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Station Road, Rolleston
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Operational Research

You can always be more efficient

Operational Research is all about using analysis to improve decision making. Dr Angela Moore uses mathematical modeling, statistical analysis, optimisation, sequencing and scheduling techniques to create simple heuristics you can employ to run your operation more efficiently.


Should You Work Less Hours?

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 12:53

During the course of a shift, you will inevitably get fatigued and your work will suffer. We all make mistakes and the rate of making the mistakes can be measured. At the start of the shift for the first few hours, research has shown that the error rate is stable. This is what we could expect, and employers expect this to continue throughout the whole shift. We have yet to find an employer that says it is ok to make more mistakes at the end of the shift than at the start, they expect consistency throughout the shift but that is not what happens unfortunately. After a few hours of working, the error rate between breaks increases dramatically. Whilst this is not what an employer would like to see from their workers, there is a comparable situation to this experienced by everyone, that is: taking exams! Exams involve the usual set of skills we expect from employees, vigilance, memory, deductive reasoning and accuracy. Hence we often employ staff based on the exams they have passed and their grades. Many exams are set at the 75 minute level (plus the advice to spend 15 minutes correcting the answers) for the simple reason that longer exams involving more questions produce worse results. At work however, we often find breaks set at long intervals, say after 3 or 4 hours.

Working less hours is a good idea depending on the type of work you are doing. If you are doing original mental work e.g. learning a new skill, creating a new product or process, you need short days. From a mental fatigue point of view you need to limit your employees to about 5 hours. After 5 hours their mental processes start to slow down and they make mistakes or can't retain information as well. Therefore any work they do after the 5 hours just has to be repeated the following day. Which eats into the five hours of the following day and create a vicious circle.

I always tell my clients that you have to match the length of the shift to the type of work you are doing. If you are doing creative, original work then you need to limit their days. There is a reason why the school day is 5-hours!

If you are doing repetitive mental work then you just need regular breaks to reduce your fatigue. Think of Air Traffic Controllers, they have to have a break after 2 hours. This is to keep them mentally alert and then they are less prone to make mistakes and it keeps their reaction times up. Then there is TV presenters on live shows. No show goes on for more than 2 hours, because even with advert breaks the presenters get fatigued. Films and plays are also limited to about 2 hours. This is because the audience stops engaging after this time.

So it is not just about the length of the shift, but also the breaks on a shift and the type of work you are asking people to do.


Shift Names

Monday, 18 May 2015 20:17

When you are creating a shift schedule we recommend that you name each of your shifts, rather than write out the start and finish times. There are a few reasons for doing this:

  • Minimises the number of shifts you are using
  • Harder to make a mistake
  • Simplifies the calculations
  • Simplifies the creative process when creating a shift pattern
  • Easier to see at a glance when people are working
  • Easier to see at a glance if you are short and when
  • Easier for recording absence and holidays

Basically you don’t want a schedule that is too complicated. If you use too many shifts, it will take you at least a year to rotate through everyone. You want a shift schedule that allows everyone to work similar shifts to a pattern. If you have 20-30 different shifts and there are seven days per week, then it will take almost a year for everyone to just work each shift once on each day of the week (depending on the lengths of the shifts). So you don’t get a pattern when every day everyone is working a different shift.

Then for each shift you use you need a holiday equivalent, a sickness equivalent, an absence equivalent, and overtime equivalent, etc. By the time you are finished you have over 100 different shifts! There are not that many letters in the alphabet so your shift pattern looks more like somebody emptied a tin of alphabet spaghetti onto a piece of paper than a schedule. Then you can’t just glance at it and say yes on Monday we can do the workload because we have the correct people in at the correct times. You end up guessing continuously.

Less is more when it comes to shifts. Start off with three or four. Then you will still end up with over ten but at least you will have a shot at remembering what they mean.

Some people just have the start and finish times because it all just gets so complicated. But then you don’t know what that means and it is so easy to miss type a number. So does 9:00-16:00 mean a seven hour shift, and do they get paid for the full seven hours or are breaks unpaid? What job are they doing? If you have a list of people with start and finish times can you say quickly how many will be there at 12:00 or do you have to go down the list and individually add it up? What happens if they want to take it as a holiday, or if they are sick? Shift names make things a lot easier.


The rota above is a real rota. If you were to glance at that quickly you would have no idea what was going on. There are shift names in some slots and times in others. You don’t know how many hours they are working and if asked who is covering lunch or working this evening, you would be hard pressed to answer without studying the rota for a good five minutes.

So what is a good shift name?

The shift name should sum up what the shift is, e.g. D for Day shift, E for Early shift. Then you can add letters for holidays and sickness, e.g. HD for Holiday on a Day shift. Also always display a table with the shift schedule giving the start and finish times of the shifts. This way if anyone is unsure or you haven’t memorised the shift names you can see quickly and simply what they are. If you can also add a count for each day per shift, then you will always know how many will be on. Here is a list of popular shift names:

A Afternoon

B Back shift

C Cover

D Day

E Early

H Holiday

L Late

M Morning

N Night

S Sick

T Training

W Weekend

U Auxiliary

V Vacation

Then you can combine the names e.g. WD Weekend Day, SN Sick Night. Or add numbers e.g. D2 for Day shift with skill 2. Sometimes I add a letter after the main shift letter to indicate length e.g. DL for Long Day shift or NS for Short Night. The type of shift always goes first. Or D9 could be a Day shift starting at 9am.

Shift Pattern 1

The shift schedule above shows how the shift pattern looks in VisualrotaX. As you can see the shift table at the top shows you how many are working on each shift each day, the start and finish times of the shift and adds up all the hours. That way you know how many are on each day on each shift. At a glance you can see there are three people there during lunch time on week days and two on at weekends.

If you would like to find out more about creating a shift pattern please click here for more information.

If you would like to contact us about shift scheduling please email us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  


24/7 NHS

Monday, 11 May 2015 13:51

The Conservative party have won the election, and this means that David Cameron will make the NHS a truly 24/7 operation. Which is excellent news for the country. In 2014 absence cost the UK over £31 billion (PWC). That’s about 2% of our GDP. So if the health service is able to treat people faster and more effectively because it will be operating 24/7 instead of office hours, we should not only be healthier, but also absent less often or for shorter periods.

This is a great opportunity for the NHS to create and use better staffing schedules. This will not only save the tax payer billions through a reduction in agency workers but could also mean better work/life balance for our health care professionals.

So what are the key components in an efficient, low cost, shift schedule for the health service which also gives the shift workers a good work/life balance?

Firstly you need to understand the workload. The workload is key whenever you are creating a shift operation. Your employees are there to cover the work. So you only want them there when there is work for them to do and you want them in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills.

Secondly you need to employ the correct number of staff. There is no point in employing too few. In the long run that just leads to high overtime and agency costs. The Mirror reported that the NHS spent £5.5 billion on agency workers. Now you can’t save your entire overtime and agency budget but if you employee people at basic rate it will normally be a lot cheaper.

Thirdly you need to think about the type of service you need to provide. A key factor in health service operations is continuity of care. So you always need someone each day who was there the day before and will be there tomorrow. That way if there were any developments, each day there would be someone who could pass on the pertinent information to colleagues.

Fourthly you need a shift pattern that gives the shift workers a good work/life balance. So you need to think about fatigue, time off, commutes, length of shifts, etc.

Fifthly absence costs money. A lot of money. So you need a way of covering for absence, be that holidays, sickness or authorised leave. The best way to cover absence is in-house, because your own staff will always know your operation, equipment and staff better than an outsider. Also it is normally cheaper.

If you would like to know more about creating an efficient, low cost shift operation which ensures a good work/life balance for your staff, then contact us directly at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to find out more.


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