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By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden
January 2007

Much has been made in the business press of late about the increasing use of adaptive work scheduling technology and policies by labor-intensive companies, to more closely match employee staffing with demand.

Wal-Mart, for example is creating some raised eyebrows with its latest steps to introduce flexible workforce scheduling, in which predictable, static work shifts could become a thing of the past as the company, in an effort to improve customer service and efficiency, asks many of its 1.5 million employees to be more flexible in their work schedule expectations.

Wal-Mart is by no means alone in this endeavor. According to SAP product literature for its StaffWorks workforce management system, companies like BestBuy, The Children's Place, Circuit City, Foot Locker, GAP, IKEA, Lowe's, Nike, and Starbucks are “reaping the benefits of automated workforce management.”

Predictably, hard positions are being taken on both sides of the issue by folks who may have an axe to grind, or are unwilling to change.

It would be beyond foolish for any labor-intensive employer not to look constantly for ways to match supply of labor with demand. That is particularly the case with near term increases to the federal minimum wage almost certain. Moreover, as levels of customer service continue to sink to new lows, greeting one’s customers with the right number of well trained, smiling faces is a clear opportunity to separate from the herd. Emphasis, though, must be placed on the ‘smiling’ part.

It’s one thing to spell out for a prospective employee that their work ‘schedule’ as it were, will consist of a handful of core hours augmented by on call availability, AND that the only way to earn enough hours to be eligible for benefits is to go along with the program.

It’s something quite different, though, to announce to a group of incumbent employees who were hired with a very different set of expectations that their life is about to be turned upside down. Successfully transitioning these folks to a radically different ‘deal’ requires time, consideration, and maturity. If we’re not careful, we wind up with some pretty disillusioned (make that angry) people who’ll be spending more time worrying, and complaining, about their own situation than whatever the suddenly dwindling number of customers want.

We salute efforts to incorporate some technological elbow grease into a process that is as tedious as it is important. If you’ve ever done labor scheduling for a group as small as ten people, you’re well aware that each and every combination and permutation carries costs, benefits, and a host of implications. And every single variation will make someone unhappy.

Yet, there are a whole raft of reasons to keep human logic (if there is such a thing), and managerial discretion very much in the mix. One thing we’ve learned from our current book project is that there is a big difference between ‘labor optimization’ and ‘effort optimization.’

Back in the dark ages (late 1970’s), one of us worked his way through college as an overseas telephone operator for AT&T Long Lines. This was back when you needed human intervention to call just about anywhere outside North America. In addition to 400 operators, we had a staff of three, and a computer the size of a stretch Hummer dedicated to matching precisely the number of operators on duty to the traffic load at any given moment. Let any world event hit the news, and reinforcements were called in urgently to work the lit-up switchboards. People were sent home just as quickly as soon as the Hummer sensed even a momentary lull in the world’s appetite for conversation.

The department was called the Computer Automation Group, acronymized to CAG. So rigid was the application of its decisions, though, that we all referred to it as “Can’t Argue with God.”

Even today’s scheduling software will likely never understand that because they unwillingly shared the same boyfriend for a while, Tawny and Mary Sue don’t exactly get along, and scheduling them together is not a good idea, for anyone. Nor will it figure out that, because she’s afraid of losing benefits eligibility, Cyndi will declare herself available to be scheduled 24x7, and when the belchfire system schedules her for an 11PM close on Friday, and a 5AM open the next morning, that might be just a little bit much! Similarly, it’ll never know that Nils, Peter, and George get along so well that when they work together, the work becomes an afterthought, and the line is out the door. And the list goes on.

There are some things we can and should do to ease the transition to a world where everything, including workforce scheduling is less rigid and shorter cycled:

1. With all due respect to the folks at SAP, let’s remember that workforce scheduling is a little more involved than ‘putting butts in seats.’ There are humans involved, with feelings, families, needs, and parts that break.
2. Someone remarked to me the other day that “the law is hardly a lofty standard.” Truer words were never spoken, and in this case, that translates to the premise that, just because we can jerk someone around doesn’t mean we should.
3. Regardless of how much technology we put into the mix, let’s make darned sure that we’ve got managers involved who are allowed, and expected to think.
4. As in the case of Cyndi (above,) the issue of healthcare, and in particular, health insurance is pervasive. None of us can afford to sit back and wait for others to bring solutions to the table. We’ve got to get busy – now.


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Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette
Contented Cow Partners, LLC

phone: 904-720-0870
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