Wal-Mart Scheduling and Respect for People


Wal-Mart Seeks New Flexibility In Worker Shifts (WSJ $$)

Today's WSJ has an article about how Wal-Mart is moving towards computerized scheduling that micromanages schedules to match employee shifts to shopper volumes.

Early this year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., using a new computerized scheduling system, will start moving many of its 1.3 million workers from predictable shifts to a system based on the number of customers in stores at any given time. The move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees.

The system… tracks individual store sales, transactions, units sold and customer traffic in 15-minute increments over seven weeks, and compares data to the prior year's, before scheduling workers.

Is this “Lean?”

I'm a bit torn on this one. From a lean standpoint, this sounds OK in one dimension — with lean, we always talk about matching capacity to demand, of matching the workforce to workloads. We don't want to pay people to stand idle, if we can help it. That's not revolutionary. The ideal, for a manufacturing environment, would be to level load production activity so employees can work consistent predictable shifts during the day, the month, the quarter, and the year.

But, some environments are tough to level load. Take hospital labs, for example. Hospital labs are notoriously busy from 4 to 7 AM (due to MD rounding patterns)… it's not practical to level load completely, so you have to match up your schedules to the busy times, to make sure you have more people on hand when there's more work to be done. The downside of the non-level workload is that you have slow times, which leads to wasted time and waste labor costs. In labs, Techs work fairly predictable (or at least planned out) 8, 10, or 12 hour shifts… so they have some slack time during their day.

The LAST thing I would do is to tell a lab to start jerking around employee schedules in an effort to cut costs “at all costs”. In this field, it's supply and demand, where, for one, no Med Tech is going to accept short shifts or weird short shifts. They'll leave and find another job if you ask them to work just 4 AM to 8 AM, then go home and come back from 2 PM to 6 PM. Not going to happen. Secondly, it's somewhat disrespectful to people to treat them this way, to say “we don't have direct labor work for you right now, so you're of zero value to us.” What I recommend to labs is that they use the slow times for problem solving, kaizen, training, etc. Labs treat their Techs as “fixed cost” pretty much and can invest in them as people and employees.

So What is Wal-Mart Doing?

So, that said, Wal-Mart is NOT taking that path (and that's probably not a surprise to most Wal-Mart watchers). Wal-Mart puts this in terms that sound customer friendly — making sure they have more staffing when more customers are in the store. As a customer, I would appreciate that, since it's frustrating to have long register lines, for example.

The article says:

But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule.

That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.

Some analysts say the new systems will result in more irregular part-time work. “The whole point is workers were a fixed cost, now they're a variable cost. Is it good for workers? Probably not,” says Kenneth Dalto, a management consultant in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The article continues with more examples of how this haphazard scheduling is hard on employees and how employees are unhappy. I don't blame them.

What Should Wal-Mart Do?

If Wal-Mart asked for my advice, I'd say there has to be some middle ground. Sure, the goal of properly staffing for customer loads is great. But, also have to respect your employees and maintain their satisfaction. The last thing you want in retail is grumpy employees (see Home Depot, but their employees are probably happy today with their CEO resigning… a story for another post).

Do your best to staff appropriately, but accept there will be some “downtime.” Use that downtime for training, kaizen, and other productive activities (maybe like stocking shelves) that can be done at any time. You won't antagonize your employees as much. Sure, you might have higher costs, but there's got to be some pay off from happier, more productive employees, who are working to help improve your business.

I guess Wal-Mart isn't like a lab. They can afford to treat their workers like interchangable retail-bots…. but they shouldn't, not if they were thinking lean. I wonder how Tesco does it, a great “lean” retailer from the UK?

Another Question: What about the Forecasts?

I'd also wonder if last year's shopping patterns are really a great predictor of this year's? What if there are different sales and promotions going on? The system might “work” wonderfully, but what if it's “garbage in / garbage out” like some supply chain scheduling systems? This Wal-Mart system is basically using a forecast…. is the forecast accurate? That's the bane of manufacturing systems and their fancy algorithms… inaccurate forecasts.

Here is Kevin Meyer's post on Evolving Excellence… same conclusion. I thought of him and his phrase about worshipping the almighty algorithm.

Gemba Pantarei also has an excellent post with their similar take on this topic.

It's good to see how all of us can have a slightly different take on the same article, I think.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I wonder if there is a way for Wal-Mart to solve their problem with a more flexible check-out, stocking, etc system and/or process rather than focusing on making the staffing flexible?

    I know I don’t want to interact with a checker that just missed their child’s birthday party to deal with the variability in customer volume at the store.

  2. One way would be to allow people to pick which shifts they want to be available for…sign up for shifts in advance, as it were. Wal-mart might also offer a premium for very short term notice. For those who want a very stable work routine, there should be some way to accomodate that; but others may be willing to take the variability in schedule. Don’t assume all people have the same wants and needs.

  3. I’m a notorious bargain hunter and dearly hate shopping at Walmart. Although their “Always Low Price, Always” slogan sounds good, my experience shows that they are usually not the lowest price. I only shop there when I’m lazy. Lazy people who want to think they got a good deal shop at Walmart. If you really want a good deal, you will most definitely find a sale somewhere else that beats Walmart’s prices. You just have to do a little looking around.

    Every time I go to Walmart, I feel bad while I’m there and after I’ve left. Shopping there makes me feel like I’m destroying the economy and contributing to the bad behavior that inspired the main post.

    What particularly got my blood boiling was this line from the main post:

    “The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule.”

    That is so Walmart. This whole idea of micromanaging schedules is typical one-dimensional Walmart. I’m sure they are not thinking about the workers at all. It is all about the cost cutting. There are many workers who are on call and work crazy hours, but they are typically well paid professionals with specialized skills that are responding to emergencies or serious business issues. Part time cashiers should not be dropping everything to staff the express lane so I can buy a pack of Wrigley’s after lunch.

    For more about Walmart, checkout the book Walmart Effect.
    I’ve found the best deals on sites like: http://www.fatwallet.com and http://www.techbargains.com.

  4. To be upfront, I happen to be associated with Asgard Systems, who are publishers of employee scheduling software. We are not the suppliers of Wal-Mart’s employee scheduling software and are on unaware of what product they are using.

    Even if Wal-Mart still uses a pencil and paper to produce their employee schedules, they might still implement policies and procedures that would promote their own corporate interests. The promotional literature that we provide regarding our product does directly address organizational scheduling needs. However, such needs include taking the employees personal life into perspective as well. An example is the priority given to personal conflicting events such as night school, taking care of sick parents, weddings etc. Such issues are promoted at our website (www.asgardsystems.com), in our free trial version and our instructional movies. I am very pleased to say that, most employers express the need of having to contend with the humanistic aspects of managing an organization. Their needs dictate our products design and the design of our competitors’ products as well. The fact that an organization might use our automation tools for abusive means still hurts.

  5. Full disclosure, I work for a company that provides employee scheduling software too (I won’t go into names…. yet)

    In short, software such as Wal-Mart’s (and Starbucks for that matter) really ignore the needs of the individual employee. The employee is the face of the company to the end customer and really is one you need to make happy.

    The company I work for puts a big focus on usability for both employees and employers, and it shows. Making the employee more than just a number is huge and sadly, a lot of vendors forget about it producing software.

  6. It looks like you have the attention of the scheduling industry with this post. The WSJ article also raised our collective eyebrows (I also work for a company that helps create
    optimal employee schedules
    . It seems that you hit the nail on the head when you mention respect for the employee.

    If the scheduling software breaks shifts into 2 hour blocks, with a 3.5 hour break in the middle of it, you’re doing something wrong!

    The software should pay close attention to employee preferences as well as schedule constraints. It should help you guarantee the legality of your schedule (for every state you have employees in), organize the shifts to the best possible schedule (not just one of the possible schedules), it should be easy for everyone to use, and the employees need to be able to trust that it is fair.

    There’s no reason everyone can’t benefit from this type of tool, it’s just unfortunate when we see the tools get used like this.

  7. They simply want to have more associates when they have more customers and less associates when they have less customers. This is common across all retailers. As a Retail WFM consultant, it’s what all retailers want, but it comes down to the balance they are willing to provide.

    What do you expect them and other retailers to do. Have you ever heard a shareholder call where people were demanding more employee respect? Nope, it’s EPS they demand.

    All this talk about the software is really moot. Honestly, the software is going to be customized and configured to fit the policies Wally world wants to put in place. The software can provide more associate flexibility and “respect” if Wal-Mart configures it to do such. But this is Wal-Mart and they will simply configure this to touch the bottom line, not the hearst of the employees.

  8. Software – Strategy = strandand cost savings and angry employees…

    Wal-Mart has made a classic mistake with this software. Kronos does in fact make great software that is respected in the industry. Yes, there will always be people that complain, but overall, they do a really good job. So, where did Wal-Mart go wrong?

    When working with people, not machines, one must work with both the business AND the employees to get the job done. By not including employee preferences and creating alternative schedules with more acceptable shift lengths employees could end up driving 45 minutes to work to work for only 3 hours. With today’s gas prices, you could actually lose money by going to work.

    In the end, employee self service that truly allows for feedback and extensive scheduling preferences will be the one way to correct what can be fairly inhumane outcomes from scheduling.

  9. I am currently employed with Walmart and I can say that I along with so many others am not happy at all. We were just informed this past Wednsday that on the 15th of this month that the majority of us will be going to a 4 pm – 1 am schedule. What a notice I am intending on walking out the door I refuse to put Walmart before my child.I have personally found out that Wally cares nothing about FAMILY it's the almighty dollar they care about they are a GREEDY company.O by the way if we change our availability to try n keep from working such rediculous hours then we get 0 hrs

  10. walmart seems to forget that freight doesnt magically get taken care of in the receiving areas, doesnt magically appear on the floor, straightened out and priced correctly. its great to have a lot of associates when its really busy, but to trim down to the point where freight cannot be delivered to the floor before customer rushes is mere stupidity.
    Their immediate answer is all the “prep work” will be done overnight, I dont know about *your* walmart, but ours has always been seriously understaffed over night, and a good percentage of those who are staffed are woefully under-trained. these leaves numerous pallets of freight which must be dealt with between the hours of 7am (when the ON shift leaves) and 4pm (when the receiving area must be cleared to unload the next series of trucks) true customer traffic is generally lower during the earlier part of that shift, so walmart tends to not even schedule people in certain departments till later in the day, meanwhile their freight isnt getting worked. You will see the results of this by the numerous “outs” product not being on the shelf. features not set up, prices not up to date, merchandised scattered and not neat. but if this is the kind of store you want to shop at, and make return trips because the item/items arent there where they should be, then by all means, support this new scheduling system, at least your check out time might be shorter, and in the end, isnt that all that really matters?

    • a. so many companies are doing this now
      b. people have no idea how often they’ll work, or if they can pay their bills.
      c. the american economy is driven by retail sales now (ie there are no other jobs)
      d. how do you get a second job when every company works with this program and all schedules are done one week out, or less, and you MUST be available 24/7 for any one of them?
      e. how does any work not customer service related (ie stocking) get done since it’s really not taken into consideration. I am not a cashier, I am in charge of a department, but I get pulled to cover when it doesn’t schedule enough cashiers, then I am late clocking out because I am the only one up front and the evening people are late. On top of that, I can’t get my own work done since our days are blocked out with certain tasks for certain amounts of time that we’re not allowed to deviate from, or else get written up for not being “efficient”.

      bottom line, people can’t afford this. customer service WILL suffer when employees literally drop what they’re doing to clock out on time, or else get written up. And no, I don’t work for walmart. Just a company that wants the least amount of people on it’s payroll that it can get in order to maximize it’s already ridiculous profits.

  11. I am a current Walmart associate. We just received the first of these schedules in our store… I can understand the need to make sure that there are enough associates working on an hour-to-hour basis for the “estimated customer load”, however, I have seen full-time associates who have 8 hrs for that week (two 4 hr days) whereas part-time associates (including myself) have upwards of 30 hours and our schedules are all over the place. Along with this, they are doing away with positions entirely and shifting schedules/shifts for most other positions. In particular, in 1 week, I have 5 different scheduled days, including two 4.5 hr days. The associates at my store also have been told that the on-site management has absolutely no control over the schedules and in fact can’t even override the computerized scheduling, which, in my opinion, is a major downfall of the new system if this is in fact true. This may be just a particular of the system that Walmart has chosen to use, but it is still wrong and I know a lot of associates are angered by it. Call me crazy, but I see a class action lawsuit in the future for Walmart, if only one…

  12. It is lottery style scheduling. I go eight days not being scheduled then three days 10 hour shifts then five days not scheduled. I used to be full time. They fired a girl for taking a second job at Smkey Bones but she was not getting any hours.

  13. I am an employee at Wal-Mart. My store manager cares more on get myshare then his employees. When people are schedule for there dept. they should work there dept. if they have downtime maybe learn how to do fishing/hunting license or mixing paint.


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