Time for an upgrade to workforce planning software

Shift patterns are about much more than just spreadsheets, dog-eared wall charts or when the workforce clocks in and out, explains Kevin White – managing director of workforce planning and management software provider, Working Time Solutions.

Kevin White, Managing Director of Working Time Solutions
Kevin White, managing director, Working Time Solutions.

Shift patterns are the arteries of the manufacturing sector – look after them and it’s the key to unlocking transformative gains in productivity, quality and employee satisfaction.

Conversely, neglecting their importance can lead to harmful inefficiencies and in some cases, widespread disaffection and strike action.

Recent research from the Corporate Research Forum and KPMG found that 85% of UK businesses don’t link workforce planning with their overall strategic business plan.

The threat posed by out-of-date working time practices looms large within this, as they leave manufacturers exposed to the dynamic and increasingly rapid nature of change.

The ability to harness new opportunities and mitigate emerging risks is pushing the need for optimised and flexible resourcing arrangements up the agenda.

The working time imperative

Technology, workforce empowerment and globalised competition are creating significant challenges for manufacturers which continue to operate shifts resulting from legacy working practices and institutionalised habits.

These patterns can bear little resemblance to the actual needs of the business on a day-to-day, month-to-month and year-on-year basis.

Engineering Automotive Line Stock Image
The threat posed by out-of-date working time practices looms large.

The side effects of this can be significant. Over-supply of labour leads to unnecessary inefficiencies which if persistent, lead to job losses and skills drain.

Gaps in labour provision typically generate high reliance on overtime and agency staff, poorer quality of output, employee stress or sickness and breaches of working time or health and safety legislation.

It’s interesting to see how many manufacturers are resigned to the need for expensive overtime and how many employees see it as a normalised element of their working life.

Typically at the heart of these resourcing issues is an inaccurate picture of how demand and labour supply truly align and interact.

The truth behind demand 

We’ve seen examples where gross hours are used to create shift patterns that overlook key supply limitations such as training, holidays and sickness. This gives a false reading of labour capacity and ultimately leads to dangerous pinch points at times of peak demand.

Likewise, we’ve seen instances where the short, medium and long-term forecasting of demand is being shaped more by gut instinct and anecdotal evidence than by rigorous analysis.

Calculating data-validated base lines are essential to build an accurate picture of demand and labour supply. Calculating the net amount of hours an employee is actually productive is the first step, but modelling and monitoring the true demand that exists in an organisation remains the key.

Manufacturing Production Line Stock Image
Gaps in labour provision typically generate high reliance on overtime and agency staff.

Understanding all the variables that shape and influence working time requirements provides the visibility needed to undertake better forecasting and create effective new shift patterns.

Intelligent design

Taking a demand-led approach to rostering unlocks innovative new ways to cover the planned, unforeseen and external factors which cause peaks and troughs.

The flexibility it affords can enable a manufacturer to create truly responsive resourcing that maximises hour-to-hour performance and efficiency levels – providing the mechanism to effectively manage demand variability, such as seasonality and support contingency requirements.

Software such as real-time interactive modelling identifies, at a glance, under or over-provision alongside any potential contractual or regulatory breaches.

The ability to customise patterns and ‘drag and drop’ shifts within the defined parameters dictated by supply and demand is empowering. It enables operations teams to easily come up with co-created solutions that work for the business, the individual, a team and other departments.

This unlocks a huge range of working time options that can be used to tackle many of the challenges that manufacturers face now and in the future.

Transformative results

One of our manufacturing clients had traditionally dealt with seasonality relating to its products by relying on overtime to meet spikes. Aside from the financial burden this placed on the business, this also led to operational pressures and morale issues within the workforce.

Implementation of purpose-built shift patterns that more closely track the peaks, the business was able to save £500,000 within the first 12 months of deployment. By the end of year two, overtime expenditure had reduced by 99% and sickness absence saw a similarly dramatic drop from more than 10% to just 2%.

While the efficiency and financial gains are substantial, more flexible, adaptable and responsive shift patterns also deliver better work-life balance for the employees which provides long-term benefits such as goodwill and stronger recruitment and retention.

Avoiding pitfalls

Making the necessary changes to working time can be a double-edged sword if employees feel disengaged or threatened by the process.

We’ve seen a raft of union-led strike action recently in both the public and private sectors that has been the direct result of new shift patterns.

Vauxhall's Luton factory: TMAT will supply parts for automotive giant General Motors
Employees’ lives are built around shift patterns.

Look closely and you’ll see two common elements – a workforce unfamiliar with change and an employer that’s failed to engage them in the design and implementation process.

Employees’ lives are built around shift patterns. Understanding the drivers for change and involvement in the process is therefore essential.

Fear and scepticism tend to arise when change is not a common occurrence and people feel powerless to influence something that has a major effect on their work and home life.

Employees can carry a deep passion for the business and often have the insight and motivation to help drive a working time project’s success.

Achieving buy-in for new shift patterns can smooth the path to continuous improvement and ultimately contribute to a culture that embraces change rather than resists it.