The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

A Powerful Tool: The Capacity Matrix

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I attended a 4 day seminar by David Langford about 15 years ago. The seminar was on using Deming’s ideas to improve education. I wasn’t in the education field, but I believe what I wrote about earlier: we don’t need to restrict our management learning to our industry. And thankfully my boss shared that thinking and approved my attendance. I learned a great deal at that seminar.

One of the things that I learned about at that seminar was using a capacity matrix to improve student learning. It is one of those ideas that when you hear about it, immediately you realize this is a vastly superior method to those current used. I am cynical/experienced enough to know that just because much better methods are available, and explained to people, is no guaranty they will be used.

I haven’t managed to get the capacity matrix idea adopted in organizations I worked in. But I do think it is a vastly superior way to manage career development, training, certification, coaching, education… in organizations. I used the idea some to help myself understand what was needed to guide decision making on those topics. I do believe directly using capacity matrices would have been useful but given my options I chose to put my efforts behind pursuing other improvement ideas.

Applying them would have been useful the organizations but I felt I would have to abandon other things in order to push for their use and I had less likelihood of success with getting capacity matrices used directly. My philosophy is very much based on the idea of building the capability of the organization for the long term; by growing the capability to adopt better management methods eventually adopting capacity matrices into the management system would be more likely to succeed.

And I used one for myself and found it worthwhile. I think it would be useful to anyone interested in seeking to improve themselves and their skills and abilities, even if you do it totally on your own.

You can view an example capacity matrix from Quality Learning Australia (registration required – free). Langford for Learning web site provides many example learning matrices and How to use Capacity Matrices in the Elementary Classroom… (also requires registration – free).


The basic idea of the capacity matrix is to track your capability for each concept:

  1. awareness (information) – I am aware of this idea and can recall pertinent details as needed.
  2. knowledge (understanding and comprehension) – I can explain this idea or theory. I can translate the idea into my own words. I can make an example to explain the idea and demonstrate learning.
  3. know-how (analysis and application) – I can separate the concepts into component parts (analysis). I have the ability to use the ideas in new situations. I recognize new problems and can develop new tools to solve them. I understand what I don’t know, what tasks are beyond my current capability.
  4. mastery (judgement and evaluation) – I have the ability to put separate ideas into a unified whole (synthesis). I understand why components work together as they do. I understand when it is appropriate to apply new knowledge to an application. I have the ability to accurately judge the value of ideas relating to this topic. I can put ideas together to create something new. I can teach others about this topic.

The details of these 4 categories are largely drawn from material from David Langford. Exactly what definitions of the individual levels make sense will depend on your situation. It would likely be sensible to have somewhat different explanations for students in school and workers in a business. The basic ideas would hold for moving from being aware of ideas growing into the ability to analyze, judge and create new applications based on your knowledge.

I am not able to imagine anything that will do a better job of illustrating what needs your organization has and provides such good guidance for individuals on what is expected of them and where they need to improve to get where they want to go. Good job instructions can help but often there are competencies that are required that are not really tied to a specific job task (it seems to me). And when I have seen organizations prepare job descriptions or job announcements to fill vacancies, they have always left out many critical factors.

I could see capacity matrix expectations (for capabilities needed in a job) as very valuable in such situations. A good capacity matrix (for tasks/positions in the workplace) would provide guidance for hiring and coaching, and would help individuals know what areas they need to work on.

Also, an applicant coming with their career capacity matrix workbook would make job interviews much more useful. Just like a student showing they have mastered the necessary material, an applicant (internal or external) could provide details on how they have mastered the expected competencies.

Of course, there is the problem of how people would really react if someone showed up for an interview with such a specific record of their capabilities. Sadly my guess is many people would be more scared of this useful information than would be appreciative (the fear of the different is still very strong, in my experience anyway).

It seems to me that obviously such a manner of matching potential employees to the needs of the organization is a huge improvement upon current methods. When our organizations will finally reach the point where such an improved process is used is sadly likely to be a long time from now. Likely the use of capacity matrices will have to grow exponentially in grade school, middle school and high school and beyond. And then finally we will have enough people in business that are shocked at how we fail to use this tool in our other organizations. And then we will finally widely adopt them in business.

The capacity matrix is a tool created and designed by David Langford and Myron Tribus.

The idea is that the student would maintain a workbook that would also include evidence for the claims made about capabilities (as I remember it – from a long time ago). In looking online that is mentioned a bit, but you might not immediately notice that when you follow the links to learn more about using them.

There are many ways the capacity matrix is beneficial. One of them is to make very clear what the current status is, of information that is difficult to visualize. It is similar to the idea of visual management – making visible what is important. In the normal school environment it is very difficult for anyone (student, parent, teacher…) to understand what the student has learned, what topics the student is expert in, what topics the student is weak, what topics are all the students struggling with, what topics are all the students succeeding at, what types of evidence are correlated with successfully building on that knowledge at later time (later years…), etc..

When that information is visible to those that would benefit from knowing that information they can work to improve. Without it visible there is an awful lot of assumptions, making stuff up and wasted effort.

Please share your experience with use a capacity matrix in the comments or ask questions that you have.

Related: Attributing Fault to the Person Without Considering the System“The greatest waste in America is failure to use the ability of people.”
Psychology: Managing Human Systems


Categorised as: continual improvement, education, systems thinking


2 Comments

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