how companies can understand capacity with social distancing guidelines

How to Determine Operational Capacity in a Covid-19 World

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by Ben Dubiel, VP,  Integrated Insight

Published June 4, 2020

Now that businesses are re-opening, owners and operators are asking, “Now what?” The safety of patrons and employees is paramount. But mandates to open at 25% to 50% of capacity without specific operational guidelines are perplexing.

Determining the right capacity for your establishment will require attention to four key components:

  1. Physical space: The amount of space you have at your disposal.
  2. Customer density: How close to each other are customers willing to be.
  3. Operational flow: How customers and employees flow through the operation.
  4. Process time: How long it takes to service a customer and how variable it is.

Determining operational capacity can be difficult as it is necessary to understand how all of the disparate parts of the operation interact together. It can also be an iterative process when done in real time. Alternatively, agent-based simulation modeling can help operators view the overall process to determine bottlenecks before a negative impact on guest safety or experience occurs.

Let’s look at a case study of a museum to identify opportunities for each key component when determining capacity.

1. Physical space: Beware of changing constraints.

The first instinct when thinking about reduced capacity for a museum is to consider how many guests can be allowed to view exhibits at one time. However, you can see in the  simulation video below that the vertical transport to move from floor to floor is the more limiting factor. The operator is required to reserve one elevator for guests with mobility issues. The remaining elevators can only allow one group per trip to maintain social distancing. These constraints reduce the throughput by almost 70%, restricting capacity to the point that the space available in the attraction is not an issue.

Elevator Queue Line Before and After Social Distancing

Elevators will be one of the most difficult processes to manage as social distancing of six feet inside is almost impossible. However, there is a big difference between an office building, where most arrivals are parties of one, versus an attraction, where people visit in a cohesive group.

Another constraint is the space required for the elevator queue. Most elevator lobbies have limited space. Queue lines will need to be laid out to indicate specifically where to stand and could require 3 to 4 times more space than before. It is possible the queue may extend outdoors and reservations only (no walk-ups) could be the future.

2. Customer density: Everyone has to be somewhere.

Understanding individual components of an experience is a good place to start. But eventually, it all has to work together. Everyone has to be somewhere at any given point in time. Alleviating a crowd in one place may create one in another.

For the museum, elevator queueing space will need to be extended to accompany any excess demand, since this is the bottleneck in the operation.

As a perspective, view this articulated density chart that explains the level of comfort people will have in crowded situations.

social distancing chart for customer experience and operational capacity planning

In the Covid-19 world, customers may want to avoid anything in red.  The clip of the simulation below shows a heat map that measures the average density of guests over time.  The new operation and the limited elevator throughput creates a safe environment in the venue by providing at least 10 square feet per guest around exhibits.

Museum Exhibit Heat Map

3. Operational flow: Some restrictions may apply.

In our example, guests used to be able to flow freely throughout the museum, bouncing from one exhibit to another. However, this flow created cross-traffic where guests were in close contact. In today’s operations, this needs to be fixed in order to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Many grocery stores implemented one-way aisles specifically for this reason. It eliminated shoppers facing one another in a confined space. Otherwise, carts make for a good six foot distance barrier when lined up one behind another.

In order to maintain social distancing, the museum needs to transition to one-way traffic. By erecting a barrier that starts at the elevators and continues across the floor, all guests enter one way and experience the museum in a linear direction. The result is a safer experience, but at reduced capacity. As one guest slows down, so do the parties behind them. Passing lanes could be implemented to help guests flow through at their own pace. Interestingly, in the case of the museum, even though capacity on the upper exhibit floors is reduced, the bottleneck that occurs at the elevators actually helps manage exhibit space.

Museum Exhibit Simulation Model

agent based simulation of museum for social distancing requirements
4. Process time: Look for opportunities to offset longer waits.

With social distancing guidelines in place, experiences are going to take longer. The number of people that can fit in an elevator at one time will create longer waits. The number of guests that can use a vehicle in an amusement park may make the queue (real or virtual) longer. The number of visitors that can view an art exhibit at the same time while maintaining safe space will increase the time it takes to see it all. Understanding how long it takes to process one patron, and the variability in that timing, will help determine the capacity limits for each attraction.

Additionally, operators need to look at ways to speed up processes in the system. For example, if food and beverage locations are a potential bottleneck, a “grab and go” system may help alleviate some of the pain.

Here are some ideas to think about: Will adding another show time help spread demand and lower the process time for any one performance? Can extended operating hours better manage overall demand, while being profitable for the business?

Regardless of the business, an operation needs to be viewed holistically. Continuously monitoring the system will ensure that new processes don’t revert back to old ones. This amount of focus and attention to detail will serve businesses well as safety is the top concern for today’s consumers.

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