The black box of scheduling

Lesson Learned #14

carpedia-lessons-learned-14We have learned over the years that scheduling is one of the most important and least understood aspects of many organizations. Its possible because it’s generally so dull as a topic. If you start talking about planning parameters and standards, you also start to see most people’s eyes get heavy. We often joke that our MBA recruits always want to talk about strategy and finance. Nobody ever went to business school to become a production scheduler. But every industry we have entered has been marked by top clients teaching us how important scheduling is for them to manage profitability, and us in turn working with their management to try to figure out how to improve it. Here are a few of the many interesting things we have had to figure out how to schedule more effectively:

  • Operating rooms to optimize the use of physicians’ time.
  • MRI diagnostic equipment to manage wait lists.
  • Aircraft assembly lines to match inventory with production flow.
  • Restaurant kitchens and wait staff to match meal patterns.
  • Retail store personnel to balance the ebb and flow of shoppers.
  • Housekeeping staff to coordinate with hotel room availability.
  • Truck delivery stops to optimize loads and frequencies.
  • Software engineering milestones.
  • Sales rep call patterns to optimize customer value and requirements.
  • Procurement part reviews to drive material savings through alternate sourcing.

In every industry, scheduling the resources to match the demand is the key to its success. It is very often the difference between the high and low performing organizations. Yet despite its significance, it’s also remarkable how often there is somewhat of a black box methodology when it comes to scheduling. It’s often strangely difficult to analytically determine how exactly scheduling is accomplished. When we dig into the details we often discover some of the following:

  • Sales forecasts aren’t trusted so operations people create their own.
  • Schedules change frequently making control of inventory requirements extremely difficult.
  • Planning standards are inconsistent, not used, or considered inaccurate.
  • The ERP system used by the organization does not generate actual schedules, only sequence lists of things to do or build.
  • Schedules are sometimes really “short lists, rush lists or late lists”.

Without these important base parameters, schedules are frequently more a reflection of what has historically happened, rather than what will happen. That may be okay as long as the business is fairly predictable. Its trouble however if the product or service offering is complex or gets more complex over time, or demand changes significantly. What we’ve learned over time is that improving scheduling is critical if the business wants to improve its performance. Improved performance means scheduling more aggressively (people, equipment, etc) which invariably puts pressure on supply lines throughout the process. This is as true in the office as it is on the production floor.