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How Trial and Error Leads to Innovation

January 9, 2012

An open-minded response to an employee’s shifting schedule needs positively impacts business–and morale.

A month and a half ago, one of our best order fulfillment staff members came to me to say that her son was having trouble in school, and she needed to get home earlier to help him with his homework.  To do so, she would have to change her hours and work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead of the usual 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  We gave it a chance for a few weeks, and it seemed to be failing.  Without her, the team was struggling at the end of each day to get all the orders shipped.  Morale was suffering because other team members with children seemed silently unhappy that she should get the chance to leave early when they could not.  While we wanted to be accommodating, we could not do so if it was hurting the company.  We were close to shifting her back to the regular schedule, but the fact that she was trying to be a good mom and employee gave me pause about doing so.  Instead, we decided to look at the situation differently.

Maybe it was not the new schedule that was a problem, but rather, how it had been implemented.  The last hour of the day was the most important for the order fulfillment staff. It was the end-of-day rush, when everything remaining had to go out in order to meet our everything-in-by-4-ships-the-same-day policy.  Having the team come up one member short at the fastest paced moment of the day was not going to work, but perhaps changing the rhythm of the whole team could.

What if the whole order fulfillment team agreed to change their hours to 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.?  This would mean that all orders would have to be in by 2 to be guaranteed out the same day, which might be challenging, as many of our wholesale customers did not open until noon.  The team would have to be willing to find ways to work faster, and it would have to be an all or nothing effort.  If any one of them were not able to come at 7:30, no one should.

We sat down with the team, and explained the situation.  An early-in, early-out schedule would allow all the team members with kids to get home in time for homework, and the members without children would get coveted free time during daylight hours.  We gave them a long weekend to think it over, and they each responded individually that they wanted to try it.

On the first day, everyone showed up at 7:20 and got straight to work, slightly tired and less talkative than usual. By Wednesday, their sleep routine had adjusted to the new hours, and they were all full of energy—and they were packing more orders per day than in the preceding weeks.  By Friday, when I asked the staff if they liked the new schedule, they were all smiles, and every team member said, “Yes.” They loved getting done early.

The new schedule has been as good for the company as it has been for our employees. Before the change, we were shipping 90% of our orders without mistakes. Now 95% ship error free.  Despite customers having a technically earlier order deadline, the new schedule has forced better organization, allowing even orders arriving at 4:00 to make it out the same day—and with no end of the day pandemonium in the rush hour.  Other company benefits: Better communication between the team members, a genuine interest in making the new arrangement work, and most importantly, a willingness to get involved in helping the company find better ways of working.

None of this would have been possible if I’d assumed that my way was the only way.  Had I been resistant to trying the idea just because it meant changing the organization slightly, we might have lost one of our best employees, and may never have found a better way to get our customers what they need.

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