Alpha6: Complex Rostering Reduced to Six Steps

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Defining the problem:

In many organisations business activity comes in ebb and flows based on demands from their customers. Whilst this can be forecast to some degree based on orders, shipments, contracts and seasons of the year etc, there is a high degree of complexity in ensuring sufficient staff are rostered to reflect the level of activity. This complexity arises from the working rules, policies and practices that limit staff assignments; Union Rules, Health and Safety Rules, EU working time rules, breaks between shifts, maximum shift lengths, holiday rules and internal policies all constrain the ability to map the right number of staff to achieve the right level of activity at the right time.

The result is that many organisations tend to roster to meet a constant somewhere between the ebb and flow of the activity levels (if indeed they have measured these). The problem is compounded as managers often do not consider absences (such as holiday entitlement) when they device the roster.

The consequence of these omissions is that often staff are over-rostered – e.g. present when there is little or no work to be done and absent (under-rostered) when there is a high demand of work. The result is that overtime and agency workers are deployed to meet the demand or else the organisation maybe damaged in terms of reputation, Service Level Agreement or in terms of financial penalties.

One way of avoiding the risk is to factor in the costs of overtime and agency work to avoid delays but this makes the organisation uncompetitive and risks losing customers or failing to acquire new business as a result.

Fool’s Gold:
in the past electronic solutions have been developed that attempt to map shifts and rosters to demand through complex algorithms and brute force mapping. The solutions have often been expensive, highly complicated with only IT personnel able to tweak rules and parameters and often long delays between each attempt to identify the correct pattern. The systems often return unworkable rosters that will not meet union rules and are based on a singular fallacy that there is such a thing as a perfect roster. An optimal roster can still be an unworkable one based on the internal preferences and policies of the organisation. These preferences often cannot be codified in a fully electronic system and the missing element is the human factor.

Alpha6 Methodology
Alpha6 is a methodology and process that has been developed and honed over 20 years to create optimal rosters that both meet the requirements of the business and the written and unwritten rules around staff working times. But most importantly it also includes the human factor in guiding the process from each step forward. Alpha6 done manually is not pain free; it requires training, skill and collaboration from other team members.

Alpha1: Demand to Requirements
The start of the process is to identify the demand levels and translate them into requirements. Demand are the activities that need to be completed over a week broken down by between 15 and 60-minute intervals. The activity could be building a widget or packing etc. The important element is when these activities need to start (e.g. when the shipment arrives) and be completed by.

From this Raw business level view of demand, you can with knowledge of the duration each activity takes, and quantity translate these into a requirements grid. Again, this is by 15 to 60-minute intervals over each day for a week. You know have a set of requirements of how many staff you need by each 15-60 segment of the day and week.

However, there is an immediate sense check to do on the requirements grid. Staff do not come into work for just 15 minutes so we need to look at how sensible the requirements and apply some annealing – softening of the requirements.

So, for example, your faithful transposing of demand into requirements (say by 15 minutes) may show as follows: 8:15 = 5, 8:30 = 1, 8:45 = 5 – you will not be sending 4 people home at 8:30 so amending the requirements to 8:15 = 4, 8:30 = 4, 8:45 = 4 will iron out the undoable without impacting significantly either on cost or productivity

Alpha2: Constraints
Understanding and documenting the constraints will save you huge amount of time.
These include the contracted hours of staff, their holiday entitlement, average time off work due to training or sickness, the minimum and maximum shift lengths that have been agreed internally, the number of shifts that can be worked in a row, the minimum and maximum off duty days that can be used.  There may also be rules around how many nights can be worked in a row that is different from how many earlies or days.

Alpha3: Shifts and Requirements
With both the requirements and constraints identified the next process is to select a number of shifts that fit within the constraints identified that can satisfy the requirements. Without an electronic system, you will need to narrow down these shifts before you attempt this stage. In general, the process of mapping shifts to requirements is a two-way process where adapting shift start/end times and durations becomes a learning process. At the end of the process you will have identified the number of shifts and the type of shifts that meet the requirements. By aligning the shift durations and quantity you will be able to calculate the number of staff required to full fill the requirements.

Alpha4: Planning for absence
Whilst Alpha3 provides the number staff to fulfil the requirements it does not consider staff holiday, absence and training. If you need 60 staff to fulfil the requirements, then you must also factor in their holidays and cover. If staff have 20 days holiday a year then that is 1200 days holiday which is an additional 5 staff required (because cover staff also get holiday). This cover needs to be spread over the period of a year and applied to any “tension” days or shifts (e.g. it may be that staff are more likely to take off Saturday and Sundays as holiday or night shifts). You may also factor in things like training or sickness. The main calculation here is how much to plan for versus how much to deal with through overtime. In some cases, your calculation might reveal you need 4.5 people for cover. In this scenario, it might be more cost effective to roster 4 more people and deal with .5 as overtime.

Alpha5: OFF DUTY
With your completed staffing level you now start with a pattern, one week (row) for each staff member. Thus, if you have a requirement for 67 staff the pattern will go for 67 weeks and there will be 67 lines in your pattern (with columns Mon to Sun). Obviously, staff do not work 7 days a week but given the requirements we know how many staff are needed on any given day and subtract that from the number of staff calculated. At the bottom of the pattern we know the total number of off duties for each day of the pattern. The process now is to plug in the required number of off-duties on each day for each row of the pattern. However, in general the 2 golden rules are that staff prefer weekends off and want a minimum of 2 off duties in a row. A roster that has off duty/on duty/off duty is likely to be rejected by staff.  The best approach is to start from Saturday/Sunday and work backwards/forwards ensuring that all off-duties are included. Be cognisant of the period between off duties and the rules about how many on duty shifts employees should work in a row. The key point here is that staff generally care more about when they are NOT working than when they are working. Getting this right is a critical stage.

Alpha6: ON DUTY
With the Off-duty roster completed the next step is to plug in the on-duty shifts. Based on the previous steps you will know how many of each shift need to be done on each day. However, an early typically cannot follow a night shift and you need to be cognisant of any rules about how many night shifts can be worked in row.  You now have an optimised pattern that meets the business needs whilst also being employee friendly.

HFX Imperago Workforce Design incorporates and automates the Alpha6 process reducing this process from 3-5 days to 15 minutes. 

Health & Safety is not simply compliance

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These days the amount of compliance organisations must follow can often sink a ship. With all the tick box exercises and audits it can be easy to lose sight of their actual purpose. Health & Safety is just one such case. However, at its core, it is that organisations (whether private or public) owe a duty of care to their staff and covers the environment in which they work, the duties they carry out, the hours they work and the tools that they use to conduct their duties.

Inadequate equipment, poor environment, fatigue through long hours can impact on quality, cause accidents, absences and in serious cases reputational damage, legal action and loss of revenue. If care of your staff doesn’t grab your attention, then the potential costs most certainly will. Two of the world’s biggest disasters (Chernobyl the Exxon Valdez oil spill) were the result of human error linked to fatigue. An accident in your organisation may not end up polluting the world, but it could just put you out of business.

But many organisations regard Health and Safety as simply a “compliance issue”, a burdensome admin job that someone needs to do, when in fact Health & Safety when done right is a competitive advantage that improves productivity, efficiency and quality as well as staff retention and motivation. Once you think of Health & Safety not as a compliance issue but a commercial one your whole approach changes.

The good news is that technology is readily available to simplify and automate many aspects of Health & Safety not simply to avoid the manual paperchase but to improve the health and safety of your staff and the competitiveness of your organisation.

For instance, there have been many studies that show working long hours reduces both productivity and quality, e.g. working 60 hours a week does not deliver 50% more than 40 hours a week. Once you factor in potential for poor quality and accidents then you may be getting nothing in return for paying additional hours. Getting hours right has other benefits too; A recent study in Sweden showed that a 6 hour working day reduced sickness by 50%.

Solutions such as Imperago™ enable rosters to be generated that not only meet business demands but also consider suitability for staff, Risk & Fatigue. The result is shift patterns that not only meet business requirements and benefit staff but also reduce costs and risks.

Time and attendance solutions enable organisations to easily manage and monitor worked hours to minimise overtime and breaks between shifts to prevent staff fatigue. Some solutions also come with roll-call options that link to fire alarms and produce real-time muster reports direct to managers (or printers) in case of fire.

One of the reasons why hfx developed CloudMuster and MusterPoint (Links to fire alarms and 3g eMusterPoints) was the result our office fire in 2015. As a technology company we knew that a clipboard and pen was not an efficient or accurate way of checking the whereabouts of our staff.

Naturally not all staff work in a building or offices, many (for instance care workers) make many external visits a day and this creates its own set of safety issues (Lone Workers) but again there are eSolutions that enable staff to be tracked (via GPS) during working hours to ensure their safety.

Of course, you shouldn’t ever just react by throwing technology at a problem and walking away, but neither should you throw a clipboard, pen and tick box at it either in the hope that this absolves you or your organisation of responsibility for the Health & Safety of your staff.

Above all a positive approach to health & safety comes with the realisation that everybody wins when staff safety and wellbeing is a core part of the business plan not an external imposition.

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Contract Cleaning – cut Costs not Quality

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The market for contract cleaning has increased over the last 2 years but that is where the good news ends… The increase in demand has created an increase in competition (some estimates put this at up to 40,000) putting already slim margins (averaging 4%) under pressure.

Safeguarding that 4% is the over-riding concern among many charged with leading the business whilst balancing this with the need to win contracts and grow the business.

Many in the sector have already been burnt by the vanity of growth over sanity of profit and recognise the need to keep a strong handle on costs but with strong competition are struggling to find anything left to save and are in danger of cutting too far and risking Quality and Reliability which can turn into a spiral of cancelled contracts.

The secret to many within this and other sectors is to borrow some of the lessons from Amazon (their international margins are not very far off from contract cleaning) who relentlessly focus on efficiency whilst providing excellent customer service.

The focus is never about cutting the service they provide, but the internal focus on simplification, automation and efficiency of the internal activities that deliver the service.

Automation though technology enables organisations to eliminate much of the administration and paperwork whilst enabling them to get real insight into their organisations performance and profitability -or otherwise- of contracts. It provides real-time information enabling quick decisions and adjustments to be made to keep the business on track.  The impact of this cannot be underestimated, it enables early intervention, not a retrospective post-mortem. This is not just simply about profit or efficiency but also tracking quality and outcomes. The importance here is that poor quality or reliability will at some point turn into customer attrition and is therefore lead factor and you cannot prevent what you can’t predict.

However, the rush to implement IT systems should be kept in check. Software solutions will deliver enormous benefits, but not by themselves! Software isn’t a miracle cure nor a mind reader for your organisation. You need to invest not just money but critically time to ensure that the software delivers to your objectives.

Before rushing there will be a need to review the processes being automated; A key objective should be to simplify these processes and methods. Simplification and clarification of processes is a precursor and will yield positive returns. Often organisations are unaware of the growth in complexity of processes and contracts as there is very little visibility (often as paperwork creates “data islands”).  Secondly if you do not understand in detail your processes then you have no hope of any software replicating them. Thirdly complex processes will impact on the solution, the cost and the implementation of the solution.

Start small. An expensive ERP solution might seem attractive, but will it really address your key pain points or just replicate or – worse – make operations even more complicated.

Be focused. What’s your greatest cost? In most organisations your greatest cost is your people. Automating pay through Time and Attendance will significantly improve efficiency, accuracy and savings by removing payroll errors, fraud and overpayments.

But there is more to be gained by Time and Attendance than simply automation, the ability to track employees at each client site enables quality of service by providing real-time updates. With real-time attendance information you can mitigate non-attendance by deploying other resources ensuring that the customer is not impacted by absence – this level of quality assurance keeps you at the top of the contract pile while others are discarded through poor reliability.

Avoid IT complexity. Many organisations are going lean and demanding cloud/SaaS solutions to avoid the complexity and overhead of managing the solution internally. SaaS also brings its own financial rewards as well by spreading the cost and providing Pay As You Grow payment models.

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What are you really saying to your Visitors?

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If you query how many visitors an organisation receives each month you are more than likely to be presented with a list of statistics detailing hits to their website.

Often organisations know more about who visits their website than who visits their bricks and mortar building. Of course, both are important but, in the rush, to be “so very present” in the virtual world, organisations can’t neglect their “physical presence”, and the obligations and opportunities of visitors to their offices.

The lack of accurate recording does make statistical assessment of physical visitors to an organisation difficult to ascertain but depending on the type of organisation this can be 100% of their workforce over a year for organisations without a “front-of-house” function.

For most organisations these visitors will likely to comprise suppliers, customers, prospects, candidates, contractors and placements. In general, these are the very constituents you want to make a good impression – and first impressions often make the most impact. They may well have visited your website prior to their attendance if only for directions and may have picked up on your key messages peppered across your website.

Do you portray your organisation as “High Tech”, “Innovative”, “Efficient”, “Friendly”, “Modern”? When a visitor walks into your reception does it reflect these messages or completely contradict them?

If you focus on “innovation” and “technology” yet you present a pen and visitor book to your visitor, you immediately have a credibility issue before you have even met them. If you are left standing and waiting whilst you try and track down their host does this reflect your “efficient” message.

If they don’t receive a warm welcome and a beverage after potentially a long time travelling to visit you, what does that say about you as an organisation? Didn’t you invite them after all?

Many of us will have encountered these experiences as often we are both hosts and visitors, and often we can recall both the good and bad experiences we have had as visitors. That first contact, and experience matters not just to the visitor but also for the host.

If you are hosting a meeting with a prospect or customer, what frame of mind do you want them in when you kick of your meeting? What initial view do you want them to have of you as business partner or supplier?

All your visitors are potential critics or fans whether you classify them as prospects or not. They may never become a customer but may influence other organisations to become one as they share their experiences with others.

Just as your website is a “window” to your company, so is your reception. Its “first contact” and it matters. Most website designers now talk about “User Experience” – that’s great but what “user experience” do your first contact visitors receive at reception?

If you only care about the experience of remote/virtual visitors and ignore those physically in your building, then you are missing the point. You have an even greater chance of creating a positive experience when they are physically present.

Making a positive impact on first contact goes a long way to improve meetings with the host whilst also creating opportunities to promote your organisation and reinforce the key messages you promote on your website.

Whilst there is a good business case for treating your visitors well, there is also legal duty of care too. This duty of care is both expressed in criminal and civil law and extends to your visitors (in some cases even unwelcome ones). Just because they are not on your payroll does not remove your duty to care for them when they are on your premises.

It is not sufficient just to hand out a visitor book if they are not on the muster list and should there be a fire their presence (or lack of) should not be unaccounted for.

With the advent of workforce management systems with built in visitor registration and Access Control modules this is often a quick win and presents a professional and efficient image of the company to visitors. In many cases the system can document their car registration which makes car park management more efficient as well.

Auditing and Monitoring enable you to track visitors, who they are seeing and where they are located. This is also important in case there are any incidents within the building that need investigation (e.g. theft/access to unauthorised areas). With integrated Access Control you can ensure that visitors don’t stray into unauthorised or dangerous areas of your facility.

This helps balance the need to welcome and care for your visitors and the need to protect staff and your assets. In Summary, we should care (both legally and professionally) about the user experience our visitors have when they first contact us at reception.

Some tips for creating the right user experience;

  • There should be a warm welcome
  • Comfortable environment and seating.
  • An opportunity for refreshments.
  • Efficient and modern visitor registration.
  • Plenty of literature reflecting the services and products of your organisation (awards and certifications on display often reinforce the professionalism)
  • Prompt notification to the host (many visitor registration systems automatically email the host on arrival).
  • A little time. It might seem very efficient for the host to turn up immediately but in many cases – particularly after a long drive – the visitor may welcome 5 minutes to collect their thoughts over a coffee before jumping straight into a meeting. If so, then the visitor should be notified of this on arrival.

“Reception, just like its virtual companion the website, should treat every visitor as an opportunity to promote the organisation, its values, its strengths, its products and services and leave a lasting impression.”

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