The Breaking Point: What’s Your Team’s Minimum Operating Capacity?

“Bus factor (noun): the number of people that need to get hit by a bus before your project is completely doomed.” – Brian W. Fitzpatrick, American software developer and author.

The Breaking Point:  What's Your Team's Minimum Operating Capacity? by Laura Stack #productivityIn recent years, the software development field has contributed a significant number of productivity terms, concepts, and methodologies to the business world at large. No surprise there, since software development is a fast-paced field that prizes speed. Admittedly, not all these ideas have come to the rest of us unchanged; the methodologies of Scrum and Agile Project Management, for example, don’t quite work for most other disciplines, though many of us can adapt the underlying principles to our own work.

Brian W. Fitzpatrick, author of Team Geek, defines one software development concept, the “bus factor,” in the opening quote of this article. While well known (and worrisome) among coders, this concept has barely pierced the veil to other white-collar disciplines. Some gurus may fear readers will confuse “bus factor” with the idea of “getting people on the bus,” a completely unrelated topic. Personally, I prefer the term “Minimum Operating Capacity,” asking not, “How many people we can afford to lose?” but instead, “What’s the fewest number of people my team needs to maintain a decent level of productivity on this project or do complete our regular work?” In other words, how many teammates can keep the team functioning without overworking themselves, or dropping the ball on critical or unexpected tasks?

Our recent paradigm shift toward greater speed and flexibility has made the concept increasingly relevant to us all. For example: if only one person knows how to run the one proprietary process or software that initiates the entire team’s workflow process, the MOC equals the number of people on the team—and what happens if the specialist quits, falls ill, or dies? You’re toast until you figure it out. Therefore, you want to drive the MOC down as low as possible (MOC is like golf—the lower, the better, such as a 3 in a team of 10 members). Every team has a MOC that will change over time as the team evolves.

Minimum Operating Capacity in Action

Modern business visionaries like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have taught us that small teams work best together anyway. We typically achieve higher performance when we can more easily get to know one another’s work styles and have fewer internal points of communication and conflict. However, this makes it even more likely that the loss of one or two people, even temporarily, can break a team.

Every team should have some idea of their Minimum Operating Capacity—how far they can go to cover for missing teammates (click to tweet)—and they’d better not be able to do without them completely in the long-term. Otherwise, the team may be declared overstaffed, and it may not get replacement workers.

Your MOC depends on the size of your team, the type of work involved, how many projects your team juggles at once, and how willingly your teammates (including your leader) pick up the slack. The team’s overall engagement level also affects the MOC.

Honing Team Competence

When your manager created or fine-tuned your team, he or she should have made an effort to find personnel whose skill-sets overlapped slightly. You probably already know how to handle a few of the tasks your teammates specialize in. Other ways to ensure a relatively low MOC include:

  • Detailed documentation of each individual’s daily tasks, so others can pick it up and hit the ground running.
  • Redistributing or sharing responsibility for some of those tasks to other people.
  • Cross training and shadowing, so no one completely controls one aspect of the workflow.
  • Team standards for codes and categories, so others can tell the status or location at a glance.
  • Regular discussion to ensure everyone is using the team standards and documentation.
  • Team retreats where each person describes his or her part of the process in detail.
  • Working to increase flexibility and simplifying your team workflow processes.
  • Regular and consistent team updates.
  • Continuing education and refresher courses.
  • A solid succession plan with contingencies in place for the loss, disability, or long vacation of each team member.
  • Distributed or cloud backup of all data to avoid data loss if one person leaves.

These are the “extra” things most people never seem to find the time to do, but they are critical proactive steps a leader and on-the-ball team members should undertake to prevent crisis.

However, the factors listed above can insure that a few people lost or MIA will not break the team.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.