What is Capacity, Anyway?

There has been much talk about capacity in safety over the last couple of years – even using it to define what safety is, such as ‘the capacity to deliver successful work under varying conditions’ or ‘the capacity to fail safely.’

I prefer the former to the latter. We can build capacity into our work so that it fails less frequently, while still working out ways to manage a failure when it occurs. A focus on capacity allows us to increase resilience to respond to unexpected circumstances and create an adaptive environment with a clear emphasis on better work leading to better outcomes.

Which is all good, but what does capacity mean in practice? How do we know when it’s there? And, most importantly, how do we get our organisations to focus on it rather than, to pluck a random example out of thin air, accident rates?

Ron Gantt (as ever) defined it eloquently here What’s capacity? – Safety Differently but discussing cognitive processing and social systems may be a step too far for many organisations. Whatever the topic may be, to get some traction we need to present it in terms that are both simple to understand and practical to implement.

So here is my simple guide to capacity.

Step 1 – define capacity in straightforward terms.

Capacity can be viewed as a combination of the attributes in the list below. This is not perfect, nor exhaustive, but it is a good way of getting the discussion going. CREST provides a nice, memorable acronym and was entirely accidental. I just devised the prompts and then noticed that they made a word when I switched them around a bit.

CCapabilityDo we have enough of the right people in place with the right skills and experience to do the job we are undertaking?
Do we have adequate supervision?
RResourcesHave we provided adequate time and budget to carry out the work? Are our people given the support they need (e.g. out of hours procurement support if something is urgently needed to complete the job)?
EEnvironmentHave we optimised for the local environment as far as possible? This can include:
Making sure conditions are not too cramped to work comfortably.
Planning earthworks to avoid wet weather periods, but having the right equipment nearby if the weather does turn bad.
Setting clear stop work limits for factors such as light, temperature and wind.
SSystemsDo our systems enable work, rather than hinder it?
Do we have real-time access to information while out in the field?
Are communication systems adequate?
Are systems responsive so we can manage variability effectively?
[You can also use this one to prompt discussions about those social systems Ron talked about].
TToolsDo we have access to the right tools?
Are they well maintained and working?
Do our emergency maintenance crews have a full set of all possible tools to grab and go?
Capacity Attributes

Note that I use the word ‘prompt’ rather than ‘category.’ This is about prompting good discussions – it doesn’t matter if you can’t decide whether something is a tool or a resource, so long as you make sure it’s available when required.

Step 2 – share the definition with the business.

We’re changing things up a bit here from what most organisations are used to. This can be a challenge. It often helps to anchor back to something that people are already familiar with. If you have been doing conventional root cause analysis of incidents – using, say, ICAM or TapRoot – you should notice that the attributes of capacity described here match quite well with the type of causal factors you have picked up in investigations: ‘This event happened because we had insufficient trained people on the job and they tried to use the wrong tool because the correct one was broken.’

So, rather than say you want to develop a capacity management process and track that instead of accidents as a new definition of safety, you can point out that you are simply looking for typical causal factors before accidents instead of after. When those factors are found and fixed, you’re calling that ‘building capacity.’

This is really easy for people to understand and it’s hard to argue against. The principal challenge you may get is that finding and fixing everything before it becomes a problem can be massively expensive and time consuming – especially if most of those things don’t end up manifesting as an actual accident. Especially if you’ve been telling them that 99% of the time work is successful. The answer to this is that we have to take a pragmatic approach and understand what are the key risks, which is why this is done in conjunction with operational teams. And when it is done well, you should see benefits in productivity, quality and job satisfaction as well. And, of course, as with every new approach in a complex environment – trial it on a small scale first.

Step 3 – regularly review work to understand the capacity in place.

This can be while planning the work, as a check during work and as a learning exercise after work has finished. One of my approaches is to avoid adding extra work in the name of safety, so always remove something first or build this into an existing process. I have included it as part of routine weekly meetings in a ‘learning from normal operations’ kind of way.

Depending on the time of your discussion and who is there, this can involve stepping through each CREST category. Or it can simply be a discussion of work. Ask questions like:

What went well this week?

What frustrated?

What surprised us?

If something went wrong, how well did we recover?

This feels a bit more natural, and you can extract the capacity factors from the conversation.

Some of the questions can lead to negativity if things haven’t been going so well, so one of the Managers I worked with flipped these around and saved ‘What went well?’ until last, ensuring the discussion always ended on a positive note. Top tip.

Step 4 – plug your capacity gaps.

Sounds easy, but this often involves budget approvals, training new people and other things that take time. If you can’t respond quickly enough, think about whether you can scale back your expectations to something more realistic.

Sometimes you have to make your plans fit your capacity and other times you have to stretch your capacity to fit your plans.

Christa Hutchins

Give this a go and let me know how it lands in your organisation. I’d love to hear what smart ways people can come up with to manage capacity.

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