharger is about $2,100 to purchase. “Rather than just buying a new turbocharger, we take the time to see what’s going on. Often we find the problem can be solved by simply replacing a broken spring pin; this inexpensive fix allows us to extend the life of the turbo and save the customer on parts costs,” he explains.  

Lead by example

Show your team that you care, and go above and beyond. Strive to train and develop the next generation of maintenance professionals. “It is important that anybody new has someone with experience to reach out to, to ask questions and to get a second opinion,” says Warren.


By following these keys to shop success, First Student shops deliver significant benefits to our school district customers and the families we serve. School administrators feel secure and safe when they see members of our shop team arrive to a road call promptly and with the right equipment. Parents putting their children on the same bus every day, notice the bus is clean, not damaged, and the lettering is intact. Parents have a positive and safe feeling knowing the same buses are there, day-in and day-out, because they can see we take care of our vehicles.

Our maintenance teams recognize the impact of what they do every day; their hard work and discipline leads to safe and reliable school buses, which gives children the best start and finish to the school day.