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Trickle Down Effect
Chris Flanders
Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I am sitting on an airplane right now, in the air at 36,000 feet and thinking about the some of the cascading impacts of scheduling systems. Lucky for the person sitting next to me, who is trying to nap, I thought I’d get these thoughts down on paper and share them with you, instead of chatting about it with my sleepy armrest partner.

Our flight is running a bit late today, with a 50 minute delay at departure. There wasn’t a mechanical problem or weather delays. All passengers were at the gate and boarded in the typical semi-orderly fashion, jostling for overhead compartment space and hoping for no crying babies or sneezing passengers in our immediate vicinity. (Personally I’d pick the criers over the sneezers if I had a choice – crying is not contagious and my headphones work just fine!) After we all got in and settled down, there we sat. And waited.

Soon the captain’s voice came across the overhead to inform us that we were going to be a little delayed because we were missing a flight attendant. Apparently he or she had simply not shown up that day for our flight and they had been unable to contact them. Consequently a backup flight attendant had been contacted and she would be there shortly. And so we waited.

The captain came on again about 40 minutes later to apologize again and tell us the new flight attendant was there and we’d be in the air soon. He speculated that the original flight attendant had simply not had the right schedule but now that the replacement had arrived, we’d shut the door and get going.

Now that we are in the air and I’ve had a little bit of time to think about this (plus I had to wait to turn on my electronics), I have a couple of thoughts I want to share with you. Before you ask: No, none of them are related to how impressed I am that this airline could make an emergency call to a backup flight attendant and have her be on the plane ready to fly across the country in what couldn’t have been much more than an hour!

1. This scheduling snafu, assuming that’s what it was, has a potentially much bigger impact to the airline than just this particular flight being late.

I’m feeling confident that I’m going to make my connection, but there are others are this flight who will not. That’s going to have a downstream impact to other flights and the plans those travelers have at their destinations. All of those add up to dollars. Most will come out of the airline’s pocket but the travelers will pay in the form of lost time if not money.

Having had a full hour to sit and think about the time and money they are losing, there are potentially some very disgruntled people amongst my fellow passengers. Not me, of course! I’m as “gruntled” as they come, but what if I was an unhappy customer? I could be sitting here right now doing a bit of angry typing to the customer service department of the airline or, worse yet, I could be using the plane’s WiFi to tweet my displeasure and make sure my FaceBook page spread my message of displeasure to my friends. That is the kind of social media trend that airlines hate to see, because it picks up a momentum of its own and is hard to mitigate and dispel

2. All of that negativity—hard costs, soft costs, and potential bad publicity—resulted from a simple and common scheduling mistake for one employee.

How important does that workforce management system seem right now? Is the airline using employee self service? Are they broadcasting updates in a timely manner? This is the world of questions and answers that I live in and think about every day. But companies usually don’t, because they don’t understand the impacts beyond the immediate consequence. Yes, it impacts the obvious – no one being in place at the correct time to do that employee’s job – but there is a trickle down impact to the rest of the business. There are costs being incurred, customers being unhappy, and future potential customers being scared away by social media.

3. This is not just an airline problem.

I work with hospitals and could be having this same conversation about employees missing their scheduled shifts and surgeries being delayed, or longer wait times in an emergency room, or referencing the documented uptick in mistakes that are made with patients by nurses who are overworked and understaffed – this time caused by employees missing their scheduled shifts.

In retail, the same trickle down effect can occur. No one is around to help a confused customer pick out a mattress. Grocery checkout lanes get backed up. Shelves stay empty while receiving dock sits full of pallets.

Patients and customers have access to social media too. When they are standing around, unhappy and with nothing but time on their hands while they wait, that scheduling snafu turns into a unhappy round of social media fueled bashing that shows up in future Internet searches for years…

I don’t know about you, but I am coming away from this feeling that scheduling systems are more important than ever. They are not just for putting people in the right place at the right time – they are also company reputation protectors and prevention mechanisms for unnecessary costs! I don’t know if that makes them more exciting but it certainly makes them valuable. And being as valuable as they are, it is not a stretch to evaluate the importance that is placed on scheduling in a company and ensure that it matches the value. That’s the trickle down to workforce management.