The Magician Scheduler

Who They Are, Why They’re So Valuable, and How to Make the Most of Them

We use the term “Magician”, but that’s obviously not the job title they hold in your business.  It’s usually fairly normal, like “Head Scheduler” or “Controller” or “Crew Coordination Manager”, but they aren't defined by their title.  Almost every logistics-related business has at least one.  In this post, we’re going to talk about how to identify these people, why they’re so valuable to your business, and some strategies for making the most of them.

How to Identify Your Magician

This probably won’t be difficult.  You may have more than one in your business, but if you ask someone involved in a given department, they’ll know them immediately.

Magicians are the people in scheduling and logistics positions who teams can’t live without.  They’re the go-to people whenever there’s a crisis, and they’re the people managers rely on when they’re faced with problems that are seemingly impossible.

They’ve often worked in the industry for years - experience of 15-20+ years isn’t uncommon.  They have a grasp of scheduling and logistics problems that few others in the team can match, and they often find solutions “magically” - hence why we call them Magicians.

If you don’t already know who these people are in your organization, just ask your teams.  The managers should be aware of who they are, and if they aren’t, then those working in the team definitely will.  Sometimes there’s one, but often if you have multiple departments - crew scheduling, maintenance coordination, route planning - there will be multiple Magicians to match.

Why Magicians Are so Valuable

We’ve talked about some of the characteristics of Magicians, but what makes them who they are?

Much of the time they will start with an aptitude for logistics in general, and have an educational background focused on this area.  As they work in a given position, they combine their theoretical knowledge with experimentation and problem-solving.  This eventually gives them an intuitive feel for the type of problems that are being solved, allowing them to see and come up with solutions that others won’t think about.

“We don’t simply absorb information—we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use. We look for connections between the various elements we are learning, hidden laws that we can perceive...”
Excerpt From: Greene, Robert. “Mastery.”

Part of this ability to quickly come up with novel solutions to challenging problems is their internalization of the rules that govern the problems they’re solving, and the unwritten rules they develop to help them solve problems.

These unwritten rules, and their intuition in applying them to problems, is the core of what makes these particular individuals so valuable.  Usually this skill takes years to learn, and it is very difficult to both develop and preserve.

How to Make the Most of Your Magician(s)

1. Recognize them

The first step in making the most of your magicians is identifying them.  We talked about characteristics to identify them above.  Make sure you figure out who they are in all your departments, and keep a record (this could be part of your regular performance reviews).

It might be tempting to think that they must be the manager in each department, but that’s often not the case.  A lot of the time they won’t fit the manager role, so you must make sure you’ve identified the right individuals.  Sometimes, you may need to ask members of the team instead of the manager, as the manager may often take credit for the work they do, making it difficult to distinguish where the original work comes from.

2. Keep them as long as possible

Losing a magician when you least expect it can have devastating effects on your business.  If you aren’t aware of who your magicians are, and the problems that they regularly solved, you will be made unpleasantly aware when they leave.  

It’s not uncommon for companies to suffer significant financial losses when a magician leaves, as they scramble to conduct business without them.  Particularly if you are a business which consistently deals with crises, you will feel their effects immediately.

Employee turnover is consistently underestimated, with some studies placing the financial burden at up to 213% of annual salary for highly skilled workers.  That’s also assuming you can actually replace them, which is frequently not the case.

Make sure you open a dialogue with your magicians, let them know that you value them, and work to make sure they love working at your company.  Incentive packages, a larger role in their teams, even introducing team-wide benefits that they’ve been advocating for are all good solutions that will make financial sense in the long-term.

3. Identify promising apprentices for them to mentor

As part of your longer-term strategy, you need to prepare for the day when your magicians leave.  Obviously you want to keep them as long as possible, but external circumstances - moving, retirement, better offers elsewhere - can all cause turnover, and you need to prepare.

Part of this process is identifying a promising replacement.  This person can be hired with this in mind, or you can identify them within your company.  Often it’s as simple as asking the magicians themselves.

Once these people are identified, you should have a conversation with your magicians about formally spending time to train these prospects.  Do what is needed to make sure they have the time and resources to do so - whether it’s taking some tasks off their plate so they have time for a weekly meeting, or talking to their manager to ensure they have time in their schedule, ask them to be their mentors.

“The mentor-protégé relationship is the most efficient and productive form of learning.”

Excerpt From: Greene, Robert. “Mastery.”

4. Implement processes to record their knowledge

Also as part of your long-term strategy, you need to work towards documenting the unwritten rules and strategies for solving problems in your business that we talked about earlier.

The simplest way to do this is to have managers hold debrief sessions for the particularly hard problems or crises where the magician is relied upon to come up with a solution.  This can occur on a problem-by-problem basis, or this can be a weekly or bi-weekly review of the most difficult issues of the past couple weeks.

The goal in this process is to talk through the problem, and begin to record some of the rules and strategies that this magician is applying.  Often it won’t be as simple as asking them what rules and strategies they applied - they often won’t be able to tell you outright.  Instead, over time, by recording how they approached and solved a problem, you will be able to identify patterns in their work and behavior that you will be able to turn into procedures, rules and strategies that others can replicate.

This will vastly help you train future magicians, others in the team, and will also be of a huge benefit if you attempt to implement automated or semi-automated solutions.

5. Use them to improve your business

Once you have enough of these debriefs recorded, you should sit down with senior members of your teams and to see if you can extract the rules and strategies we talked about earlier.  Often utilizing the person themselves is a good idea, as they may be able to help with interpretation, or see the patterns in their behaviour first.

Here, the goal is identifying which patterns you can automate or teach to others, and subsequently extract some pro-active ways to improve your business.  Often, magicians will have ideas they want to try to improve the business or operations, but because they are constantly solving problems, they haven’t had time.  If you can identify ways to free up their time and let them experiment a bit, you can take full advantage of their skills to improve the business.  As a side benefit, this time to experiment and be proactive will also vastly improve how happy magicians are, further increasing the likelihood they are to stay with your business.

Bringing in an outside consultant who is experienced with the type of problems you’re dealing with is also a good idea at this stage - they can provide an objective third-party perspective.  This is also the time where you can consider some automation or optimization solutions.  Just make sure that if you do either of the above, you make it clear they are working with the magician, and to replace them.

Conclusion

In short, magicians are rare, extremely valuable, and critical to your organization.  Usually this is only discovered once they have left, which is too late.

You should strive to figure out who these people are, keep them, and use their experience and knowledge to improve the employees around them, and to improve the business.  Your business, employees, and magicians will thank you.