Four Reasons Why Good Managers Make Bad Schedules

Why do managers make bad scheduling decisions?

While there are many creative ways managers can ruin schedules, there are only a few root causes. In fact, there are four root causes to why managers ruin good schedules.

1. Managers think they are smarter than the system

Several years ago, a quick-serve restaurant chain began rolling out a scheduling system. As is typical with most large scale software projects, this company planned to test the system in a handful of restaurants prior to its chain-wide rollout. The results of this small test showed that the system improved schedules in all but one of the restaurants.

In the successful restaurants, schedule costs remained about the same but coverage went up significantly. The net result was a small increase in sales due to improved service. Whereas coverage improved in the successful restaurants, coverage remained the same as it was before the test in the outlier.

Nor was there a noticeable increase in sales or decrease in cost. Wanting to understand why the system did not improve the schedule at this one restaurant, the company began analyzing the results from the test period.

Beyond the poor coverage, there was nothing obviously wrong with the schedules. However, a clue appeared when the system’s audit log was exam- ined. In the successful stores, managers edited the schedules before they were posted. In the outlier, the system showed that no edits were made before the schedules were posted.

This led to two questions. First, why did the system produce such a poor initial schedule in this one store? Second, why didn’t the manager edit the schedule to improve its quality? Talking to the manager helped answer both questions.

It turns out that he wanted his restaurant to work a particular schedule because he believed it was best for his restaurant’s business. He thought he was smarter than the scheduling system. To accomplish that goal, he set his employees’ availability to those shifts that he wanted them to work.

For example, if he wanted a particular part-timer to work from 4:00 pm until 9:00 pm on Monday, he would tell the system that the person was only available to work during those five hours on Monday. This creative albeit un- wise act forced the system to create the schedule that he wanted. Because the schedule was exactly what he wanted, he didn’t have to edit the schedule.

Your managers think they are smarter than the scheduling system that you’ve provided them. And, they are right. Your managers are much more capable than the scheduling system. However, for all the things your managers can do, the scheduling system is fit for purpose. It was designed to help create good schedules. It was designed to solve a complex problem and present the results in an easy-to-understand form. It was designed to consolidate a massive amount of data into consumable pieces of information that help managers make better decisions.

Managers that consistently produce good schedules understand this. They use the scheduling system as a tool to help them better align their workforce to their labor demand. They let the system guide them through decision-making processes.

Managers that ruin schedules tend to ignore what they system tells them. Whether through hubris or ignorance, these managers press on doing what they think is right regardless of what the system tells them.

2. Your managers don’t trust the system

Several weeks after a nationwide apparel retailer had deployed a new scheduling system to its stores, the company’s help desk received a phone call from one of the store managers. The store manager was frustrated. She was spending a lot of time editing the schedule. Each week, she said, the system scheduled too many people on Friday and not enough people on Saturday. After all, Saturday was her store’s peak sales day. She liked to have all hands on deck on Saturday and was frustrated that the system wasn’t doing this for her.

What she didn’t understand was that the system was configured to create workload based on customer traffic in addition to sales. While Saturday was the peak sales day, this particular store had almost as much customer traffic on Friday as it did on Saturday driven largely by of a movie theater that was located nearby. Given the data, the store manager was asked to trust the system, to work the schedule the system produced for a week, and see how her store performed.

The results were amazing. Fridays’ sales started to increase immediately as the extra labor helped convert more sales while Saturdays’ sales were unaffected. Over the next several weeks, the store manager continued to let the system balance labor between Fridays and Saturdays, and eventually, Fridays were nearly as productive as Saturdays.

Trust is a critical factor in the success of an automated scheduling system. If your managers do not believe what the system is telling them, then they will ignore it and do what they think is right. Small problems that occur when the system is being introduced are often magnified and become large obstacles to adoption over the long haul.

3. Managers don’t understand why they need the system

A large manufacturer embarked on a workforce management initiative. The project was launched because the company was using a lot of overtime which cut into profits. The overtime also put a strain on the workers which had a negative impact on quality and safety. Finally, the collective bargaining agreements that the company had with the union included complex rules for equitably distributing overtime to its workers, and the company was struggling to comply with these rules.

Given this situation, the company believed a scheduling system would help improve profitability, quality and safety, and avoid problems with the unions. While the system would likely reduce overtime for the company’s workers, the benefits to the company and the workers would be greater than the pain of losing overtime. Unfortunately, the company never explained that to managers. They just went about buying software and starting a deployment.

Not surprisingly, when the managers and workers caught wind of the new workforce management initiative, they assumed that the company wanted to cut labor costs, and that really meant that they would want to cut jobs. Worried about losing jobs, they went to the unions who began to file grievances against the company.

Eventually, the company was able to help the unions, workers and managers understand why they wanted to rollout a scheduling system and get all parties to agree that it was best for everybody. Unfortunately, their poor communication created a lot more grief and effort than was necessary.

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When your managers don’t understand why they are given a scheduling system, they will make up their own reasons and probably choose the least flattering. The best case scenario is that they think the system is unimport- ant. The worst case scenario is that they think that the system is going to replace them.

4. Managers cannot do their job with the system

Pharmacist schedulers face a unique challenge. As their title implies, pharmacist schedulers are responsible for scheduling pharmacists. Unlike most managers, each pharmacy contains only one or two pharmacists and rather than being responsible for one location, they are typically responsible for dozens of pharmacies which cover a wide geography. Also, pharmacists are highly trained and their skills and experience dictate the volume of pre- scriptions that they can manage.

Pharmacists are also highly paid, averaging more than $100,000 per year according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, the pool of pharmacists in an organization is small and they are critical to operations. Without a pharmacist present, the pharmacy cannot open for business. All of this makes the pharmacist scheduler’s job unusual.

Pharmacist schedulers often liken their job to a game where they use a big playing board (the schedule) to identify holes (open shifts). Their goal is to fill the holes (find pharmacists to work) before time expires (the pharma- cies open for business). As such, pharmacist schedulers have requirements that are very different from those of a manager that is working to schedule 35 people in a single location or 150 people across a few departments.

The way that pharmacist schedulers view the system and interact with the system is different; the metrics that they use and the way that they expect to edit their schedules are different than a “normal” manager. As such, when trying to automate this scheduling role, it is critical that the system support the functions necessary for them to perform their job.

The worst mistake that can be made when introducing a new scheduling system is to provide something less than what schedulers have or what they use today. If the new system prevents them from getting their job done, they have every right to work around the system, ignore the system, and generally not use the system.

When this occurs, the best approach is to provide a complete process as soon as possible. This may not mean that the entire process is automated.

Change management is the answer

As you can see, the underlying reasons why smart managers ruin schedules has little to do with the scheduling system itself.

Instead, it has to do with your managers’ perception and knowledge of the system. It has to do with the way that the system was configured. In one example above where the system is to blame (the system doesn’t support required functionality), the problem can be easily avoided in vendor selection by ensuring that the re- quirements accurately represent the needs of the business.

The good news is that your managers’ perception and knowledge of the system, the way it is configured and even the functionality provided, can be managed through an effective change management program. Change management provides a structured approach to transitioning your organization from their old way of creating and managing schedules to the new one introduced by the scheduling system.

Change management should be started early in the project’s lifecycle, shortly after a business case is developed and before vendor selection begins. However, it is never too late for change management. Even if you’ve already deployed a scheduling system and you’re struggling with it, a fresh approach to change management can help improve the adoption and use of the scheduling system.

It can help you get the return on your investment in your scheduling system that you’ve been looking for.

Excerpted from Elements of Successful Organizations: Achieving Strong Leadership, Smart Management, and an Engaged Workforce from the Workforce Institute at Kronos. Copyright 2011 by Kronos Incorporated. Reprinted with permission from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated.

Bob Clements is Senior Principal at Axsium Group, the largest independent workforce management consulting practice. He leads Axsium’s industry practices, marketing, and other growth initiatives. Prior to joining Axsium, Bob directed product strategy for leading workforce management solutions including Infor Global Solutions, Workbrain, 360Commerce and Simplified Workforce Solutions.

Contact him at


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