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Absences (and Lean Staffing)

Absences are, in a nutshell, times when a person is not present to do their normal work. Absences primarily fall into two categories from a production viewpoint—planned and unplanned.

Your company’s HR team may categorize absences in a number of ways, but from the operations standpoint, human resource definitions are irrelevant. It does not matter whether a person is on a vacation, medical leave, sabbatical, or suddenly retires. All that really matters is whether the team knows in advance that people will be gone. Obviously, the duration of the planned absence makes a difference in how a team prepares for the absence, but knowing about it in advance gives them an opportunity to take action.

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In most companies, there is some sort of limit (directly stated in policy, or done in practice) to how much of the team can be gone at any given time. Only a few people might be allowed to take vacation at the same time and training or meetings may be scheduled away from peak vacation times. Typically, this number is a thumb-in-the-air type of ‘Kentucky windage’, or a company policy, and does not really reflect the organization’s ability to manage while short-staffed. You may want to consider if your organization’s needs require a more (or less) restrictive absence policy. If the policies frequently require exceptions, they are likely flawed.

One thing that many leaders fail to take into account is the need to plan vacations. Many people like to take vacations during summer or end of the year holiday periods or during their children’s school scheduled breaks. As a result, a team may end up with more weeks of vacation remaining than there are weeks remaining in the year, causing either a carry-over of vacation, or violation of the reduced staffing policies.

Don’t let the avoidable problems get you.

Failing to plan vacations can cause undue hardship on an organization, especially because discussions of personal time become emotionally charged. It is much better to have the discussion about who gets vacations during high demand periods months in advance—not once people are already committed to personal and financial obligations.

Unplanned absences are the ones that cause the real havoc, though. Last minute adjustments of staff (like when a person gets called suddenly for a kaizen team), illnesses, car accidents, oversleeping, and any of a variety of the things that routinely pop up fall squarely into this category. On the bright side, many of these absences are very short in duration. A person may take a day off for the flu, and be right back to work. In that sense, it is easier to deal with than a two week planned vacation.

Most teams have short term countermeasures in place to cover unplanned absences. These countermeasures may not be precisely scripted (though they should be), but most team have learned to deal with absences out of necessity. The real problem comes when these absences fall on the same day as planned absences, or when an epidemic strikes, taking several people out of the workplace at the same time.

So, what do you do? First, make sure that you have a solid backup plan. This should include a detailed cross-training system. Your cross-training system should not rely on one person taking over for another completely. There should be a shifting and leveling of work to prevent a full 8 hour workday from falling squarely on the shoulders of another person. Generally, this seems to be done better in manufacturing than in the office environment.

If a person on an assembly line is absent, the staffing on the line is adjusted—a single person is not given responsibility to cover completely for another person. A ‘floater’ may be included in the staffing plan to cover absences, a line may be shut down temporarily to reallocate personnel, or the pace of the line may be changed to let the team keep up.

Office staffs seem to consistently do poorly in this regard. In many office environments, person A backs up B, and B backs up A. C and D work as a team. This heaps all 16 hours of work on one person if the partner is absent. Sophisticated teams will split the backup responsibilities among several people, but this is a rarity.

In most cases, an office worker planning a vacation needs to work extra hard ahead of time to prepare for a vacation, and then work extra hard after vacation to catch back up. It almost seems like people do a penance for taking vacation because of the effort that it requires. While they are gone, their backup is focused on keeping up with the critical tasks, but is not able keep up with all the work.

Part of this lies in the belief that that office tasks will ‘keep’ better than manufacturing tasks. You would be hard pressed to find a manufacturing manager who uses this ‘I will have Joe tighten all the screws when he gets back’ method that is common in the office environment. In reality, though, most office delays will be passed onto the customer at some point, and hurts your business.

Your backup plan should include the routine (dealing with vacations), the unusual (unplanned absence), and the worst-case (vacation stacked up with an illness). Don’t limit yourself to only backing up from within the same team. Nothing says an engineer cannot help out answering technical support calls in a pinch. You also may consider asking someone to change their vacation if it is essential—I recommend against demanding it, as the damage to morale is likely higher (and more permanent) than the damage to the process.

Second, work on prevention. Teams with high morale and lower stress tend to have fewer unplanned absences. Build a sense of teamwork in your group so people will be reluctant to take time off unless they really need to. I encourage people to take the day off when they are ill—spreading germs around a workplace is a surefire way to reduce productivity—but you want people to recognize, and care, about the impact on their coworkers when they make the decision to stay home. This might keep them from stopping at the mall on the way to the dentist, or taking the day off because they are worn out from staying up late to watch reruns of old sitcoms.

Finally, manage your risk. Figure out your critical issues, and come up with plans in advance to prevent absences from making a huge impact. Many organizations have that one key person who knows all of the company history, and is the only one who can get certain tasks done. Every once in awhile you hear something to the effect that a business had to shut down for a few hours because the only person on the maintenance team who knew where the circuit breakers were, was out sick.

Bottom line: absences are a part of doing business. Make sure there is a process in place to handle all aspects of them effectively.

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