Empty Capacity

Whether in the context of hospital beds, individual mental processing bandwidth, or organizational learning...everywhere I turn this week, somebody is talking about capacity

Here are some thoughts, rather unstructured, about capacity and adaptability. 

As opposed to some hijacked corporate or academic version, let's start with a general definition:

NOTE: I'm not super interested in entertaining differences in capacity versus capabilities. I'll leave those circular debates up to you guys! 

My wife, an emergency/trauma nurse, keeps telling me of all the vacant floors in her hospital and in the hospitals of her healthcare friends.  With the restrictions on elective and non-essential surgeries, the demand placed on hospital rooms has drastically declined. (Without patients to be cared for, floor nurses are being furloughed at unbelievable rates.) Capacity has not changed -- there are still the same number of hospital beds. However, the availability of such as significantly opened up! 

Her emergency room tends to have a four (4) to six (6) hour wait time. During COVID pandemic? Less than two (2) hours...and sometimes walk right back to a room. The ear aches and upset tummies aren't coming in anymore.

In a weird way, with the plummet in non-COVID system demand, capabilities for non-intensive care COVID19 patients has skyrocketed. It's a prioritization of existing capacity. (In Chicago, for example, this is presumably why the alternate "hospital" at McCormick Place convention center is already dismantling itself.) With this unused capacity, healthcare facility profits are taking a spanking these weeks.  

My NextDoor app is filled with customers bitching about local restaurants' poor service. No kidding. We're in the middle of an economic crisis. Restaurant owners aren't paying wait staff to stand on the curb, greeting patrons through their car windows. Otherwise efficient restaurants are experiencing difficulties transitioning through the logistics of pickup & delivery demands. It's as if they have capacity in their dining rooms...but not in their carry-out. 

Efficiency can be the enemy of capacity. Just-in-time inventory is not currently matching up with shifted demands. I mean...toilet paper??? Capacity has costs. Sure a bigger suitcase costs more financially; it's also heavier to lug around doesn't have the mobility or agility of your carry-on luggage. 

So to combat extra costs of extra capacity, you strive for efficiency. Retail stores no longer have stocks of inventory in the back. Their supply chains are such that deliveries come often enough, and precise enough, that there is no need for that extra square footage of a stock room. 

But when the demands have changed, because the rules of the game have changed, because the environment changed...that prior efficiency can flip to work against you. 

That restaurant might have been super efficient at serving tables. It might not have been ready to manage a busy carry-out counter...or engage with a high-tech food delivery service.

Along with capacity, there is a complimentary conversation about slack and reserves. It acknowledges the danger of running the tight tolerances of an efficient, optimal operation. Slack or reserves refer to the time and resources that go un-used at the moment. It's the hidden stretch in a rubber band.

In my police investigations unit's office, we have "extra" computer workstations. They are unassigned; no detective sits at them. The keyboards may go weeks at a time without being used...literally gathering dust.

And then a big case comes along. We bring in investigators, analysts, prosecutors, and additional officers into our unit. What was once deemed as "extra" is no longer enough. But we've anticipated for these surges. We know they happen. We welcome them. Heck, by opening some types of investigations, we cause them to happen!

Luckily, the bean counters at my police department understand the costs associated with maintaining this sort of capacity. The detectives in my unit appreciate why we dedicate space to this capacity. The bosses respect the philosophy. We have been conditioned to think in terms of what-if and how to maintain certain types of adaptability.

What sort of "adaptive capacity" score would you give my unit? I guess that answer depends on the confidence in, the level of surge, and the potential (or frequency) for certain surges in demand. And how precise we act. And how quickly we can shift. Proudly, my unit can absorb the demands better than many.

But adaptive capacity is much broader than available hospital beds or detective computer workstations. It's a mindset and a philosophy. It's first about appreciating the unpredictable, uncertain, dynamic, complex nature of the world. It's understanding that we do not control all the inputs or the demands placed on our man-made systems with a decided-upon limited capacity. (You've made decisions that impacted your capacity, whether you realized it or not!)

Much like hospital emergency triage nurses know which patients to keep in the waiting room, my detectives know which cases to drop when The Big One comes around. This prioritization is a central theme to adaptive capacity. It empties the demands in a way that our capabilities can match up.

The Illinois Model has been a main project of mine for over a decade:

Depicted by the red axis above, we see capacity. It appropriately intersects with dimensions of unpredictability and strategy. (While I keep changing the labels & colors, the concepts remain the same.)  Capacity is our ability to respond to the demands placed on systems, people, equipment, tools, processes. That is fitness. When demands exceed capabilities, we have stress. When capacity exceeds demands, we have waste or boredom. One (1) of the strategies in this dimension is to grow and nurture capabilities in a way that will match up with both known and unknown demands.
Essentially: Become more adaptive, by being able to handle more & different. 
We can't look at capabilities as merely technical proficiency or efficiency. It's more than increasing knowledge or skill, though that is required too. It's about having a broad, generalized, system-wide perspective on our environment...and shaping our operations so that we have an available reserve of sorts for surge demand. It's a wider look at logistics.

This surge demand must be for that which is predictable (and sometimes desirable!), but also constantly questioning, simulating, what-if'ing, and red-teaming the worst case situations. And while our predictions might be off, we might be able to re-purpose or exapt some of those capabilities in other ways we hadn't quite planned.

Empty capacity is sort of a paradox. In one (1) sense, you've got to have slack in your operation. And if not engineered into it, at least tolerated and permitted. If every minute is filled and every desk stacked with files, there is little room for taking on more. (Let's face it: not every business is going to have allotted time for innovation.) There needs to be an "emptiness" that allows for gathering around the coffee station and to absorb the unscheduled curve ball.

In the other sense, the capacity has to be filled will accessible skills, equipment, materials, tools, space, time. If adaptive capacity in this sense is empty, you've got no padding to fall back on. The efficient system is built with concrete and iron, and it opens and closes on schedule. There can be no resiliency in a vacuum.

COVID has been the biggest changer in my lifetime. While everyone has experienced some change, it hasn't hit my family in the face as hard as many other families. We have steady incomes, from stable jobs, in industries that have conditioned us to see and think in terms of capacity, change, prediction, sense-making, and uncomfortable decision-making. In some ways, life is actually easier for us the past few weeks. We have been blessed and privileged in many, many ways.

The gap in front of others is much wider, much deeper. Some will simply not recover. Nature is re-shuffling the cards and dealing some very bad hands, in a new game that hasn't been played before. The rigid constraints that many had been accustomed to have been torn down, moved, or replaced. It's calling on a mindset that hasn't been nurtured in formal schooling or workplace training. The well is empty.

Maybe during the COVID crisis is not the time to think about the scenario that scares you most. You might be maxed out right now. Fighting to make sense of what's going on. Trying to forecast the future. However, that's where you need to start building that adaptive capacity. In knowledge, understanding, strategy, and mindset moreso than with (or at least prior to) physical preparations.

Maybe this is the exact time to have these thoughts and discussions. It's usually during a huge investigation...eating cold pizza...when we are all exhausted, that I turn to my detectives and remind them to be ready for The Big One.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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