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The Capacity Conundrum


By Tom Davidson

My first lesson in maximizing capacity was when I was 11 years old, delivering newspapers, but the principle applies to every leader, team, and organization. The principle is this: C = f (H ,T, M), in other words, capacity (C) is a function of horsepower (H), time (T), and motivation (M). 

While it might seem funny to younger readers, newspapers across America used to be delivered to doorsteps by an army of little feet, children and teenagers earning what they could for bubble gum, bicycles, and summer camp. My first major paper route of about 90 homes was for The Washington Post, and it included delivering the paper, adding customers, and collecting the monthly fee by knocking on doors.

With my first route, I could get the papers delivered before school during the week and by 9:00 am on most Sundays (when it wasn’t raining). The capacity problem arose when I took on a second paper route when the adjacent neighborhood became available. If one route was good, I thought, then two would be better! The only problem was that it more than doubled the number of papers, and there was still just one of me!

To my 11-year-old mind, the only variable I could change was to start earlier. So my new routine was to meet the delivery truck on the first route when it arrived, about 4:30 am, so I could get the earliest possible start. This bought me just enough time for weekdays and Saturdays (when the paper was only half-an-inch thick), but Sundays were a disaster (when the paper was three times that size and ad pages had to be inserted in each newspaper)!

Most Sundays it took me until after 10:30 am to get all the papers delivered, far too late to maintain a happy customer base for long. Even alternating the delivery route backfired. My new strategy was to spread the pain among my customers so that those who had gotten their papers late the previous Sunday got their papers early on the next one.

But when it came time to collect on the bills, all the customers remembered the late papers and none remembered the early ones! With the doubled route size and tripled paper weight on Sunday, I had put myself in the capacity conundrum with all the best intentions and all the worst results.

What’s Your Paper Route?
The capacity conundrum says that one’s quality production capacity is limited by the variables of horsepower (i.e., people, equipment, resources, or capital), available time, and motivation (i.e., discretionary effort, creativity, focus, and energy), and it reaches a point of diminishing returns when the three variables are exhausted.

By now you’ve met this monster on the job as well, not only as an individual contributor but as a frontline leader responsible for the capacity of your work unit. Your choices are limited, but knowing what they are is half the battle. Having a heart-to-heart with yourself, your boss and your team can be much harder, so here are the questions you need to ask.

Questions and Choices

C is for Capacity

  • How much is on your plate and the plates of others?
  • Is it a reasonable stretch amount, or is it wishful thinking?
  • Is it do-able some of the time but not a consistent basis?
  • Is it work you really have to be doing, or can it be contracted out, shared with others, or eliminated?
  • What has changed that makes your capacity challenge new or different?
  • What assumptions are you making about your capacity that need to be challenged?
  • How are your capacity issues affecting the quality of your delivery, and how long can you stand it?

H is for Horsepower

  • Do you have enough people and the right people on the job for your “newspaper route”?
  • Are people clear about their roles and responsibilities, or are they stepping on each other’s toes, dropping some balls, or missing handoffs?
  • Have you revisited your goals so that they are clear and prioritized? If not, people could be spreading their horsepower too thinly at a bad time.
  • To what degree are you dealing with poor performers? When these aren’t dealt with, the horsepower of others is diverted to pick up the slack.
  • What are you spending your time on, putting out fires or preventing fires from igniting in the first place?

T is for Time

  • People spend time on what’s important to them. Have you made it clear to yourself and others exactly what is important and why?
  • What do you need to say “yes” to so that you can say “no” more often?
  • Done is better than perfect. Are you willing to let it go when the task reaches an acceptable point of completion, or are you (or your boss) a perfectionist who needs to strike a better balance between quality and productivity?
  • Every job will expand to fill the time that’s given. Are you being very careful about what tasks you are assigning and what is expected of each so that they don’t compete unnecessarily for limited time?

M is for Motivation

  • True motivation comes from within, and everyone is different. Have you fit the right person to the right job – for them?
  • People role model the leader. Are you doing what you’re asking of others? Are you complaining about the workload as much as they or doing something about it?
  • Are you dealing with poor performers? If not, then the rest of the team is unlikely to put themselves out more than absolutely necessary. After all, if your slackers can get by, then why not others?
  • To what extent do you celebrate success, look for what’s’ working, and highlight what’s going well? The more you look at what’s broken, the more down you’ll bring your team.
  • Every job has a sense of drudgery if repetitive or “old news.” Are you spicing up people’s jobs with the things that interest them, even in small ways?

In short, you don’t have to fall victim to the capacity conundrum. Like that big elephant, break it down into smaller chunks using the formula C = f (H ,T, M) to see what you CAN affect before all your customers remember are those bad Sunday deliveries!


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