Remembering the holiday “plant shutdown”

Remembering the holiday “plant shutdown”

I recently drove by the plant site of a manufacturing company where I had worked in the late 1970’s. The company was originally called Imperial-Eastman and was acquired by Gould, Inc. in 1976. I was part of the first Gould management team and it was my brash introduction to hands-on logistics and manufacturing management.

Imperial was nearly 75 years old at the time and primarily made & sold industrial and commercial valves and fittings used in manufacturing, construction or power generation.  It had moved to Niles, Illinois in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago from its first plant on Chicago’s West side in the early 1950’s and joined many industrial companies relocating there. It was a bit of a manufacturing hub at the time.

We employed about 800 employees and operated in a 300,000 square foot factory and warehouse. It was big, noisy and full of machines shooting oil and steel and brass chips in all directions—you never went anywhere in the plant without your ever-present and thick safety glasses (I still routinely rest reading or safety glasses on top of my head ready for action all these years later). It was surely post-WWII manufacturing at its finest.

Working at Imperial was great fun and I was over my head from time-to-time, but I adapted and learned plenty about business in the process.

As I drove down Howard Street that day not long ago, I was shocked to see that the old Imperial plant was being demolished. I could no longer point out my former office to my children. It was gone. I was at first shocked, but not surprised. Several industrial sites in this area have been torn down and replaced with large warehouses or distribution centers over the last decade. As our region and country’s descent from a powerful manufacturing economy continues, the demolition of the old Imperial plant was surely inevitable.

In the past, while driving by the old Imperial plant at this time of year, I would often be reminded of that industrial-manufacturing tradition—the holiday plan shutdown.

The holiday plant shutdown was a forced 1-2 week vacation for all company employees over the Christmas holiday. The purpose was to allow manufacturing and maintenance staffs to do those extensive repairs or capital improvements only possible when the machines weren’t running or products shipping. Only very limited or essential operations were allowed and vacation schedules were coordinated to coincide with the shutdown. In the post-WWII years it seems everyone did it—I experienced 5 shutdowns during my years in Niles.

But the plant shutdown also had another unsaid purpose. It allowed the senior staff to come into the office to complete plans for the coming year without the daily demands of customers, broken machines and empty supply chains (or empty warehouse shelves—my particular problem at the time).  Further, it allowed senior staff to sit down and chat about improving the business without operating disruptions (like above). It was a nice break from normal organized chaos, and I found it a great way to celebrate the holidays and balance your job and family. But it was also a very productive interlude for the management team. Then, on the second day after the New Year, the machines were turned on again.

Today, the world is different. For one, there are fewer plants or machine tools to actually shut down for repair and maintenance. For another, business demand has become virtually seamless. In the old days, you could work with customers to fill up their supply pipelines with goods to assure that they had no interruptions while your plant was down for the holidays—if they were operating themselves. Try telling that to a customer today (just-in-time, you know). And lastly if you are a service provider, there is often nothing to inventory. If a client needs your services on December 24th, so be it—but it has always been like that.

With all of those reasons not to have holiday shutdowns, one would think that they have all but disappeared.  But, we do not think they have. We hear more and more cases of non-retail-based companies shutting down operations for a week or so during the “holidays” and giving their employees the time off.

Why? We think the answer is clear. While you do not have machines to renew and fix, you do have your staff. They also need renewal. And giving a week or so off at the holidays is a great way to do it. Remember that our plant shutdown (ostensibly for facility maintenance and repair) was also actually a vehicle and opportunity for senior management renewal and collaboration. Perhaps the people renewal has always been the primary benefit, and remains so today.  

So are you shutting down your operations for more than a day or two during holidays? If not, how do you plan to attend to executive and staff renewal during the coming months? You need to do something, so why not do it with a “plant shutdown”? And, you can fix some mechanical stuff or install that new software, while you are at it. See you after the New Year.

Ah, the spirit of that 1970’s plant shutdown is still with us.

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