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Coping with Martha Stewart: the holiday season wreaks havoc on the workplace. It also accents the companies that have their houses in order.

FRANKLY, I HATE this time of the year. Summer is long over and the calendar says that if I have any hope of making/saving/ improving the year, now is the time. And then begins the holiday season. Not that I don't like holidays, but one of the first lessons when baptized under fire with P&L responsibility is that days off--such as three- or four-day weekends--wreak havoc on throughput. Extended holiday breaks or shutdowns are even worse!

End-of-year holidays, in particular, can be brutal. The talks starts about what folks are going to buy, cook, do and who they are going to see--by choice or by family edict--just about everything except how to get orders in or production out. The Sales department, for the most part, has written off the current year and are focused on the upcoming one--which is still over a month away. Accountants suddenly remember to mention anticipated writeoffs--and or their tax consequences--which for some reason are rarely positive. All while the rest of the "team" discusses and works on how to out--Martha Stewart each other!

So here I am--again--looking at two months in a row where holiday schedules reduce flexibility right when I most need to eke any success from an otherwise forgettable year. And here I am--again--taking stock of how my company is doing.

If any two months act as a barometer as to how well-managed a business is, November and December qualify. The first challenge: customer requirements become sporadic. Customers expedite jobs in for delivery before they go on holiday breaks, or push out jobs so product is delivered the first day back in January--usually doing both to at least some of the orders! Such changes cause heartburn for scheduling, production and inventory management. Next, employees, giving short notice, use up their vacation allotment--or just take days off--to execute their holiday entertainment/shopping plans. This results in your most valued resources not being available, just when demand for their skills is greatest. This, in turn, reveals in dramatic fashion how your company is doing (or not doing) making progress with process and training.

Companies that process work--get orders completed and delivered on time--even when employees are distracted or short-staffed and while customers are making rapid-fire changes to requested delivery dates, reflect good management. Those that have problems either with on-time delivery or quality or throughput are being shown exactly where they need to focus their time and talent for improvement during the next year. Which, I guess, leads back to process improvement, training and people.

Process improvement includes trying to make as many tasks as "idiot proof" as possible so when there are distractions or new employees, it is easier to do things correctly and consistently. The use of color-coding and simple, explicit work instructions, etc., are basic, oft-overlooked methods to reduce the impact on a process when employees are distracted. Equally, just having an easy-to-follow process map and user-friendly work instructions on the traveler may be worthy goals to initiate, refine and improve.

Training includes cross-training of "appropriate" people to be able to competently handle more than one task. When staff shortages take place either during the holiday season or summer vacation season, having two or three people who can handle any task adds significantly to flexibility. But before starting a crash cross-training program, make sure the people who are to be trained are right for the task, and vice versa. If a given employee is Cracker Jack doing "Task A" but shows no aptitude or interest in "Task B" then don't go there! Talk to your supervisors as well as your employees before developing a cross-training plan. Identify the best candidates in each area for cross-training--then just do it! Only with good on-the-job training as well as continual movement in and through the cross-trained tasks will competence be developed and flexibility achieved.

And finally, all of this requires people! Is Sales aware that the end of the year is a difficult time for any manufacturing company? Are they diligently communicating shutdown schedules, delivery hurdles or limitations? Is Production aware of how vital it is to provide as much notice as possible prior to taking time off, and how important it is to ensure sufficient coverage in each department? Is all your staff aware that if they have free time they should ask "how can I help"? Do you speak early and often about end-of-year holiday issues with all levels of your company, suppliers and customers?

Years ago, a foreign friend of mine commented about American holidays and especially, as he put it, the end-of-year "holiday madness." He observed that the best holiday in America--and in his opinion, the world--is Thanksgiving: it isn't commercial, it's a restful pause before the hype and pace of Christmas and, most importantly, is a time to simply give thanks to everything and everyone who has made life so worthwhile. I agree. Maybe we should give thanks for making it through another year. Maybe we should give thanks for the good (and not so good) customers. And for out suppliers, many of whom have gone the extra mile to help. And most of all, maybe we should thank our employees for helping us make it, and whom together with our customers, suppliers, process improvements and training, are the vital link in making next year better.

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI ( He can be reached at
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Author:Bigelow, Peter
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Manufacture
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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