Weekly Work Schedules, Labor Utilization, and Emergent Work

Recently, I was asked by a colleague how to deal with emergent work during weekly scheduling.

Acknowledging that there will always be some emergent work regardless of the maturity of one’s reliability process, even on our best week, it may be as much as 5% of our total workload, and it directly conflicts with our published work schedule. When you create and publish a schedule, how do you allow for emergent work? Or do you allow for emergent work at all?

Some Options:

  1. Create and publish the schedule to 100% of net available labor, excluding allowance for emergent work. When emergent work arises, break the schedule, and move the appropriate amount of scheduled work to another day/week.
  2. Schedule all net available labor, with an allowance for allocating emergent work, say 10%.
  3. Hold back resources from the schedule strictly dedicated to emergent work (like a fire axe behind a glass window, ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

Factors to Consider

There are several trains of thought here.

Before considering options, let’s agree that we are talking about the day-to-day routine scheduling of work, the weekly work schedule. Shutdowns are handled differently and hopefully with a very high level of discipline – another conversation for another day.

Option 1
: Schedule to 100% of labor availability, and when emergent work arises, validate that it is in fact emergent work and handle it formally, making the appropriate changes to the schedule. – YES

Option 2
: Schedule to something less than 100% of labor availability – say 80% or 50%; then you would have extra people standing around that you could dispatch to the emergency – horrible idea. – NO

Option 3
: Some say schedule to something more than 100% availability – say 110% - this is based on the idea that labor estimates and durations are generally exaggerated, and we do not want our people standing around looking for something to do – again, a bad idea. - NO

So, the correct answer is to schedule to 100% of available labor each week (of course, subtracting out known events such as safety meetings, toolbox talks, lunch, and breaks as they occur each day – this is what we consider net available labor).

Why is this the best approach?

We will underutilize our people if we schedule anything less than 100% of net available labor. This is bad for morale, and some might try to argue that you don't need all those people in some effort to control costs better. This is, of course, probably not valid, but why take the risk? Remember, headcount is easy to deplete and highly challenging to increase. When we schedule 100% of net available labor, we justify the current headcount.

The problem with the idea of setting aside available labor to handle emergencies is that you do not know when the emergencies occur – that is why they are called emergencies. It is, of course, ok to schedule some portion of your people with work that can be easily paused when an emergency occurs so that they can be dispatched to the emergency, ready to return to the original job later. I have heard this called “Benchwork” -- work on the workbench that can be dropped immediately and returned to later.

For example, if you have a couple of people doing rebuilds in the shop so that they can stop and respond to an emergency, that might be more acceptable than having everyone stuck inside a tank performing vessel inspections.

If you schedule to 100% of net available labor and break the schedule in a formal way, then you must document and later consider why you had to break the schedule. Remember that breaking the schedule is a normal and acceptable activity – we don’t like it and must learn to control it, but it is a normal part of life.

Once you break the schedule (in a formal way), get together next week, and briefly discuss all the emergencies from last week, why they occurred, and ask, “is there something we should be doing differently to prevent these emergencies.”

Keep the discussion short and sweet. If you do not break the schedule in a formal way and document it, you will never have the conversation and will never get any better. This situation relates to the idea of the “hidden factory” where a lot of work is performed off the books, never to be considered or improved upon.

Finally, we need to measure. Percent (%) schedule compliance is a great measurement, but let’s be reasonable. Measure it honestly, and if we are currently at 55%, so be it. Then let’s set a goal of 60% and celebrate when we reach it. Then, let’s raise the goal to 65%. My concern is that people who consistently report very high schedule compliance (85% or higher) are not being honest with themselves. Remember, 100% means you had no breakdowns that week -- an unlikely scenario.

Handling Emergencies in a Formal Way

Here is what I mean by a “formal way.” Get used to emergencies ("schedule breakers” or “break in work:" are other terms you may use); they are a way of life and will continue to occur for the rest of your working life and beyond. My hope for you is that these emergencies become smaller in size and impact due to our improvement efforts, but rest assured, they will always occur.

Changing the schedule to address an emergency is acceptable and expected. We must not lose any sleep over it; it happens. But we must handle it correctly:

  • We need a gatekeeper (one person) who will look at the request, make sure that it is, in fact, a qualified emergency, and authorize the change to the schedule. It is best if this person works for operations and not the maintenance department. We seem to get a better commitment to the repairs, and the time it will take to do things right when this happens.
  • We need a set of criteria for when we will and when we will not break the schedule. Just a simple set of rules that we can agree upon. Let’s take as much of the opinion out of the situation as possible.
  • If we add something to the schedule, we must take something off. It’s simple math. We need to document this change and talk about it next week. I recommend that the first 5-10 minutes of your weekly scheduling meeting be a formal discussion on % schedule compliance from last week, what were the schedule breakers, what got dropped, is there a way to avoid a repeat in the future – what is our simple fix? If you can do this week in and week out, it will force you to deal with the nagging chronic issues that we suffer from repeatedly. Fixing them is within our capabilities; we just need to focus.

About the Author

Mike Gehloff

Mike Gehloff

Mike Gehloff has worked in the maintenance and reliability discipline for over 30 years with a wide range of experience both as a practitioner and a consultant. His area of expertise lies within the social sciences related to the discipline, particularly in the work control (maintenance planning and scheduling), operator care, and management systems areas.

Mike has worked extensively in the steel industry and held several corporate and division-level reliability positions. He also has experience in the mining, food and beverage, oil and gas, and power generation industries with a proven track record of delivering results. Mike is particularly effective in team-based environments where frontline associates are empowered to make a change in their organization. Breaking down barriers to communication, motivation, and a set of common goals for the organization are all areas that represent a professional passion for Mike.

Mike graduated from Eckerd College. He is a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP), as well as a Certified Plant Maintenance Manager (CPMM). Mike is also a Six Sigma Black Belt and has earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Florida. Mike is always open to adventure and has an extensive international travel resume.

Connect with Mike on LinkedIn.


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