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How to Manage Shifts in an Overscheduled Workplace

May 8, 2014
It is often up to production managers and shift supervisors to see that employees manage their work-life balance without sacrificing productivity. Clear visual communications can help in that effort.

We're seeing an evolution in shifts and managing shifts in industrial facilities. From a worker's perspective, there's more of a desire for flexibility, and from management's perspective, happier employees equal greater productivity and less costly retraining.

Process improvement consultant Robby Slaughter, AccelaWork, believes it's all about changing the context in which you are providing value and allowing more of an egalitarian approach. Why not let employees set their own schedules—as long as communication is communicated clearly in reports, operating instructions, log books, labels and tags?

On the industrial side, there's Tim Agee from International Paper who has been with his group for about seven years. His approach is to keep the mill running until the day shift maintenance crew arrives. Shifts run 7 am to 7 pm and 7 pm to 7 am.

"Everyone usually is relieved about 30 minutes early to discuss jobs completed or not completed and work orders not started. If it is an emergency it will be determined if it can wait for day shift maintenance to come in or if extra manpower needs to be called in immediately," says Agee.

"Every shop and control room has white boards in them to pass on information. Also, we have labels and warnings on floors, doors, walls and instructions about how to avoid problems and accidents."

By posting weekly shift schedules in advance, workers have the time and space to accommodate corrections. 

"I'm a firm believer that companies that are more profitable realize that people are human. We all need to balance and recharge," says John Russell, The Russell Group. "When companies become obsessed in the puritanical work ethic, this results in passive/aggressive behavior, a lack of cooperation, absenteeism and costly errors. I'm advocating for more of a big picture approach, taking into account individual productivity levels, seasonal changes and personal preferences."

Shift Structure Pros and Cons

There are several different types of shifts:

  • Traditional eight-hour shifts and a separate weekend shift.
  • Rotating shifts where employees work days one week, evenings the next week and the midnight shift the third week and have the fourth week off.
  • Off-shifts or night shifts. Off-shifts or night shifts are favored by workers who save money on child care. At night, there are no meetings, no politics and more independence.
  • Long shifts, such as 12 hours a day for 4 days with 4 days off.

One way to increase flexibility and improve communication is through overlapping shifts. Others believe there are downsides to overlapping shifts.

Benefits of overlapping shifts:

  • Smoother transitions vs. abrupt change. Wind down/warm up. Meet in a transition room and talk. Report things that happen in the middle of the night. In safety critical situations, overlapping provides double coverage during transitions so that some workers can be involved in passing on information, while others continue the safe operation of the facility or equipment.
  • Allows the workforce size to be appropriate when work level varies throughout the day. For example, highway toll booths must be staffed 24/7. Overlapping shifts for the morning and evening rush hours provides extra workers at the times when the workload is greater.
  • Safety and other training can be scheduled during times when shifts overlap, so two shifts can be trained at once.  
  • Manitowoc ICE, a manufacturer of ice making machines, has found it easiest to retain employees by running a primarily 1-shift-only operation.

"When we are creating fewer machines than orders, our operators will work overtime to keep up with demand," says Kassie Freckmann, manufacturing engineer technician at Manitowoc. "We are a union shop and this was all negotiated within our contracts."

Overlapping shifts may not always make sense—especially in a three-shift operation where overlapping shifts means the overlap is done on overtime. There's also a possibility of overcrowding with more people in a workspace than the workspace is designed to accommodate.

"Shift overlap is nearly always wasteful," says Jim Dillingham, ShiftWork Solutions. Dillingham consults with companies on employee involvement, asset utilization, and managing overtime. "Consider where it comes from. Suppose a company has a single eight-hour shift that grows into three shifts. Each shift including lunch is 8.5 hours, which results in a 30-minute overlap between shifts. "Since lunch is not paid, the overlap is actually straight time. People have the overlap because they don't know how to get rid of it. They pretend that it adds value when it does not."

Where Shiftwork is going

Dillingham has seen a progression in shiftwork over the years:

  • People are getting away from 24/7 schedules that have rotating or 8-hour shifts. Why? Because 8s have to rotate (to work well) and 12s offer more days off.
  • Companies stay away from weekend warrior crews. They are easy to put in but about 60% as productive as weekday crews. They cost more and have high turnover, poorer quality and more safety issues.
  • Today, more effort is made to get overtime to the people who want it instead of forcing it on people who don't.
  • Once upon a time, only companies "born" into 24/7 ran 24/7. Examples? Refineries, chemical plants or other companies that could not afford to easily shut down for the weekend. Today, companies go 24/7 because the cost of their equipment is going up. Automation is not cheap. As capital costs go up, companies want to get more use out of their expensive production equipment.

Our 24/7/365 global economy won't change. But driven by input clearly communicated by production managers and shift supervisors, many companies are accommodating worker's needs and balancing the speed necessary to fulfill customer demands in such an environment.

Jack Rubinger manages communications for Graphic Products, providers of workplace labeling and signage. He is a regular contributor to industrial publications and blogs.

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