Optimisation – Today’s Buzz Word

Optimisation Meaning - an act, process, or methodology of making something (such as a design, system, or decision) as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.

Optimisation is not new, it has been kicking around for years, but scarcely has it found itself in the sales vernacular as much as it does today. And for many businesses that are not paying attention to the detail, they can be led up the garden path when it comes to a supplier’s ability to deliver true roster optimisation. And whilst most companies have ‘ditched the spreadsheet’ in favour of software, many are feeling let down by false promises when it comes to adopting a digital approach to rostering and true roster optimisation.

And amid a flurry of changing employee and employment preferences, government legislation, reform, and the emerging compliance minefield, I sat down with Lauren to discuss the buzz around optimisation and how companies can recognise software that is truly optimal.

Q. Lauren, ‘buzz words’ are terms that often spread beyond their original field or definition. So, in terms of the market using this buzz word so widely, is this actually a false claim by many software vendors pitching their rostering or scheduling capability to the market? Or is the word being used as a sales practice and technique to jolt customers into action?

I think there are a lot of providers out there who can optimise to some extent. If you look at optimisation and what it can mean, in its purest form, it is about having a process, a product, or a design – looking at it, adjusting it, and making it better. To that point, you can sit down with a pen and paper, look at your historical rosters, change some things around and you might find some efficiencies or savings…and you have optimised it to some extent, to the extent of that person’s capability.

A lot of software providers claim they can build optimised rosters based off historical data and turn out predictive models, is this optimisation?

Yes, when considering how the word ‘optimisation’ can be used in terms of what specific software can achieve. Many are using AI or machine learning, and how that works is that it attempts to predict the ‘best’ roster or solution based on historical data. The output from examining this historical data would be a prediction of what the next best shift assignments would be. Again, finding the best possible roster using the limitations of those techniques.

So, what sets roster right apart from other products in the market when it comes to optimisation?

When Workforce Analytics talks about roster optimisation, we might use that buzz word in conversation because it’s so widely used in the market, but we mean it. We use mathematics to generate all possible solutions to a particular rostering problem and in combination with AI and machine learning for other attributes, determine what is truly optimal. This results in an extraordinary number of possible combinations of rosters to identify the optimal one for your organisation.

Q. Is it time customers asked vendors to stop talking ‘buzz words’ and started asking them to prove their capabilities?

Absolutely, I think for any business looking to invest in software, the proof has to be in the pudding. Putting different types of optimisations to the test, understanding what you are investing in and what your potential return on investment is – is crucial. You also need to benchmark the results against existing practices and predictions. At Workforce Analytics, we have certainly seen that when a client stands up their existing roster(s) against a mathematically optimised roster that we have provided, they are fundamentally different.

Q.  What are the most common customer use cases for Roster Optimisation?

It depends on the customer and the industry they operate in, but most often, the financial implications are ever present and the need to find cost efficiencies in a roster or payroll savings are a focus. For a lot of organisations, finding these efficiencies or savings allows them to reinvest back into the business – into their people, to retain top talent, to upskill staff, to pay above award rates. For others, compliance is front of mind or the ability to have a central lens across operations.

Q.  So why are most rosters you see far from Optimal?

I think the people who create rosters either at a site level or as part of a centralised team, create rosters based on what they know today or the way it has always been done. It is naturally very hard for people who “think they know how it should be done” to consider an alternative or to change their ways; and this adds a layer of complexity to finding an optimal solution. Having an external party look at what a company’s business objectives are and what the actual attributes are for each site based on operational requirements can fundamentally change the way things are done in the future. A few small changes can mean the difference between what is truly optimal and where businesses are truly at right now.

Q.  So, you blend a lot of fancy words and some cool technology together to come up with something truly optimal for customers?

Kind of. With our Roster Right product being built around a mathematics engine encompassing constraint programming (CP) and mixed-integer programming (MIP), rosters are built by breaking down the problem. Roster Right utilises client-sourced complex data and predictive analytics to deliver the most productive and mathematically backed optimised rosters. This type of roster is impossible to achieve manually or from AI or machine learning in isolation.

Q. Do we place too much trust in technology, are “the machines” taking over?

Some businesses are guilty of placing too much trust in technology. Technology is more often than not able to add more rigor than a human can do. The downside of wiping your hands off it and saying - well the system does that, or we purchased that piece of software because it does these checks for us; is that that reliance can be flawed based on how that technology was sold, implemented, understood, and adopted. The devil is in the detail.

Q. What information do you need to create this wizardry?

The first piece is either the Award or Enterprise Agreement that the business operates under. It’s then understanding outside of the legal implications, what we call business rules – those practical rostering rules that typically reside inside someone’s head, which we flesh out and get the business to centrally agree on going forward. From there, we try to understand any scenarios or variances that might apply at the site level. What we also need to understand is whether a business wants a roster built around an existing permanent workforce or whether they really want to understand what that ultimate or green fields roster might look like.

Q. So, you give me my rosters and off I trot. How is the roster applied in real terms?

The roster can be produced in multiple formats depending on the time and attendance or rostering software you are using. We are able to provide the optimised base roster in a CSV file which we can customise, and your new base roster is stored within your scheduling tool and becomes the starting point for every roster cycle. The intent is that you are always starting from that base roster template and managing your day-to-day operations and variances like leave or changes in availability off an optimal base roster.

Q. What are the consequences of really poorly constructed rosters?

The biggest one is cost but it really depends on the industry you are operating in. In Retail, Hospitality and Fast Food where there are frontline staff, not having people on at the right time impacts conversion, customer experience and growth. The other impact we are seeing is in the compliance space where people think they are rostering and paying compliantly. We don’t necessarily come across businesses that are intentionally doing the wrong thing but by looking at existing rosters we are able to quickly see roster patterns that may be non-compliant. A lot of what we see are technical breaches which remain uncorrected and compound over every pay cycle. These breaches of award conditions can attract substantial penalties for employers and/or the individuals involved because they can be penalised for each breach.

Q.  Can daily tasks and skills impact roster design?

Yes, depending on the sector, in Disability for example, there are lot of participants or clients where rostering is built around care needs and may necessitate specific tasks, participant plans, interpersonal skills, relationships, qualifications, productivity, experience or even gender requirements. Therefore, the skills and attributes of the employees on the roster become critical to the care needs.

Q.  Often, a roster model reproduces a bias that it has inherited from its human creators. How is roster right different? What is an ultimate roster?

We work with organisations to understand what they want their optimal workforce mix to be. When you build a roster around people, we see far less payroll savings versus one that doesn’t consider employee needs. In short, an ultimate roster is a truly optimal, strategic roster designed to generate the best shift patterns for your sites, irrespective of employee requirements. It’s a great way to build in rules that make roster lines attractive so that no one particular role or employee has the biggest hit, and you can build fair and equitable rosters.

Q.  How does our Consultation experience add value to a customer implementing Roster Right?

Our experience across multiple industries allows us to positively facilitate client discussions and challenge them to find common ground or agreement. We are able to inject our knowledge throughout the process based on know-how or previous results, businesses of a similar nature or profile and the impacts of some of the decisions that were made. In doing so, clients are able to look at rostering in a different way and consider questions that they might not have been asked before. Often a balance between operational and financial objectives is required, and we have a team of experts that are able to manage this process effectively.

Q.  I have another buzz word for you Lauren, Disruption. Technology is the ultimate disruptor, what makes change so challenging?

More often than not, businesses have looked to technology to solve all of their problems. A lot of organisations that we come across have change management fatigue due to their inability to evaluate, implement and utilise their software for either its intended or desired purposes. And there’s a lot of technology out there – and we know that there’s not one all-encompassing solution for CRM, HR, Rostering, Time & Attendance, Payroll & Invoicing etc. so companies might have been through multiple rounds of implementations and aren’t necessarily resourced or geared up to do so. Another important factor is who is going to become the subject matter expert internally and be the champion of change.

Q.  A smart person once said to me, smart people just get it. Is this true?

Where we see the successful uptake of roster optimisation is generally in organisations that are a bit tech savvy, who have people inside their organisation whose natural thought process is to challenge the status quo and think outside the box. They are able to find solutions that provide strategic advantages or operational efficiencies that their competitors might not consider, and they are supported by their organisation to do so. I guess that’s where smart people just get it and it’s less of a hurdle to take them on a journey and get them to understand the power and implications of what we do.

Q.  Lauren, why do you get a buzz out of what you do?

I enjoy working with different clients from different industries and meeting new challenges. I like working with amazing people on projects “who just get it”, who want to push the boundaries of what’s possible and are open to seeing things through a different lens. And to be able to check in on the clients in six months’ time and be able to see the impact of what a roster optimisation project has done for their organisation is very rewarding.

Great work Lauren. Thanks for the chat.

No problem, Thanks JK

Want to learn more?

You can contact Lauren directly on 03 9205 5857 or email lauren@workforceanalytics.com.au