Reclaiming the bench

Why maximizing capacity may be counterproductive

As the Green Bay Packers take the field tonight, only some of them will play; a significant number of players will spend most (or all of) 60 minutes “on the bench.”1 As with sports, in the consulting business, “being on the bench” refers to the time that a consultant is not working on a billable project. As I think about the mental model of “the bench” in consulting, though, I realize that we often misunderstand the metaphor to our detriment. Here’s why.

In consulting, from a managers’ perspective, the bench is often considered a net negative. Time that consultants aren’t working means less revenue and lower profit margins. Indeed, the euphemism that managers apply [n.b. been there] is around “capacity utilization.” The idea is that, if every one is working “at capacity” (i.e., “with no bench”), the profit margins are highest, so maximizing capacity is the goal.

In sports, though, the bench is not a negative. Having backups and excess capacity is essential to playing a strong game. If you’ve ever played a game without substitutes, you’d understand that the bench makes the team stronger.

And, as it turns out, we often place an inappropriate value on maximizing capacity utilization. Quoting Don Reinertsen:

[I]f we combine the belief that efficiency is good, with a blindness to queues, we will load our development process to high levels of capacity utilization. After all, underutilized capacity appears to be waste. High capacity utilization may cause queues, but these queues have no apparent cost. Thus, these two beliefs combine to drive us to disastrous levels of capacity utilization. This, in turn, leads to large queues and long cycle times.

Reinertsen is suggesting that a focus on capacity efficiency actually leads to a perverse result: by maximizing capacity utilization, you are trading off the flexibility to reduce cycle times. And, extra perversely, as you get closer to capacity, the likelihood of long queues goes up exponentially. This is intuitive if you’ve ever experienced a traffic jam; once you’ve hit maximum capacity, queue lengths grow.

Or, for a more pointed set of examples where over-utilization can lead to problems. Have you delayed kicking off a project because you didn’t have enough people or time to work on it? Have you declined opportunities to take on new work? If there’s a delay in your project, can you take on new work or do you just wait until the delay is over?2 All of these are situations where maximizing capacity (as opposed to optimizing capacity) leads to bad organizational results.

Which brings me back home to the sports metaphor of the bench. In sports, we require a bench; we insist that only a set number of players can play on the field at any given time. This “excess capacity” allows a team to adapt if their star player gets injured. It allows a burst of energy when the starters get tired. It allows for “different looks” and strategies during the game.

How then, can we change the “bench” in consulting from a net negative to a metric that is empowering? One way, perhaps, is to double down on measuring cycle time and organizational adaptability. There may be other ways. But, if you’re a manager of people who work in an organization with a “bench,” it might be worth paying attention to what happens “off the field” as an enabler of success.

  1. In American football, there are 53 players on an “active roster” but only 46 players are allowed to play on game day. It turns out that a lot of energy goes into managing that roster. Check out this excellent article on The Anatomy of a 53-Man Roster in the NFL breaking it down. ↩︎

  2. Reinertsen explicitly refers to this category of problems as having “high cost of delay.” His larger point is that people often ignore cost of delay, to the detriment of their bottom line. ↩︎