How fair is your employee scheduling system anyway?

The complaints used to pour in every time new schedules were released. Accusations of favoritism and preferential treatment were probably the most common, but they all boiled down to this: How fair is your employee scheduling system anyway?

Things got so bad that planners were beginning to dread their work. Creating schedules was stressful enough without having to deal with dissatisfied employees who were convinced they’d been given the short end of the stick.

But were they?

A big part of the problem was that no one could say for sure.

Some employees used to email their preferences for particular shifts. Others dropped by at a planner’s desk with a special request or gave a planner a quick call. The process – if it could be called that – was the perfect breeding ground for confusion, unhappiness and suspicion.

It was clear that fulfilling a high percentage of employee preferences wasn’t going to be enough. Any new planning system would have to ensure that employee preferences were allocated fairly.

Part of the solution lay in implementing an employee portal where employees could enter preferences, indicate their relative importance, and monitor the results. This was also a great help to planners, who no longer had to keep track of who wanted what – and how badly.

The next step was to introduce KPIs that tracked both the overall acceptance of employee preferences, and how fairly acceptance rates were distributed. While an average acceptance rate of 50% might look good it would, in fact, be a recipe for disaster if 50% of employees had all their requests fulfilled and the other 50% had none.

The complaints soon stopped when employees were able to see for themselves that everyone was being treated fairly. The planners were relieved; morale rose; and significant sums of money were saved with a system that enabled all relevant KPIs – from productivity to employee satisfaction and fairness – to be monitored and optimized.

A hidden cause of unnecessary overtime

Are your planners scheduling employees – or playing poker?


Colorful poker chips and two Ace

The cards are on the table, the winner takes it all
The game is nearly over, one man about to fall
Well, I don’t believe in heaven, I don’t believe in hell
I don’t believe what I’m seeing, this is no game, can’t you tell.

The Levellers

Before I started working on planning and scheduling challenges, I investigated the skills involved in casino games for my PhD thesis. Poker was one of the games I spent quite some time on. Research time, that is. Oddly enough, I’ve since come across many organizations that treat employee scheduling as if it were a game of poker.

Consider the common elements of a game of poker:

  • There’s external uncertainty in the form of cards that haven’t been drawn.
  • There’s internal uncertainty, as players can only see their own cards.
  • Each player attempts to further his or her own goals.

In the case of employee scheduling, only the first element – external uncertainty – is truly unavoidable. Demand is often uncertain, people call in sick, tasks may take longer than expected, and so on and so forth.

This is where any resemblance to a game of poker should end, but doesn’t.

Take the second element, for example. Keeping your cards close to your chest in a poker game is smart. Working in silos when scheduling employees isn’t.

In many large organizations, planners lack real-time insight into plans made by colleagues in other departments. Collaborating to achieve global – rather than local – KPIs is almost impossible when planners can’t even see the impact of decisions made by their colleagues without refreshing the screen or reopening a file.

Then again, consider the pursuit of individual objectives. Absolutely necessary for a game of poker, but less than helpful for organizations aiming to optimize overall business objectives.

Dividing scheduling challenges into manageable parts and assigning them to different departments may seem to provide a degree of control. The problem, of course, is that optimizing individual KPIs can work against the organization’s real business objectives. For example, why maximize the utilization rate of employees in individual departments (local KPIs) if there are huge savings to be made by deploying highly skilled employees across the organization (global KPI)?

To see whether you’re steering by your real business goals, try answering two quick questions:

(1) Have I set clear objectives by defining what constitutes a good plan, at both the local and global level?

(2) Are the relevant KPIs communicated to planners in real time?

A ‘no’ to the first question, indicates work for management. A ‘no’ to the second suggests that it may be time for a new scheduling system.

Poker can be a lot of fun, but it’s not a game planners should be playing when scheduling your employees!