Stop searching for the magic bullet

When it comes to figuring out the perfect staffing level, it just doesn’t exist
By Thomas Bechet
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2006

Wouldn’t it be great to find an easy, objective way to calculate required staffing levels? A “magic bullet” in the form of a software package or a model into which organizations could simply plug numbers sounds appealing. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean figuring out the ideal staffing level is impossible. When it comes to defining required staffing levels, the magic is the result of a carefully crafted combination of effective staffing processes, in-depth business knowledge, keen insight and hard work.

Before defining required staffing levels, it’s important that both HR and managers have a common understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish. Here are some basic elements that should be part of that understanding:

•Clearly set out why the organization is defining staffing requirements. The definition of required staffing levels is a critical component, but not the objective, of any workforce planning process. The organization must also develop a combination of long-term staffing strategies and shorter term plans to allow it to reach the required staffing levels.

•There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. The definition of required staffing levels is as unique as one company or unit is from another.

•Not all definitions of required staffing levels can be completely objective. Some can be, such as where staffing levels are directly related to work output or task time. In other cases, looking for quantifiable relationships is a waste of time.

•Required staffing levels shouldn’t be driven by available financial resources. Organizations need to define the staff required to implement business strategies and plans, define the resources needed to obtain, develop and deploy those staff and then build a case for obtaining and allocating those resources.

•Don’t worry about being precise. The yardstick should not be, “Is my forecast exactly correct?” Instead, it should be whether the exercise is adding value.

Remember that when defining staffing requirements, the organization must also identify required skills and capabilities. Some employers put too much emphasis on staffing levels and ignore the required skills. It is difficult, if not impossible, to define required staffing levels until the organization defines required roles and then identifies required capabilities.

There are several steps an employer can take to define required staffing levels:

•Fully understand the business. HR must be able to identify what is really “driving” changes in staffing levels. If sales of a product are to increase by 20 per cent but manufacturing capacity is to remain unchanged, hiring additional sales staff won’t help achieve the sales target.

•Start by defining changes in roles and positions. Identify changes in roles that will be needed to implement business plans and strategies. Figure out what people need to be doing. Next, define changes in skills and capabilities needed to perform these roles.

•Apply a combination of quantitative techniques. Quantitative approaches are appropriate where there are direct, measurable relationships between staffing levels and task times. Staffing ratios, such as the number of patient hours per nurse, can be set based on either actual values or desired productivity improvements. When defining required staffing levels for a unit, use a combination of approaches tailored to each of the positions within that unit. Verify that the quantitative relationships that have been defined are based on information in business forecasts. It will do no good to create a staffing ratio based on sales of a particular product if business objectives and plans don’t define how much of that product is to be sold.

•Supplement quantitative approaches with qualitative ones. In many cases, quantitative relationships cannot be defined. To overcome this, conduct structured interviews with managers. Provide each manager with a snapshot of current staff (both staffing levels and skills), discuss how the business will be changing during the planning period and define the effect those changes will have on staffing. Usually these changes are defined in incremental terms. If sales are expected to increase by 15 per cent and productivity by 10 per cent, five additional sales representatives will be needed.

•Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. Do the best possible, but determine which parts worked well and which did not. Hone an understanding of the factors that truly drive staffing requirements and focus future efforts on those factors. Adjust staffing ratios so they produce more accurate results. Apply qualitative approaches where quantitative approaches don’t yield predictable results. The process will become more effective and more efficient with each iteration.

Tom Bechet is a principal at Bechet Consulting LLC, a Wayne, Ill.-based consultancy specializing in staffing strategies and workforce planning. He may be reached at tom@bechetconsulting.com.

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