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At Witz’ End

GM’s Summer Shutdown

Say you’re a General Motors product development manager. Seems you never have sufficient time, money or people to get your critically important job done right and on time. Yet failure is not an option. A flawless ontime launch is expected. The company is depending on you, and your professional future depends upon it.

You and your team are logging an incredible number of extra (unpaid) hours, severely stretching your endurance envelopes. If nothing goes terribly wrong, you just may get it done. Then your leadership reminds you that you must bring the whole process to a grinding halt for the first two weeks of July. Two weeks of vacation sure would feel good. Everyone could use a break to catch their collective breath and recharge their mental and physical batteries. But shutting down for a fortnight, then ramping back up, will cause a crippling loss of momentum. You will lose, in reality, a lot more than two weeks of productivity. While much of your work is done in labs and on computers, a lot still happens at the vehicle level and is very weather dependent. Two lost weeks in July is 10-14 wasted days of usually good weather for vehicle test, development and validation.

Some of it requires hot, dry summer weather. You can’t make it up October through April, at least not in Michigan. And a lot of your hard-working folks haven’t been around long enough to have earned much vacation. Is it fair to force them to use what they have all at once? What about winter sports enthusiasts and people with reunions and weddings and other time-off needs at other times of the year? Employees can buy up to five additional days for $175/day deducted from their pay, which GM says could save the company up to $34 million. But should they have to?

This began when the UAW won a two-week summer shutdown for manufacturing beginning in 1993. Then GM decided to extend it to all North American operations. On paper, it’s a financial and facility managers’ dream. Millions could be saved by shuttering every facility nationwide for two full weeks. The energy savings alone from not cooling and lighting all those plants, garages and offices was $9 million in 2003, says Human and Labor Relations Communications Manager Kerry Christopher. And consider how efficiently facility repair and maintenance can get done with no one else around.

For those lucky enough to have vacation to burn, this break represents real vacation when nearly everyone else is also away … not the kind you endure while constantly connected with phone and e-mail communications chewing holes in your R&R. On the other hand, areas with outside customers — Communications, Sales, Service, Marketing — can’t shut down completely, leaving no one to communicate with media, dealers and customers.

And the idea of interrupting time-pressured product programs for mass vacation makes no sense at all. While the Germans and some other Europeans take off an entire summer month, I would not characterize them as stateof- the-business fast, agile and competitive. And Japanese makers wouldn’t dream of such a thing. Ford says it may try a product development summer shutdown in 2005, but for just the week containing the July 4th holiday.
As a GM engineering manager, I considered this a policy imposed by the privileged few with lots of vacation on the majority with far less, and I battled it every year. I refused to shut down completely and forced no one to take unwanted vacation. We worked out a schedule to maintain part-speed momentum with some folks off one week, some the other. But I wasted time having to justify exactly who would be working when and why. When our own building was down, we operated out of partially closed facilities, with no air conditioning and unreliable water, lights and power. And it was tough being productive when nearly all of our internal support systems were missing in action.

Today, as a media customer, I find it difficult, inconvenient and sometimes annoying trying to do my job those two July weeks when most GM Communications contacts are gone. Maybe it’s time to rethink this idea … or at least make it one mandatory week, not two.

Gary Witzenburg, a former advanced technology engineering manager and part-time racing driver, is a widely published auto writer and Editor-at-Large of Automotive Industries.

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