10 Questions for Crew Schedulers Thinking About Optimization

Why Think About Crew Scheduling Optimization?

Crew scheduling is hard.  It’s an optimization problem that is extremely complex, even with a small number of employees (just try scheduling a lunch date with 5 friends).  

When operating in an area with strict regulation (like aviation), the problem gets even more difficult, and as the number of different variables (aircraft types, flight types, etc.) increases, the problem gets only more complex.

Most operations have a dedicated team of schedulers whose full-time job is to find a workable crew schedule to keep the operation running and minimize problems.

A lot of the time this job is reactive, as you’re constantly dealing with new tasks, unforeseen delays and changes, and a host of other complications.

In most logistics operations automation is minimal.  The justification for this is often the complexity of the operation.  Ironically, automation and optimization technology is actually better suited to finding solutions under this complexity than humans.  Make no mistake, humans are remarkably good at finding a solution that works, often using rules of thumb (aka heuristics). They’re just not equipped to be systematic in examining all possible solutions.

We’ve written previously about how to improve your crew scheduling, and how to improve your scheduling process.

In this post we’re going to help you identify whether it might be time to look for some automation and optimization solutions to help with your crew scheduling.

10 Questions to Figure Out if You Need Optimization Tools

As a member of a logistics business or a scheduling team, here are 10 questions you can ask yourself to find out if it might be time to introduce some automation or optimization tools:

Crew Satisfaction

  1. Do you get complaints from crew about their schedules?  How often and how many?

Let’s be clear - you’ll almost always get complaints from crew when developing a schedule.  It’s just impossible to satisfy everyone, and while it’s noble to attempt to do so, you should also be clear that it won’t always happen.  Transparency around how decisions are made on this front will also help relieve some of the complaints.

However, if you have a high quantity of complaints on a regular basis, it may be time to reconsider how you’re doing your scheduling.  Alternative models of hiring employees or working may things easier, or you may just need to do some work on making the process more transparent.

2. Do you often get questions about how schedules are created?

This is often related to complaints: “this sucks, why is my schedule like this?” Often it indicates that the scheduling decision process isn’t clear enough.  Sometimes there isn’t a concrete process at all, and this is a larger issue.

Having a clear process for making scheduling decisions, and communicating that to your crew is key in heading off some of these complaints and questions before they arise.

3. Is the workload spread evenly amongst your crew?

Or, depending on your rules, at least spread evenly amongst those for whom it should be even.  

If you have seniority rules, and more senior crew are expected to have better schedules, that’s fine - but they should generally be even with other senior crew.  

If all your crew should be working the same amount, but you consistently have a wide spread in the amount worked by different crew members, you likely have some scheduling biases that need to be worked out.  

This can also be indicative of a process that isn’t flexible enough to accomodate a good workload spread.

4. Do you distribute the best and worst tasks evenly?  Is the process transparent?

As mentioned above, if you’re getting a high volume of complaints, they are likely related to poor schedules, or poor tasks (in aviation, these tasks are usually undesirable flight legs or layovers).  

If you have more flexible crew members, sometimes they will consistently get stuck with the poor tasks simply because it’s easiest to schedule them.

Making sure you have a clear process for distributing poor tasks, and communicating this process to crew members is key in avoiding this issue.

Scheduling Efficiency

5. Do you know how close your original schedule is to what is operated?

One of the most overlooked areas of scheduling efficiency is how the original schedule compares to what is actually operated.  Of course, it’s expected that schedules in on-demand logistics will always continue to be revised as new tasks come in.

However, one of the greatest opportunities for efficiency improvement is creating schedules that are robust when new tasks are added, reducing the amount of schedule changes required to accommodate these tasks.

To track this, you need to make sure you can track your schedules through time.  Do you keep each iteration of your schedules? Most organizations don’t, but it’s important to improve scheduling practices.

6. How often do you have to revise your schedule?

The answer for most is “continuously”.  Again, understandable in an on-demand context, where scheduling happens almost right up until the task is completed.

However, as mentioned, if schedules can be created so that changes as new tasks come in are minimized, the workload can be greatly reduced.

Making note of how often you change your schedule, and how the schedule changes - even if this is multiple times per day, and the “tracking” is just a few notes about changes made - will prove extremely useful when you get time to go back and assess how to improve your overall scheduling process.

7. Is one of your schedulers much more efficient than the others? (Hint: we call this person the “Magician Scheduler”)

This tends to happen in any operation - one person will be significantly more efficient than the others.  Usually this is part expertise, part ability, and part experience.

The interesting part, however, is figuring out why there exists such a difference, and comparing their workflow to others to improve the overall process.

The best way to start here is by documenting schedule changes, the reason for them, and the person who made them.  Again, it can be as simple as a Google Doc with some bullet point notes (make sure to add name, time and date), but you’ll be surprised how much insight this gives you.

Proactive vs. Reactive

8. Are you able to attribute scheduling changes to the schedulers that made them?

Scheduling improvement is tough, because often the situation in which schedulers work is one of constant “crises”; they are always reacting, solving problems, and figuring out how to make things work.

One of the keys to being able to improve the performance of your team is being able to attribute changes to team members, so you can figure out the performance of each of your individual schedulers.

As we mentioned above, often one person will be significantly more efficient than the rest of the team, but you must be able to know who made schedule changes to correctly identify this person.  Notes like this will also help you identify those on the scheduling team who are struggling.

9. Do you know why your schedule has changed over time?

Knowing how your schedule changes through time is key to identifying inefficiencies in your scheduling process and improving.  Ideally you would capture a snapshot of the schedule, as well as the information you have at the time you’ve scheduled (likely a list of the tasks that are currently planned).

As you make changes to the schedule, continue to capture those snapshots, and keep a tracking log of what changes are being made and why.  It will make revisiting the information much easier in future, when you want to make improvements.

10. How much time do you spend proactively improving your scheduling process vs. just reacting to new tasks?

If you operate like most logistics businesses, you probably spend little time being proactive.  It’s difficult to do this when resources are constrained and people are already busy.

The best businesses we know have people for whom process improvement is their sole responsibility.  Unless you create this role, it’s difficult for that person not to get caught up in the day-to-day operations if their responsibilities overlap directly with that of the scheduling team.

In an ideal world, most of your repetitive scheduling tasks would be automated, and most of your time would be spent examining historical data, running simulations, and figuring out how to improve your scheduling “machine”, rather than constantly doing the work of the “machine”.

Conclusion

If you’re getting lots of crew complaints, you have little insight into the changes made to your schedules and who has made them, and you’re spending all your time in reactive mode, you should likely consider some automation and optimization technology.

Introducing such technologies can get you ahead of the game, automating many of your repetitive tasks, improving efficiency, transparency, and ultimately, making your business more successful.

In summary, here is the list of questions you should be asking yourself about your crew scheduling process:

Crew Satisfaction

  1. Do you get complaints from crew about their schedules?  How often and how many?

  2. Do you often get questions about how schedules are created?

  3. Is the workload spread evenly amongst your crew?

  4. Do you distribute the best and worst flights evenly?  Is the process transparent?

Scheduling Efficiency

  1. Do you know how close your original schedule is to what is operated?

  2. How often do you have to revise your schedule?

  3. Is one of your schedulers much more efficient than the others? (Hint: we call this person the “Magician Scheduler”)

Proactive vs. Reactive

  1. Are you able to attribute scheduling changes to the schedulers that made them?

  2. Do you know how your schedule has changed over time?

  3. How much time do you spend proactively improving your scheduling process vs. reacting to crises?

For further reading, read our post about The Magician Scheduler, 4 Tips to Improve Your Crew Scheduling, and 3 Tips to Improve Your Scheduling Process.

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