Abstract for: The Capability Trap: Prevalence in Human Systems

What do abused children, the fatal collapse of the I-35 bridge connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the United States health care system all have in common? We suggest that these examples arise from systems caught in the capability trap, in which pressures to boost short-run system performance lead to greater work effort at the expense of investment in maintenance, process improvement, and learning. As the organization’s capabilities erode, performance falls further, leading to still more pressure to work harder and still lower investment in capabilities. However, the theory of the capability trap (Repenning & Sterman, 2001, 2002) was originally formulated in the context of maintenance and process improvement in manufacturing and petrochemicals, and empirical work to date has centered on such systems. We hypothesize here that the capability trap is more prevalent and maps equally well onto various social systems. We provide an initial assessment on its operation in several domains – critical infrastructure such as water supplies, electric grids, and transportation, focusing on mass transit; social services, focusing on foster care; education and prisons; and healthcare. Rather than providing definitive evidence for each case, we seek to encourage deeper research into these capability trap dynamics and how they can be overcome.