Doing It Right, Till The Last Whistle

Craig B. Parr, manager of GM's Pontiac-West assembly plant, is in his element. Striding through the plant's four buildings, his abundant gold jewelry twinkling in the artificial light, he draws waves and smiles from all around. But for Parr, 49, the job is bittersweet. Pontiac-West will close its doors for good in 1994, and it is Parr's difficult responsibility to wind the place down. It can be frustrating and infuriating work. In the late 1980s, when he had to close down the nearby Pontiac-Central plant, "I'd go home and bust my ass around the house just to get the poison out of my system."

Soon, many of his fellow plant managers will see how it feels. Beset with money problems, General Motors Corp. plans to close 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 jobs by mid-decade. At each of those plants, managers such as Parr will have the crucial task of closing up shop while making sure everything runs smoothly until the final whistle. Having just lost $4.9 billion, the last thing GM needs now is a bunch of disgruntled workers doing shoddy work.

Because of Parr's experience in plant closings, his views have been much in demand among GM plant managers lately. Many have shown up on his doorstep. "I've become the encyclopedia that people refer to," he says with a shrug.

NO PENNANT. His peers should listen carefully. Look at the quality charts posted alongside the engine-preparation line at Pontiac-West, where workers attach various hoses and electrical connectors to the engines' mechanical parts. In June, 1990, just before workers learned the plant would close, only 71% of the engines leaving the department were found to be perfect by GM standards. Last January, 97% of the engines were perfect. University of Michigan business school professor Kim S. Cameron, who has studied plant closings, compares the plant manager's role to that of a baseball manager: "The manager has to let people know that even though it's the last game of the season and the team is not going to win the pennant, you still have to run out the ground ball."

Much depends on top management as well. If workers feel the rug has been pulled out from under them, the stress and shock are certain to affect their work. GM has made some questionable moves, such as announcing it would close either its Willow Run plant in Michigan or the facility in Arlington, Tex., and then letting them compete against each other. Arlington won, and Willow Run's workers are still bitter. Its hometown of Ypsilanti, which had given GM tax breaks, is suing the company.

To its credit, the company does support its blue-collar workers with an extensive safety net. It includes free job training and a chance to transfer from one GM plant to another, based on seniority. Workers who are laid off for any reason get 95% of regular pay for up to 36 weeks--and 100% after that--until the end of their contract in September, 1993. "Our members are worried, as they should be," says Donny Douglas, president of United Auto Workers Local 594, which includes Pontiac-West. "But they're not in a state of desperation." Salaried employees are generally on their own, as GM seldom offers buyouts for them. But for now, employees who will be 53 or older this year or next are being offered an enticing early-retirement package.

Although GM management is reluctant to single out Parr as its plant-closing guru--perhaps because it's painful to admit needing one--the company has tacitly acknowledged his accomplishments at Pontiac-West: Usually, a doomed plant is allowed to continue building its current cars or trucks until the gates are locked. In an extraordinary move, Pontiac-West this April will begin building the $27,000, 280-horsepower GMC Syclone pickup, previously built in Shreveport, La. "You just continue to demand results," explains Parr. "Even though you're closing, you keep demanding higher standards."

ON THE TRAIL. Parr's philosophy on plant closings traces back to 1986. Soon after he became the manager of Pontiac-Central, he learned he was to shut the sprawling, 9,000-worker facility. He discovered a brutal reality: "The world and the company treat you, your plant, and your workers as lepers," he says. GM was fairly new to the plant-closing business then, so there weren't many plant managers for Parr to turn to for advice. He began keeping a log at home of what did and did not work in helping the labor force through the transition (table). For instance, he noted that big employee meetings were much less effective than smaller ones. The main lesson: "When you're closing a plant, you can't give people enough information."

He likes to give it to them in person. A muscular former welder who even today is a member of the Teamsters, Parr arrives at work by 6 a.m. and goes through his mail while sitting in the cafeteria, where he is accessible to all 2,200 blue- and white-collar workers. Then he hits the trail. Marching through the plant, he scowls at an unswept stairwell, then grins when a worker stops him to ask: "How are orders?"

Sticking his head into the cafeteria, he checks whether the broken soda cooler has been fixed yet. It hasn't. "You let me know if they don't get here, O.K.?" he tells a cafeteria worker. Next comes a visit to the front-axle department, where a worker has reported that her neighborhood letter carrier has complained about a problem with a dashboard light on her GM truck that the dealership can't fix. "Tell her to park it in my space tomorrow," says Parr. By the end of the day, he vows, they'll solve the problem. They do.

That act of concern for the customer is not out of the ordinary at Pontiac-West. At the end of the line, workers toss a thank-you note into the glove compartment of every GMC Typhoon sport-utility they build. Signed by Parr, this unusual card also includes his direct office phone number. If there's a problem, Parr wants to hear about it. Now, he hopes to put similar notes in all Pontiac-West trucks.

Unlike some plants that are set to close, and many that aren't, Pontiac-West doesn't look the least bit run-down. Unused areas are spotless, and there's fresh paint everywhere. "That plant will not deteriorate," insists Parr. "I have a budget for paint, and I spend every penny." The paint is designed to show the work force that somebody still cares, as are the plant tours by schoolchildren and major customers that he encourages.

When GM sends a Scrooge-like message to employees, Parr goes on the attack. He insisted that the annual Christmas party go on as usual after GM tried to cancel it, for instance. At one point, he went to the GM brass for approval for a new piece of diagnostic equipment for the trucks built at Pontiac-Central. When they balked at its six-figure price tag, he found the money elsewhere in his budget and bought the equipment. "If I show the work force that I haven't abandoned them, they're gonna hang in there with me," says Parr. Workers on the floor give him good marks. "In the 26 years I've been here, he's the most people-oriented manager," says Don Duglise, who works in final assembly.

`DIGNITY AND PRIDE.' Unlikely as it seems, GM maintains that quality often improves at doomed plants. At GM's Lordstown (Ohio) commercial van plant, which closed on Mar. 23, the last two GM-run quality audits found an astounding zero defects, says Thomas J. Davis, vice-president and general manager of the GM's Lansing Automotive Div. The North Tarrytown (N.Y.) plant learned in mid-February that it will close by 1995. An early March audit of minivans built there found a nearly 25% improvement in quality over the past three months, says one GM executive.

After studying more than 30 manufacturing plants hit by downsizings, Michigan B-school professor Cameron isn't surprised. "The data really show the same phenomena: Absenteeism goes down, productivity goes up," he says. Why? It may be denial on the workers' part--the belief that if they do a good enough job, management will reverse its decision. "You do the best you can and hope they change their mind," says Don Barlow, a worker on the Pontiac-West frame line. "That's all we can do." Some of it is pride. At Lordstown, workers strung up a banner reading: "We're going to build out with dignity and pride."

As the Pontiac-West workers get ready to build the new GMC Syclone, there's no forgetting that the final whistle is just two years off. Perhaps as many as one-third of the blue-collar workers will take early retirement rather than try to transfer to another GM plant. At least one employee can feel confident about his future, though. With plant closing becoming a growth business, Parr ought to be in hot demand.

      Craig Parr's rules for managing plant shutdowns, learned over six years
      COMMUNICATE Give notice as far in advance as possible-- certainly before 
      workers read it in the paper. Be thorough and repetitious, because they may not 
      be able to absorb everything the first time
      BE VISIBLE Take personal responsibility for guiding people through the change. 
      Don't just have an 'open door' policy; wander around outside your office
      BE HONEST False hope isn't helpful for anyone. Be blunt about the plant 
      closing, even if you don't know the exact date
      BE POSITIVE Reward top performers and implement worker ideas for improvements. 
      Also, encourage plant tours by schoolchildren and customers. They imply that 
      workers are worth showing off
      DEMAND MORE Remind workers that improving skills will help the plant today and 
      make them more marketable later
      KEEP THE PLANT LOOKING GOOD Clean it, paint it. Don't let the equipment 
      deteriorate. Morale is iffy enough already
      DATA: BW
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