Bakers Journal

Filling in the Blanks

December 5, 2007
By Guy Robertson

Succession planning for bakers.

What happens when one of your bakery’s key employees can’t work for an extended period?

“Most managers do think about the inconvenience a long-term absence can cause, both to other employees and to customers,” says Connie Gordon, a human resources consultant and trainer in Surrey, B.C. “But there are often other results, like backlogs, loss of productivity and financial issues.”

In cases where an employee has been seriously injured or killed, morale problems can spread throughout a bakery, even among coworkers who barely know the victim. Unless management is prepared to help people to deal with the problem, it can continue indefinitely.


One way to reduce the effects of long-term or permanent absence is succession planning. Once limited to filling positions vacated by senior managers, succession planners now handle numerous different situations arising from the unavailability or loss of any key employee.

“Concerns about effective succession at all levels deepened after 9/11,” says Gordon. “Coupled with increasing early retirements and warnings about a global pandemic, the terrorist attacks in the U.S. scared people into action, and in some ways made them more realistic. We had to admit that while senior managers are important, there are specialists on the plant floor who are even more essential to day-to-day operations.”

For example, the mechanic who keeps your bakery’s conveyor belts running: assume that he develops appendicitis and will be off work for two weeks. Who will repair the main bread conveyor if it breaks down? Is a backup mechanic available? If so, does that person have the knowledge of conveyor systems and the experience to do the job, or will he rely on guesswork? And if he compounds the problem by adjusting the wrong component, then what? Remember that the longer your conveyor is unserviceable, the more money your plant will lose.

The first step in succession planning is to identify the essential skill sets in your bakery. While you may believe that all positions are important, there are certain combinations of skills that are crucial to your bakery’s continuing operations. Large industrial bakeries rely on highly trained and experienced personnel including production managers, packaging technicians, mechanics, and supply coordinators, who need backup personnel if they are away for a few days.

There are also skilled workers who might be difficult to replace. How about your cake decorator? She’s probably the best in southern Ontario, with 35 years of experience and numerous customers singing her praises. Anyone could learn the basics of cake decorating in a college baking program, but your cake decorator’s skills are an artistic technique developed through decades of practice.

Computer technicians can acquire equally refined skills. You may take these people for granted, until they need time off. Then what?

“You can bring in external resources,” says Hilary Hannigan, a Vancouver-based IT specialist. “The problem is, outsiders won’t know the unique aspects of your computer systems, the specialized applications for which there might not be up-to-date documentation. An outsider will need time to find out how your systems work. And a bakery with standing orders for product might not have time to spare.”

The next step is to list the employees who have the essential skill sets that you’ve identified. Consider specific persons in key positions, and ask yourself what effects their absence would have on your operations. Determine how long a skilled worker would have to be absent before their skills would be sorely missed on your plant floor.

Then try to identify skilled workers’ potential replacements. Your cake decorator may have no equal at present, but she has an assistant who has demonstrated his talents on several smaller projects. Could your cake decorator train him to do more of her job, and to fill in for her if she’s off for a week with flu? Moreover, she might be considering retirement in a few years. It would be prudent to make sure that her skills are passed on to her eventual successor.

Before succession training programs are organized, some senior managers demand analysis of the impact of employee loss.

“An impact analysis will usually show how much time it takes to lose money after a certain employee or group of employees are unavailable,” says Gordon. “Some analyses can be real eye-openers, and maybe a bit embarrassing.”
She mentions an analysis that showed how an industrial bakery’s CEO could take a two-month holiday, and operations would continue smoothly. But when the production manager missed half a shift to visit a dentist, the plant experienced supply and scheduling problems that resulted in surprisingly large financial losses.

“Many bakeries don’t require a consultant to put together an impact analysis,” says Gordon. “What they need is common sense. Obviously the loss of skilled employees is going to cause trouble, and they should be backed up.”

Succession planning is now included in many disaster plans. If severe weather in southern Ontario leads to flooding and road closures, a number of plants will remain in operation owing to the comprehensive backup of all key employees. The IT manager might be trapped on the wrong side of a closed-off bridge, but his assistant can travel to the plant from a different direction, and the plant’s IT systems will continue to function.

“You can keep an electronic list of your key employees and their backups on a Blackberry or other handheld computer,” says Hannigan.

In an emergency, you could receive a message from an employee who can’t reach your bakery. Then you could send a message to a backup employee, asking him or her to fill in. If telephone systems are down, wireless networks might be the only practical way to communicate with coworkers, including those who can provide valuable backup service.

Severe weather might force the postponement of a wedding, but it needn’t delay the decoration of the cake. Directly or indirectly, succession planning supports essential activities of all kinds.

Guy Robertson is an emergency management consultant in Vancouver, BC. He can be reached at 604- 224-3243 or

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