Increasing quality. Enhancing efficiencies. Improving worker productivity. These are three goals of many manufacturers who are looking for creative ways to achieve better metrics within their operation. One such area that can be easily overlooked is within employee scheduling. It sounds simple, yet a deeper look into the process can highlight where scheduling can affect each of the three goals.

Historically, basic scheduling was the norm for many plants, which consisted of first, second and third shifts. These schedules were devised in an Excel spreadsheet and posted on a wall for visibility. In addition, to assign a worker to a schedule, many plants use a manual bidding process that is based on skills, certification and seniority. With input from the plant scheduler, who understood the production planning, the worker schedule was created and modified based on exceptions. Overall, a very tedious and manual process.

Now, plant scheduling is becoming more complex with varied shifts that while improving metrics, can adversely affect employees as well as productivity if not managed properly. For example, think of a production line that is dependent on a specific skill set and one of the workers calls in sick. There can be multiple effects on the entire production line from missing that one person, such as:

• Time spent by the supervisor trying to replace the worker

• Last minute schedule changes to other workers who can staff the line with the needed skill set, which can affect them personally or reduce their rest time

• Potential slow down or shut down of the production line

• Reduced production of the product

All of these will affect the ability to achieve the goals of quality, efficiency and productivity.

Employee fatigue is another possible result of poorly managed schedules, which can also adversely affect achieving goals. In the example above, the supervisor most likely called in a worker who was off that day. Or, they may have asked workers from the shift either before or after to stay or come in early.  In both instances, the worker may not be able to have enough rest time causing him to be tired, which can have the downstream effect on compromised safety, reduced productivity, lack of focus and increased frustration.

The challenge is how to manage the schedules effectively and reduce the effects of unexpected changes. To help alleviate some that risk, there are tools and processes that are now available to manage even the most complex scheduling scenarios. The leading workforce management applications all have scheduling modules that address seniority, fatigue factors and skill requirements. While the retail, healthcare and transportation sectors have all embraced more advanced scheduling tools, the manufacturing world has been slow to do so and is now starting to realize the potential it brings in better managing their workforce.

Using the example of the worker calling in sick, let’s explore how using a more automated scheduling tool would have helped alleviate the negative impacts. Here are some of the steps that would occur in an automated tool once the worker notifies the supervisor:

• Supervisor enters the absence into the time system (alternatively, the worker can report their absence via an automated voice system or mobile device).

• Absence triggers a listing of who is eligible to work based on defined criteria such as:

— Required skill or certification

— Seniority

— Required rest parameters

• The Supervisor can contact the workers, or the workers will receive notification of the open shift via email, text or voicemail.

• If the worker is interested in the shift, they can respond via email, text or voicemail, claim the shift and go to the production line.

How did this help with the goals of productivity, efficiencies and quality?

• The Supervisor didn’t spend a long period of time looking for who was eligible to work, allowing them to focus on the operation.

• The eligible workers had the option of working additional time with adequate rest, which will keep them focused and feeling involved in the process, in addition to giving them an option to work overtime.

• Only those workers who were eligible were notified, eliminating those were not certified or having the right skill set.

• Most importantly, the production line was kept functional with the appropriate skills.

While this was an example of dealing with an exception, there are benefits of using an application in the normal day-to-day scheduling process.

A scheduling tool can help optimize schedules by looking at certain types of data, then creating a schedule that is based on the peaks and valleys of the production line as well as the skills needed to staff that line. As with the exception process, the automation will also look at times allocated for potential fatigue, safety meetings, clean up, donning/doffing and other activities that may affect the overall schedule, but will deliver a holistic schedule for the various areas within the plant. A plant scheduler can then work with the management team to fine tune the delivered schedules based on potential line exceptions without manually creating the schedules in excel or a printed matrix. The schedule is posted online or to the workers mobile device for review.

By automating the scheduling through robust tools and automation, manufacturing organizations are bringing an enhanced digital customer experience to their workers. Doing this can help workers feel more connected to the organization as supervisors and workers more effectively manage the production process, enabling schedule predictability and ensuring the right person, with the right skills, will be in the right area in the plant at the right time. A win, win.