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Ten Ways to Get Lean Or Add Capacity Fast - Ideas to consider in turbulent times

Getting creative is hard in a crisis

Over the last twenty years we have kept adding to our kit bag of things that make a difference quickly that can be applied in different types of crises.

Many organisations today are looking for immediate workload and cost savings whilst others have been flooded with additional interactions because of the speed of change caused by the pandemic economic. A third problem is that some offshore operations have gone “off-line” meaning that some organisations are having to grow their resource bases rapidly onshore or find other ways to deal with volumes. All this at a time when many organisations have moved to working at-home, enmasse, for the first time (more on that in our next paper). Therefore, we’ve split our ideas below into two groups:

  • Mechanisms that enable rapid workload reduction

  • Techniques to add capacity rapidly

The groups aren’t mutually exclusive because workload reduction techniques can also be used to create capacity for more work and creating capacity can help downsize. We’d suggest reading both lists even if one problem is more top of mind, because some of the ideas work for both scenarios.

We have tried to make these solutions sound simple and we’ve only included ideas we have proven to be effective multiple times. Many of these solutions are a little harder than they sound and need a combination of techniques that aren’t always obvious. Often our clients say “Oh we tried X and it didn’t work” only to find later that they had missed several crucial elements that undo the solution. We could write a paper on each one of these but in the interests of brevity we’ve provided just a quick summary:

Five Rapid Workload and Productivity Ideas

1. The Squeeze

The idea here is to shrink hours of operation. Offering extended hours and weekends sounds great but it is an unaffordable luxury in difficult times. It causes less people to be available at peak demand times and is less justifiable in a crisis. In processing and back office teams it stretches management and in contact centres it can add 20-30% to the staffing rather than compressing the workforce for the core hours when traffic hits. Extended hours of 8am to 8pm with weekends as well, for example, can mean that only 50% of staff are available during daily peaks. So, in order to provide the maximum resource in the peak demand, simply contract your opening hours from 9 to 5, meaning all staff are available for the full amount of the day. Customers normally expect an abnormal response to a crisis and will tolerate restricted hours if they get better service levels due to the capacity lift during the day. It can even have the hidden benefit of encouraging customers to self-serve in out of hours periods if messaging is managed well to enable migration.

2. Proactive Deflection

When companies are hit with a one off problem like “Does my travel insurance cover me

for this pandemic?” or “How do I get my super hardship payment the government just announced?”, they are often so busy handling the sudden spikes in contact that they don’t provide customers with alternative solutions. We recommend a belt and braces approach that includes answering the known question on web site FAQs, putting a message on IVRs and speech systems (perhaps not the one shown in our cartoon) and sending a proactive message to all customers to preempt the query. Not just one of those solutions, but if possible, all of them, at least for a peak period. A one-off email or SMS “blast” if well managed can prevent the need for customers to make contact. They need to be well worded to avoid inducing contact, and of course there is still a percentage of customers who will call, but the more proactive and transparent the message, the lower the rate of contact.

3. Lean the top five processes

We are amazed at how often complexity and “nice to haves” creep into processes. A quick way to save time is to perform rapid process “lean-ing” in workshops with front line staff on the top five highest volume contacts. The redesign process can be done in days and communicated to all staff quickly to cut back on “nice to have” processes like rechecking email addresses or even low productivity up selling and cross selling. In a nutshell, the definition of a “quality” process can be altered in a crisis, but often the wrong things remain sacred. In a recent example we found 20% of the handling time were processes that could be turned off in this crisis period.

4. Choke the channels

We are living in an Omnichannel world, but our observation is that not all channels are created equal. At many of our clients we find that email, messages and chat can be far less effective to resolve many issues (compared to calls) but they have become expected by customers. In times when businesses are busy and losing revenue, this omnichannel approach with varied productivity and effectiveness is a luxury. It adds workload and stretches resources in a very ineffective way whilst delivering high effort customer experience. A clear option is to turn off the least productive channel(s) and focus the resources onto mechanisms that work best. This can free up capacity and improves service levels. This requires changes to the mechanisms used to invite contact. Letters, web pages, texts and email often promote mechanisms that aren’t effective e.g. inviting emails that are often 50% less effective rather than a phone call.

5. Measure what matters

During crisis times we try and simplify the measures to two things; availability and a core productivity metric. We've been amazed how many times people who work in operations may get to work early and go and have breakfast and so on due to the way the trains arrive. In “at home” work situations there may be even greater flexibility. So, in a moment of crisis we can focus on availability, that is, how much of their time is spent making themselves available to do work. This availability measure is simple to calculate and can be implemented immediately. Better still it can replace more complex measures that confuse behaviour and consume time like “adherence to schedule”.

The second focus is a simplified productivity metric like widgets per hour, emails per day or net calls per hour. The combination of an availability and productivity metric can really supercharge an operation and refocus the team for a short period if they complement things like streamlining of processes as we suggested above. This means that staff are available longer and getting through more work each hour. Now a good way to do this is to provide a significant non-monetary incentive for top performers and teams and make it worth their while to come in early, log on or stay a bit later. It recognises those who really are putting in the yards and does not contravene human resource rules if it's done with full agreement and burnout is carefully managed.

Five Ways to Increase Capacity

1. Defer and case manage simple work with a temp force

In peak times most customers understand that they may not be able to get everything done immediately. So, a useful technique to abbreviate some interaction types is to note the non-essential or subsequent work in well managed paper workflow systems or tools like SharePoint. Then, these simple transactions can be used to mobilise a team of temporary agents or casuals to complete the transaction after the contact; this limits the handle time of experienced staff in the core contact teams and enables increased throughput.

2. A human deflection shield

We find many contact centres, processing and email teams have anywhere from 5-20% “dirty traffic” landing with the wrong teams. A second problem, in nearly all our clients, is that the contact mix contains many interactions that are available on digital and self-service solutions. One answer is to mobilise a small group of staff with very clearly defined practices to triage, divert, resolve and direct. Often this uses some of the more experienced staff but with well-defined processes we have been able to use temps with success. These shield practices include rapid ways to analyse the need and complete simple transactions by texting or emailing links to apps, website help pages and so on. They answer calls that can be done rapidly, deflect many and place the remainder in the appropriate queue advising customers of the wait time. This can provide a personal touch and more than pays for itself through deflection and clean-up of traffic. It even works in face to face outlets through concierge roles diverting people to self-service and other channels and making sure people only queue when needed.

3. International Rescue aka the rip cord

When a crisis occurs, it's hard for frontline staff to manage the difficult contacts that occur. They often get long, complex contacts that log jam the operation.

This makes every customer wait longer. It's important to create a very clear process and structure to remove the cases that really need to be escalated quickly. That means having a group of qualified staff allocated to these longer cases that have authority to resolve the issues quickly and effectively for customers. Rather than inexperienced staff fumbling around getting help, support and creating doubt, it’s better to get problems out to a group of “guns” who prevent repeat and extended contact. This can mean diverting experts from trying to be a help desk that advises and coaches on these problems, to a resolution desk that takes on these complex cases and sorts them out.

4. Shrink the shrinkage

We find many organisations are so “locked into” their mode of operations that they can’t change gear in a crisis. These companies see things like “away from work” coaching, meetings and discretionary training as sacred even in crisis scenarios and they all add to shrinkage (the percentage of time staff aren’t available to do their core work). Taking a knife to things that create unneeded shrinkage can be crucial. It may even be beneficial for staff to cancel some activities that are supposedly for their benefit. If too many staff are taken away from the front line, it puts pressure on their colleagues and customers lose. We’ve also shown that there are alternatives to some “shrinkage” categories. For example, coaching side by side at the desk has minimal shrinkage compared to going into a one on one meeting in an office that takes staff away from their work.

5. All hands on deck – contingency spikes

In many organisations there are often lots of people who have “passed through” front line areas like call centres, chat and email teams who have different roles but aren’t called on to help. It's a sign of a great company that most people started in those teams. At times of crises or high demand, it's a great idea to get everyone who can possibly do front line work, back to the front line. We call these contingencies. Other contingencies recognise that service levels vary between different work types and move the workforce around e.g. more people take calls in the morning and emails wait for quiet times. Removing quality monitoring for a period and using quality checkers on calls as well as dialling up part time staff is another great contingency and we even had one client draw on recent retirees and those on maternity leave. We’ve built a long list of contingencies over the years and they help add crucial flexibility in high demand situations.

Want to know more on these ideas?

We hope these ideas are of interest and are happy to share more of the detail about all or any of them if you contact us on the options below. If they sounded too simplistic, of course we didn’t have time to describe the complexities, but we hope they help. We’re already working on our next paper to focus on making home working more effective which poses some different issues. For more information email us at or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438652396.

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