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Scheduling: Updated For A Service Economy

Mark Heymann

Dec 27, 2022

When you consider productivity and labor management, scheduling is always part of the conversation. And over the years, scheduling has become an integral part of ERP systems, but the term scheduling is really not sufficient for today’s service-based economy. Demands have changed, and because of it, scheduling must take on a whole new meaning.

Historically, scheduling has always been a key part of labor management, but it was a much simpler process. Let’s look at the example of manual labor necessary to dig a ditch. You knew the size of the ditch, the expected time frame to complete the work and the number of individuals daily that could effectively work in the area. It was easy: We needed five people for six days each, and then we assigned workers. As the world embraced manufacturing plants, heavily driven by machines, we knew how many stations each machine had, how many shifts were run in a day and, therefore, how many people were necessary each day. Therefore, all we needed was a fixed number of slots each day that had to be filled: the schedule.

When you know the output per day and/or production for the purpose of building up inventory, fixed shift structures just need names applied to them. Yes, it is scheduling, but a very simplistic technological solution can meet the operations’ needs. Scheduling, as it has been historically defined, is putting names to pre-determined fixed shifts.

While this was and is fine for fixed shifts, scheduling needs to take on a whole new persona when dealing with the service industry. Dynamically changing demands day to day and week to week is a task of staff alignment to customer needs, not simply filling fixed shifts. It further takes on additional characteristics with the need to address work-life balance issues that are now prevalent in the workforce. Finally, this vibrant environment also creates ebbs and peaks in demand production that require multi-skilling and greater flexibility in shift times if one is going to optimize productivity in this environment.

In light of these requirements, saying that scheduling in today’s predominantly service economy is like scheduling of the past is just not accurate. The demands are different, and therefore, the tools need to also be different. I prefer the term “staff alignment” to the simple term “scheduling.” To be effective and efficient from a service perspective, an organization must have tools that ensure a close match between employee availability and customer service demand.

Many of us experience this need on a regular basis. How many times have you been to a restaurant that has a line that, when you look at the dining area, there are many open tables, even before Covid-19? At the same time, that same establishment can have far more staff than is necessary for the meal period. I was just having dinner last night in New York, and there were easily four extra staff members just standing around, while at the same time, I have been to that restaurant at breakfast, and there simply was not enough staff to cover all of the tables. While total costs might well be the same, there is an imbalance of staff to demand.

This alignment, it should be noted, does not only affect productivity but also has a negative impact on profitability. We know that excess staffing creates higher than necessary costs but also, lines at the entrance can reduce revenue as potential patrons frequently have other options to standing and waiting. Poor staffing alignment is a two-edged sword: wasted costs coupled with foregone revenue.

The solution to this dilemma is to rethink and retool your tech stack. Just because a scheduling system works in a fixed shift setting does not mean it will work in a flexible service environment. The requirements of staff alignment technology differ from historic scheduling tools. Based on the demanding nature of service staffing (just-in-time delivery), systems need to have the following key features.

  • You need the ability to volume forecast by the period of the day, as well as weekly summaries. Sometimes monthly volume is needed for monthly contract staffing.

  • You need features that not only calculate total period volume but also distribution throughout the period based on service demand patterns. These patterns may differ by day and period of the day.

  • You need the ability to allocate work content by the period of the day based on service demands, both direct and indirect. For example, how many burgers should be prepped for Tuesday, and when should they be cooked?

  • Once work content is determined, shift periods need to be established based on work rules, shift length requirements and optimizing algorithms.

  • Staff must be assigned to various positions that account for availability, skills, required non-work times, as well as other parameters like seniority. Additionally, with the nature of self-choice, organizations need to determine if they will assign specific shifts or post open shifts for staff to select. The open shifts need to be clearly communicated, probably using a mobile application.

  • The last step is to ensure all shifts have been covered for the upcoming planning period.

Clearly, a more intricate process than posting fixed shifts based on the hours of operation of a production machine or fixed positions scheduling.

Demand-based scheduling will continue to be a key driver of both customer service and solid bottom-line growth. Accurate staffing with proper metrics enables an organization to effectively assess productivity and better understand the just-in-time nature of its product delivery. By shifting to a system of staff alignment, which is needed for dynamic operating environments, organizations will be able to improve bottom-line results while further assuring buyer expectations are being met. Loyalty points will not be sufficient to maintain and grow market positions.

Originally Published in Forbes

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