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  • Frank Pereira and Marco Juarez

The Three Phases of Scheduling

A few years ago we worked with a large employer with several locations in and around Detroit. They had missed customer service goals and labor goals the previous two years and were heading into one of their busiest seasons. It was a constantly changing environment and we really had to show them how to break down the process of scheduling their employees. It simply boiled down to looking at it as three phases: Long, Medium, and Short range planning. Some managers struggled to understand each phase because the process and the overall goal is the same. They had to get accustomed to setting specific goals for each phase of planning, which was a new concept for them. Here’s how we broke it down for them to understand:

A. Long-Range Planning: This phase is simply forecasting. This particular client did a very good job of developing and understanding its forecasted demand (or workload) and developing manpower estimates to meet the needs of that workload. They had several departments. Some did a very good job of using pencil and paper (or Excel spreadsheets) but others would use complex programs to input data and maintain historical trends to model future demand. For any company (or department within a company), the method of forecasting will depend upon the type of work, the methods for dealing with the work, and the applicability of available data. Some forecasts may require statistical mathematics or numerical analysis. The cost of developing a complex model and hiring the mathematical horsepower to operate advanced models needs to be offset by the benefits offered by a good forecast. This depends on the organization’s unique needs and is driven by variables that include, but are not limited to, size, complexity, and need for customer service. The most important question to ask is, “What would a more accurate workload forecast mean to the organization?”

B. Mid-Range Scheduling: This is the phase where some managers were confused. Many of them felt that the scheduling of employees was a long range function. This is a common mistake with most managers and most companies. Just having enough bodies to meet the planned need is not enough. Those bodies must be applied to the work, and that is often accomplished by scheduling the workforce to match the workload. The managers had to learn that it is not just about setting up some start times and putting people on those schedules. We had to get the managers to consider things like shift-to-shift hand-offs, assignment of work, communication with people who are often on the way home, supporting customer service with multiple personnel, ensuring equal distribution of skill sets, hiring to undesirable shifts, etc. as scheduling issues to be managed and planned. They learned that the list of issues to address is long and each issue can derail a complex system that sometimes takes someone like an outside consultant to view and help develop objective plans. The managers, however, had to be responsible for understanding the issues and having the tools to ensure that the overall organization does not get pulled into the mire of individual issues.

C. Short-Range Tactics: Although this client had some of the best long planning and only needed some minor redirecting on teir mid-range planning, their problems stemmed from their lack of short range tactics. They did not have an effective method for adjusting to changes in customer demand from day to day or week to week. We helped build the tools for the first line leadership to respond to quickly and predictably to unexpected differences between the workforce and the workload. The response to under-staffing in some cases was as simple as overtime, triaging workload, or having a “go to” outsource supplier willing to accept unexpected workloads. For over-staffing situations, this particular organization held a backload of work that was not time critical that employees would work on until demand picked up again. Some of our clients find it very easy to convince employees to take the rest of the day off without pay when things are slow. There are many things that employers can do.

Normally in an organization, long-term planning should happen with a 6-18 month time horizon and be accomplished at the executive level. Mid-term planning typically happens within the 1-6 week time-frame and is handled by operations managers. While short-range, or tactical, planning has a 0 – 10 day time horizon and is done at the point of the sword by the first line supervision. The levels are not independent. Executives and managers need to understand the process and provide their subordinates with the tools, guidance, and rules to be successful with respect to the “big picture.” On the other hand, managers and first line supervisors need to provide feedback to their boss to help aid in long range planning. When all this started working together, each department that embraced these processes met and exceeded its customer service and labor goals. Those that were reluctant to embrace change, continued to struggle.

Overall, the organization that can accomplish all three phases correctly will be successful in achieving their goals just as this client did.

Overall, the organization that can accomplish all three phases correctly will be successful in achieving their goals just as this client did.

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