In providing training for automotive detailing operations over the years, I have found that a common and recurring theme has been the importance of taking a process approach to detailing. As some of you know, I have long professed an operational model of automotive detailing that includes the words “systematic procedures.”


The “process” is a set of well-thought-out steps. The goal of the process has two parts. First, it is to clean and condition all of the surfaces of the vehicle in the most efficient way possible. “Efficiency” is a measure of how fast the service is provided. The second goal of the process is to yield the best or most effective outcome, which, put in simple terms, is to make the car look as new as possible. “Effectiveness” is a measure of the outcome of the service, or “how well” it is provided.

To maximize efficiency, each step in the process is designed to take advantage of the things that were accomplished during the previous steps, while at the same time avoiding any unnecessary work in the steps that follow. For example, vinyl and plastic panels on the interior are cleaned before extracting carpets, so that any drips or overspray from the panel cleaning that happen to fall onto the carpet will be cleaned during the extraction; but cleaning the vinyl and plastic takes place only after the car is vacuumed and air-purged, so that excess dust and dirt is removed, making the vinyl/plastic cleaning easier.

To maximize effectiveness, each step in the process includes the use of appropriate chemicals, equipment, and techniques that ensure the best outcome while still maintaining efficiency. Using our previous example of cleaning the vinyl and plastic panels, the appropriate chemical would be a mild multi-purpose alkaline cleaner applied directly to the surface or to the tool (equipment) of choice, either a microfiber towel or some kind of soft-bristled brush. The tool would be used to agitate the surface in order to loosen any dirt or grime.

Finally, a clean towel is used to wipe away the lifted or emulsified dirt and any remaining cleaning chemical residue. Another important part of the process is the utilization of specific techniques in approaching the cleaning of the panel.


In the last paragraph, I referred to several things that are, in actuality, elements of a process. A process or procedure in the detailing world includes a chemical designed specifically for the surface, which is being attended to, an appliance (piece of equipment) to work the chemical, and a technique that combines the use of the chemical and the appliance. And there is one more thing that is important to the process. The technique will include some sort of “way to move around” that determines exactly how the technique is performed. I call these movement protocols “rules of motion.” They help us know where to start and where to finish.

Back to our continuing example of cleaning interior vinyl and plastic panels (e.g., dash, center console, and door panels). One “rule of motion” is to start in a certain passenger compartment every time. When I am working alone, I like to start in the right front passenger area. I sit down in the passenger seat and look up to check for any plastic panels above my head, like the visor, the “hang-on” handle, and any control panels in the front center of the headliner. I clean these and then proceed down the “A” pillar to the top of the dashboard. Next, I work down the center console to the cup-holder and center armrest areas.

Then I turn around, still seated, and work on the door panel from top-to-bottom. I then step out of the vehicle, turn around, kneel down and take care of the panels in the foot well, the kick panel, any plastic trim on the side of the seat, and the “B” pillar. When this area is completed, I move to the rear passenger compartment, and continue around the vehicle in a clockwise direction, finishing up with the driver’s compartment.

The last two paragraphs illustrate several “rules of motion” for the process of “cleaning vinyl and plastic panels on the interior of a vehicle.” The rules of motion noted here include:
• Starting point for the overall process — in this case, the right front passenger compartment
• Overall direction of progression for the overall process — in this case, each passenger compartment, clockwise
• Regional direction of progression — in this case, within the “region” of the right front passenger area, two rules of motion were employed: work top-to-bottom (from the visor down) and work inside-out (from the center console out to the door panel).

Another, less obvious rule of motion, and a personal favorite of mine, is “work where you are.” In the above example, I sat down in the passenger compartment and cleaned all of the plastic panels that I could easily reach and see before I got out of that seat. In other words, I did all the work, within that process step, that I could accomplish where I was.

The “work where you are” rule of motion helps to avoid the common mistake of too much walking around the car while performing the detail. An example of an inefficient rule of motion would be cleaning all of the door panels first, then cleaning the entire dashboard, then the center console, then the remaining panels in each foot well. This would be inefficient because it would involve walking around the car at least three extra times to accomplish the same task of “cleaning all vinyl and plastic panels.”

Another rule of motion is one that is often called “frame and fill.” It applies to such activities as cleaning windows and involves first moving around the outside edge of the panel on which you are working, then “filling in” the middle of the panel. This rule can also be used to wipe off wax residue from one panel at a time.


Many are the benefits of utilizing process techniques that involve steadfast rules of motion, including:
• The work gets done faster because there is no confusion or wasted time thinking about what should be done next. It becomes virtually automatic.
• There is far less chance of missing something because the rule of motion guides the technician systematically through the areas of the car.
• Work interruptions, although always a nuisance, have less negative impact because, as long as the technician remembers where he or she left off, the rule of motion being used at the time of interruption will allow the technician
to continue the process, at the stopping point, without much thought.
• Any technician (assuming they are all trained in the same process) can step in to replace a technician who is not able to finish the process.
• Perhaps the most important benefit is that you and the customer are ensured consistent results.


In order to make the process approach really work in a detailing operation, everyone has to be “on board,” from owners, to managers, to all technicians. The process has to be developed and then taught to everyone involved. Remember, too, that the process should be developed in such a way that it accomplishes the goal of the particular detail operation (e.g., retail shop versus dealership recon center) as well as meets the expectations of the typical customers of the operation.

In teaching the process, you have to be somewhat of a drill sergeant and insist that the process be followed. About the only negative comment I receive on post-event training evaluations is along the lines of “take it easy on us, be more patient, we’re just learning this for the first time.” The problem is, I only have a few days to transform someone from a novice to a professional, and most of it is simply pounding in the process — choose this chemical and this tool, to clean that surface, and do it using this technique.

Additionally, endeavor to build quality into the process. That is, create a process that efficiently and virtually automatically yields the level of quality needed. We need only look at the Japanese manufacturing community in the last 50 or so years to understand the potential success of creating a process that is efficient and thorough enough to automatically produce excellent results. This reduces the need to rely on inspection. Yes, inspection is important because none of us is perfect, myself included. I’m sure that if any one of you reading this article were to inspect a vehicle that I had personally detailed, you would find a few things that I missed. But the bottom line is that the results are so far superior to what is generally available that the customer will be so blown away by your completed detail job that they are unlikely to notice an unfinished item or two that, in truth, only another professional detailer would be able to see.


Upon reading this article, some of you will realize that I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to the concept of “process.” The reason is that I see time and time again that those operations which have a strong commitment to a process approach are the most successful at generating consistently high-quality results in a very efficient manner. If, in your operation, it seems like the detail job takes too long to complete, or the results are never quite what are needed, consider taking a serious look at your process, perhaps with the objective viewpoint of an outside consultant.


Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or