OR/MS Today - April 2002|
Innovative advanced planning software for an integrated approach to workforce management optimization
By Steef L. van de Velde
Workforce planning and management offers OR/MS practitioners a range of challenging planning puzzles. Frequently studied examples of such puzzles are found in the field of airline crew scheduling [Vance, Barnhart, Johnson, Nemhauser, 1997], call center operator scheduling [Thompson, 1997], police staffing [Freeman, 1992] and nurse scheduling [Dowsland, 1998]. The attention devoted to workforce management is growing, both inside and outside the OR/MS society. Hospitals are confronted with decreasing budgets and decreasing availability of human resources. Shops are forced to accept longer opening hours. Internationally operating organizations need to accept more working hours at irregular, inconvenient times. The aim for workforce management in this competitive world is to keep personnel costs as low as possible and, at the same time, take good care of the health and social needs of personnel.
The advanced planning software suite ORTEC HARMONYTM offers a strong basis to support a wide range of workforce planning and management processes. State-of-the art optimization techniques are embedded in a user friendly software environment that allow experienced planners to benefit from these techniques without the necessity to have knowledge of OR/MS.
The mission of HARMONY, and its creator, ORTEC, is to provide planners and managers access to the benefits of mathematics, and operations research in particular. The basic philosophy of HARMONY is to integrate workforce management with administrative and (other) logistics processes of an organization and to enrich the decision-making within the field of workforce management by OR/MS techniques. The integral approach of workforce management processes is what distinguishes HARMONY from most of the studies in the OR/MS literature. These studies, such as the ones mentioned above, focus on a specific sub-problem within the workforce management process of an organization. Their result often is an algorithm to solve such a sub-problem. HARMONY offers an environment to embed such algorithms and make them of use to planners in real practice.
HARMONY for Workforce Management
The operational planning of personnel (shift scheduling and rostering) happens in the context and under the influence of other processes within an organization. Operational planning and the actual execution of these plans are subject to conditions on labor and rest times and remuneration of exceptional working practices (time-for-time and money-for-time compensation). The process of workforce management, in the view of ORTEC and supported by HARMONY, starts with policymaking on the conditions valid for operational planning. The tactical planning then deals with the services and products an organization is to distribute to its customers.
The tactical plans are translated on an operational level to the activities and shifts that have to be executed. Operational plans may be subject to last-minute changes. In response, the process of real-time control takes care of these disruptions and keeps the operational plans up to date. Finally, the process of registration of time and attendance data handles disruptions that occur during the execution of the plans. Think for instance of unforeseen extensions of working hours (overtime). The information gathered during these processes forms a solid basis for evaluation of the entire workforce management process and may invoke new initiatives in policymaking, thus completing the process cycle (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Workforce management process.
Support for Policymaking and Tactical Planning
HARMONY pays special attention to the ability to create alternative conditions for operational planning. A scenario mechanism combined with the possibility to define new conditions allows the user to analyze the effects of different conditions on the operational plans. Conditions on labor and rest times and remuneration conditions can be very complicated. See figure 2 for an example taken from the Dutch law on labor and rest times; a law that contains beyond any doubt examples of the most complicated conditions on labor and rest times found worldwide.
Figure 2: Rules regarding weekly rest time taken from the Dutch law on labor and rest times
At the level of policymaking and tactical planning, the HARMONY Product Suite offers software modules dedicated to specific decision processes. An example is the HARMONY prompt module. Prompt supports multi-project management. It allows for simulation in order to optimize order acceptance, in particular with respect to realistic price setting and reliable delivery-time quotation. It also offers support to obtain insight in the consequences of unexpected new work and delay in the progress of project activities.
Prompt offers two strategies at the level of rough-cut capacity planning. Due date driven planning considers the due dates to be hard deadlines. Usage of non-regular capacity (overwork, hiring, subcontracting) is allowed, but the usage is minimized by optimization routines. Using capacity driven planning, regular capacity forms a hard restriction. Prompt then determines an allocation of available capacity such that due dates are met as well as possible (lateness minimization). By means of Gantt chart representations, the user is informed on the quality of the plans obtained during the simulation and optimization runs (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Multi-project planning within the HARMONY prompt module.
Support for Operational Planning
HARMONY offers an advanced planning environment for shift scheduling and rostering processes. The operational planning phase starts with the definition of shifts and ends at the moment of publication of shift rosters to the employees involved. HARMONY offers the user alternative ways of support to design these rosters, such as the construction of cyclic rosters, the construction of calendar-related rosters based upon these cyclic rosters, holiday planning, and two mathematical engines to create new rosters or complete existing (partial) rosters. The first engine uses an insertion technique. It allows for fast construction of good rosters and is ideal for simulation analyses. The second engine uses a genetic algorithm to iteratively improve existing rosters.
Support for Real-time Control
The support for real-time control consists primarily of a very user-friendly planning board (Figure 4). It is a graphical user interface that represents a shift roster in the central part. On the one hand the planning board provides insight into the quality of the roster, while on the other hand it is a very easy to use instrument for real-time control. Users are supported with different functionalities:
Figure 4: Planning board for shift rosters.
A second planning board allows for the construction and manipulation of operational plans at an activity level. In a Gantt chart representation, planners can assign personnel to tasks on a day-by-day basis. The planner is supported by an algorithm to find the best assignment. This activity-based planning board has a similar structure as the planning board for shift rosters.
Support for Time & Attendance
HARMONY allows for the registration of time and attendance data. Based on this data in combination with the registered plans, management information as well as payroll information can be calculated and reported. In contrary to most non-European workforce planning systems, HARMONY is very suitable for the generation of complex payroll information such as common in the Scandinavian region, Germany, France and the Benelux.
HARMONY offers a very open software environment that is well suited for integration with other related business processes and software systems. Several means of interfacing allow for data exchange with human resource-software, payroll-software, time registration software and invoicing software.
The design is based on a three-tier architecture, with different layers for:
Since HARMONY is a product suite instead of a single product package, several forms of documentation exist parallel to each other. Larger organizations in general receive documentation that is written in close cooperation with the distributor. Such documentation contains examples taken from the business processes of the customer. The smaller organizations receive standard documentation describing the software in general terms. The usability of this standard documentation stands open for improvement. Users of HARMONY, however, have to keep in mind that HARMONY is not a product to be learned from its manual. New users benefit from courses provided by the distributor.
Implementation of HARMONY
HARMONY is a powerful solution. It offers advanced planning software embedded in an ERP-like setting. The support of the administrative organization for workflow management is sound and complete. A good understanding of this administrative organization, as well as a basic knowledge of workforce planning, are necessary conditions for proper use of HARMONY. To integrate the use of HARMONY in everyday practice, an organization is advised to pass through a thorough implementation project, including activities; business process modeling, software configuration, integration in the ICT infrastructure, software acceptance and pilot tests, basic and advanced user courses, training on the job, and installation of a first line helpdesk (for the larger organizations). When done properly, the organization can expect to benefit from the power of the functionality offered.
For this review, HARMONY was implemented on a Pentium PC with operating system Windows 2000 and MS SQL Server as database management system. The software implementation was executed from an installation CD by a consultant from ORTEC. The installation procedure took a couple of minutes and seemed straightforward. A multi-user installation with a database server, a HARMONY server and several HARMONY clients can perform within a couple of days. Pricing of HARMONY is dependent on the scope of the project, the level of integration required, and more importantly, on the number of scheduled employees (stand-alone implementations start at around $50,000).
ORTEC, the producer and distributor of HARMONY, has 250 to 300 OR/MS practitioners and is one of the largest independent consultancy firms and software providers in the world with a focus on OR/MS. Although relatively unknown, the organization as well as its suite HARMONY seem of high potential to me. Students in our MBA program have been impressed by demonstrations of HARMONY in the classroom. To summarize, HARMONY's strengths are:
Steef L. van de Velde is a professor Operations Management & Technology at the Rotterdam School of Management of the Erasmus University, the Netherlands. He has more than 10 years of experience as a consultant on international contract research projects. One of his fields of interest is workforce management and planning. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Scheduling, Operations Research and Operations Research Letters.
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