If you want to be sure your organization gets the day-to-day work done while continually improving so that you can keep pace with a fast-changing marketplace, then you need to understand the concepts of capacity management and staff scheduling. And while the term itself might sound a little dry or technical, it’s actually something you do all the time in other areas of your life.

Let’s say you pour a cup of coffee, and you want to add a little cream and sugar to it. What happens if you don’t get that mix just right? Maybe it’s too sweet, or there’s not enough room for cream. Well, the result is that it’s not as enjoyable. It just doesn’t work for you. Or maybe you put too much coffee in and overfill the mug. Now you’ve got a big mess. Through trial and error, though, you’ve probably gotten pretty good at managing the capacity in a coffee cup. You can gauge the amount and the proportions pretty well.

In fact, throughout your life, you’ve learned from experience to control the amount you put in containers, whether it’s paint in a five-gallon bucket, cement in a wheelbarrow, beer in a pint glass or items in a purse or wallet. But there’s one area where it seems like most of us haven’t learned much over the years—the container that is your organization.

There are only so many people in your organization, and it only has so much capacity for work. Yet how often do we get the mix wrong between day-to-day activities and the initiatives that are supposed to make the organization better? How often do we try to overfill the organization with work, loading more and more on until we’re left with a big mess? In business terms, that mess might mean failing to hit critical goals, turning out substandard work, or ending up with a staff that’s completely burned out.

If you get the mix wrong, you could end up with a mess of a different sort, where you’re able to get all the day-to-day work done, but unable to complete your initiatives and, as a result, never improving as an organization. In that case, you might as well be using dial-up Internet while everyone else blazes past you with fiber optics, because if you’re stuck at the same level of efficiency and productivity as you’ve always been, the world is going to quickly outpace you.

Managing the Variables

Of course, in business, things are dynamic. Work isn’t always consistent in terms of difficulty. Some is easy, some is hard, and some turns out to be harder than you expected it to be. People’s skill levels also vary. Some can handle a heavy workload effectively and efficiently, while new employees are still learning the ropes. And sometimes you have many different people involved, which can create a variety of coordination and communication issues.

But if you think about it, it’s a lot like pouring a beer in a glass. Each beer has different levels of carbonation. The temperature of the beer isn’t always constant. Glasses are different shapes. Because of these differences, sometimes the pour has a lot of foam and spills over, making a mess. Other times, there is little foam, and it all fits in the glass just perfectly. With practice, experience, attention and the right technique, a mature pourer will get it right every time.

So, what’s the foolproof technique you can use in business? Let’s take a look at how you can correctly fill the container of people in the organization with work.

The Basics of Capacity Management 

Work effort is measured in FTEs. It’s a way of thinking of the work unit and describing the effort. In other words, if you have two people who work for you full time and two who work for you halftime, you have a total of 3 FTEs working for you. This is important to know as you start scheduling staff.

To identify your total organizational resource capacity, first, convert people’s availability to FTEs. Then add together all of the organizational resources (FTEs), subtracting out administrative and managerial FTEs (i.e., people who aren’t directly involved with producing), and you’ll have a number that represents the total FTEs available to you.

Next, from any demand forecasting and workflow efficiency you’ve done, you’ll be able to figure out how many day-to-day (Operational) work FTEs you need for the next period of time. For example, if you have 50 FTEs total in the organization, and you know you’ll need 40 FTEs to produce what needs to get done in the next month operationally, that means you have 10 FTEs available for initiative work. You might decide to put someone full time on initiative work, or you might divide their time between operational and initiative. The point is, this information gives you a lot of flexibility when you start assigning people work.

Now it’s time to focus on the initiatives. Let’s say you have six initiatives that you want to do. Based on your scheduling and prioritization, you’ve decided to start three of those first. You know from your estimating how long it’s going to take and how many people you need to make that happen. As you go through this process, you might realize something: You don’t have enough FTEs available for the initial work you want to get done. This is where you can make a mess and try and do too much. Start fewer initiatives where you find yourself in this situation.

Getting Staff Scheduling Right

Now that you know how your FTEs are split up and what initiatives you’re going to start, you can assign people to the FTEs. In the typical scenario, a manager will say, “I want you to work on operations, and when you get the chance, work on this initiative.” But what happens when you mix operational “oil” and initiative “water” in the same container? The operational work will always stay on top of the initiative work.

As you assign people to FTE allocations for operations and initiative work, some will be assigned to only operational work for the work period, while some will be assigned to only initiative work for the work period. Others will be assigned to split their time between operational and initiative work for the work period.

For initiatives, the best option is to schedule a person 100% to that work so that they can be focused and get it done. Sometimes, this isn’t possible, but if you’re going to split the work, never go less than 50/50. In those cases, it’s best to segregate the work by whole consecutive days. If you can’t do that, then separate the days into four-hour chunks. Keep the schedule breakout consistent until the initiative is complete. You need strong container walls to keep the work separate.

With lots of observation and practice, you can get the mix right and not overfill the container. To be sure, it does take practice, but eventually, it will become part of your way of doing things. And it will be worth it. It will keep you from ending up with a big mess on your hands — in the form of low engagement, high turnover, and a reputation for not being able to deliver results.