How to get started with job shop scheduling [incl. checklist]

    Martin Karlowitsch
    September 16, 2020
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    If you are a high-mix, low-volume manufacturer, chances are high that scheduling is one of the challenges that you keep struggling with. You may have tried scheduling on a whiteboard, or scheduling with an Excel spreadsheet that grew into a hard-to-handle beast, or you hoped for your new ERP system to provide you with proper scheduling functionality.

    Well, none of these approaches and this isn’t your fault. All these approaches are not specifically targeted towards helping high-mix, low-volume shops to master scheduling.

    So, now you are on the edge of wanting to get started with job shop scheduling. But actually, you do not know where and how to start. You are overwhelmed by the options you have, and the limited “spare” time you have to understand these options. This is what we call the vicious circle of getting production scheduling started and this blog is meant to provide you with very concrete tips of how to get started. Now.

    Getting-Started_AdobeStock_259341317So, here are the proven five steps that you should make if you want to get started with job shop scheduling … and succeed mastering your scheduling challenges.

    Step 1: Define your scheduling goals

    There is no doubt about it. Getting scheduling started (and keep it running) requires an investment; an investment in time and money. Most likely, this is an ongoing investment.

    Like with any other investment, you should be crystal clear of what you want to achieve with this investment. There shouldn't be two (or more) opinions on what your scheduling goals are; and of what the priorities are if you have multiple goals.

    Or, to say it with Bill Copeland:

    “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”

    It is an absolute must to define what you want to achieve with implementing a scheduling software. Here is an action plan of how to make this happen:

    Action 1: Brainstorm ideas and write them down

    I suggest that you first brainstorm general areas of improvement that you want to achieve with implementing production scheduling. This can be something like:

    • I want to gain transparency on what is happening in my shop.
    • I want to sleep better as I know that all jobs are on time.
    • I want to reduce the amount of time spent fire-fighting to have more time for my kids.
    • I want to run my shop smoother.
    • I want to be a more reliable partner for my customers by giving them firmer delivery times.

    You see how this can play out. Make this list long, and write it down so that you capture your intentions. Also, write in 1st person as I did. Nobody will do it for you. Your goals, your investment, your gain.

    --> Download a summary of this long blog post as an actionable checklist. This  will help help you to kickstart your job shop scheduling efforts. <--

    Action 2: Prioritize your ideas

    Do not go for the eierlegende Wollmilchsau when you start with job shop schedulingNow to the hard part. Be honest with yourself. You will not be able to achieve everything you aim for in one go (and if there are vendors who suggest that they can be highly alarmed and skeptical). If you do not prioritize and instead try to go for it all, you most likely will go for what we Germans call the “eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (see picture).

    I recommend that you actually make a ranking list. This avoids that you add seventeen ideas into the priority 1 class, and then the remaining three into the priority 2 class. This – by the way – would be typical human behavior. However, although being typical, it barely is successful.

    Be specific on what is most important to you.

    And by the way: if you are unsure if job shop scheduling is right for you, please have a look at our ultimate guide to visual job shop scheduling.

    Action 3: Turn your ideas into SMART goals

    Once you have a list of prioritized ideas, you need to turn these ideas into goals. It is common knowledge that goals should be SMART:

    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Attainable
    • Relevant
    • Time-Bound

    Here is an example.

    • Idea: “I want to be a more reliable partner for my customers by giving them firmer delivery times.”
    • Smart goal: “I want to deliver 90%+ of my jobs in time within the next 9 months.”

    Do this with the three ideas ranked one, two, and three. Now you have a powerful, prioritized list of scheduling goals. Just imagine you manage to get these three specific and measurable relevant goals accomplished within the given time frame.

    Step 2: Derive major scheduling requirements from your smart goals

    Knowing your goals is one thing. Turning them into requirements for a scheduling system is the other thing. I sense that will be tough for many of you as you might have never thought about it (and never did it before).

    Here is an example of what I mean. If your smart goal is “I want to deliver 90%+ of my jobs in time within the next 9 months.”, resulting scheduling requirements could be:

    • I need a system that allows to quickly see promised delivery dates and production finish dates next to each other
    • I need a system that (visually) alerts me if my promised delivery date will be missed
    • If my promised delivery date will be missed, I need to quickly see by how far the critical jobs will miss their delivery date
    • If my promised delivery date will be missed, I need to quickly understand my options in terms of countermeasures
    • When applying countermeasures, I need to understand what impact they have on other jobs
    • Etc.

    I know: this might be new to you. Hence, here are two tips that you should keep in mind when doing this exercise.

    Tip 1: Apply the 80/20 rule

    The 80/20 rule is one of the most helpful concepts for life and time management.

    Also known as the Pareto Principle, this rule suggests that 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results.


    The Pareto Principle is a concept that suggests two out of ten items, on any general to-do list, will turn out to be worth more than the other eight items put together.

    Here’s what you should do to effectively apply the 80/20 rule to deriving scheduling requirements. First, take your list of SMART goals. Then ask yourself: If you could only accomplish one of the goals on that list, which one goal would have the greatest positive impact on your shop?

    If your list just has 5 goals, stick with the one goal you just identified. With this, you have determined the most important 20 percent of your goals that will help you more than anything else. If you have 10 goals, pick also the second most important.

    Then apply tip 2 to only these two goals.

    --> Download a summary of this long blog post as an actionable checklist. This  will help help you to kickstart your job shop scheduling efforts. <--

    Tip 2: Keep it soft, make it quick & dirty

    Perfection is the enemy of anything.

    This must not be perfect. It also must not be complete. It also does neither require advanced software development skills nor endless time.

    Keep it as quick and dirty brainstorming so that you have a list of requirements for your scheduling system. A list that is written in your words, and a list that you understand.

    Congratulations: now you have a nice list of scheduling system requirements with which you can move to step 3.

    Step 3: Talk to scheduling software vendors

    If I say “talk to scheduling software vendors”, I also say: resist the temptation to try scheduling software on your own. There are solutions out there that pretend that they are super easy. They give you a free trial, or even a free account (with limited functionality).

    Here is the thing:

    1. Most solutions that are easy, are also simple. However, job shop scheduling is tough. It is very tough, and it is far from being simple. Simple software will not solve your tough scheduling issue.
    2. In our region, we have a saying that literally can be translated as “if there is no cost, there is no value”. If the software is free, chances are high that it is very lightweight. If it is lightweight, it most likely does not solve your tough scheduling issue.

    Rather than going the “it cannot be that hard, I will do it all by my own” way, we highly recommend that you talk to vendors. Get on the phone with them. Schedule a free exploratory session with them. By the way: Here is the link to a 30 minutes free exploratory just plan it meeting.

    Confront them with your goals and your resulting requirements and see if there is a fit. This is a faster path to success than playing around with and getting lost in a zillion of free software tools.

    Step 4: Gather and structure your data (that is relevant for scheduling)

    Let’s do a little recap. To put it briefly, scheduling is a process of matching internal demand with internal supply – meaning matching jobs with available resources – and bringing everything in a timely order.

    Keeping this in mind helps you to answer the question: What exact input data do I need to successfully run a visual job shop schedule? Looking at the underlying scheduling data, there are two main building blocks:

    • Jobs and
    • Resources.

    Action 1: Gather relevant data about your resources (internal supply)

    Task 1: List your resources

    Resources constitute the capacity that fulfills the operations of your production process. This includes all machines, working stations, or workers available. List them all.

    Task 2: Group your resources

    If there are similar resources, group them. “Similar resources” typically are those resources that can do similar tasks. This gives your list of resources a better structure. This structure might look as follows:

    • CNC machines
      • CNC machine 1
      • CNC machine 2
      • CNC machine 3
    • Milling machines
      • Milling 1
      • Milling 2

    Task 3: Add your standard resource calendar

    You typically have a standard calendar or different standard calendars. Let’s say parts of your shop work one shift Monday to Friday, others two shifts each day of the week. This is what is meant here with a standard resource calendar.

    Write this next to each resource in the list above. Do not make it complicated. Do not add exceptions, holidays, etc. to it. Just the standard calendar describing the standard availability of the resource.

    Action 2: Gather relevant data about your jobs (internal demand)

    Task 1: Define a job by its metadata

    Defining a job by its metadata sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Here is what you should do.

    1. List your jobs (e.g. write down the job numbers)
    2. Then per job specify
      1. The earliest start date (if you have one)
      2. The due date (e.g. the date that you need to finish the job so that you deliver in time)

    That is all that is needed for scheduling!

    Task 2: Define a job by its tasks

    Now for every job write down the tasks that you need to do to get this job down. Also, write them down in the sequence of order that you need to do them.

    For every task, you need to have the following information:

    • Give the task a task number (so that you can identify it)
    • Specify the successor of the task via the task number
    • Specify how long it takes to finish the task (keep it simple and ignore a potential differentiation between setup time, runtime, etc.)
    • Specify either the resource group or the resource that is needed to get the task done

    That’s all. It will be some work.

    However, having the data structured properly truly makes it easier for you to get started with job shop scheduling. And by the way: we have an Excel template that helps you with this data preparation work. Download the Excel scheduling template here

    Step 5: Make use of an on-boarding service

    As said earlier: job shop scheduling isn’t easy.

    If you consider using a software solution to help you master this challenge, software alone will not do the job. Any software that is promoted to you as “easy and no support needed” is a toy that might be good looking, but most likely is not problem-solving.

    If you want to succeed with job shop scheduling, look for software and best practices. Look for software and experts that help you succeed with the software (and achieve the scheduling goals that you developed that nicely).

    We condensed our expertise, our best practices, and our scheduling insights into our on-boarding services. It is a service that we deliver to every client. This service is individual, on the spot, tailored to your goals, and affordable.

    Make use of it.


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