By Jon Miller | Post Date: January 3, 2007 9:54 PM | Comments: 12
Today's news that Wal-Mart is using scheduling software to wring further productivity improvements out of their workers has been well blogged about over at Evolving Excellence in Wal-Mart Worhips the False God and also at the Lean Blog in Wal-Mart Scheduling and Respect for People.
From today's Wall Street Journal article titled Wal-Mart Seeks New Flexibility in Worker Shifts:
A company using these fine-tuned programs might start the day with a few employees on hand at many stores, bring in a bunch more during busy midday hours, and gradually pare down through the day before bulking up for the evening rush.
Imagine the workers at Wal-Mart lining up like day laborers in preparation for peak shopping, only to be told "there's no more work for you" and be sent home shortly after the shopping crowd dies down, and you will get a fairly accurate picture of what this means.
With Wal-Mart's reputation for nurturing their people and their suppliers these sorts of efforts at reducing labor cost and improving customer satisfaction (since when has that been a Wal-Mart selling point?) make me skeptical.
From purely academic point of view, Wal-Mart's use of software to schedule their labor and the clout they have to actually do this has resulted in an impressive advancement in the application of a particular Lean principle: just in time. Wal-Mart will be able to employ the people they need, when they need them, in the number they need. However Wal-Mart has solved the wrong problem.
Just in time production, which is a pillar of Lean manufacturing, requires the foundation of stable work flow and this is achieved in part by heijunka (production smoothing or the averaging of both the mix and the volume). The foundation of the Toyota Production System house is heijunka.
Part of heijunka is having a certain logical amount of finished goods in order to buffer against the day to day swings in customer demand, and pull begins at these points. Trying to do heijunka without this requires capacity that is infinitely flexible, or in the case of fixed assets they must be set at the maximum level. Since labor is not a fixed asset, it can be flexed with changes in demand if the demand cannot be smoothed perfectly.
How does a company like Toyota flexibly manage their workforce when there are demand swings? Traditionally this was done in part through seasonal workers from the area (typically farmers and housewives) working the factories during the busy season. Today Toyota in Japan has been criticized for relying increasingly on "permanent temporary" workers to keep costs low as well as flexible, the the extent that it has been called "human kanban" implying on-demand labor, or even a disposable resource. But that is nothing compared to what Wal-Mart is planning.
On second look the elimination of hours of manual scheduling using software is a legitimate improvement. But Wal-Mart took it a step too far and used what should be a tool as a weapon against their people. A change is not kaizen unless it both reduces cost and is gentle to the people affected.
Wal-Mart is treating their people as if they were non-human resources to be optimized, even at a significant cost to human happiness. If Wal-Mart's real goal is to improve the customer experience, they should try harder to level their demand by creating incentives to shop at off-peak times or to reduce the labor required per customer served, rather than jerking their workers around.
News like this makes me glad that there are active labor unions in the U.S.Comments are moderated to filter spam and inappropriate content. There may be a delay before your comment is published.