“For tribal man, space was the uncontrollable mystery,” wrote Marshall McLuhan. “For technological man it is time that occupies the same role.”
In 1916, Einstein, in his general theory of relativity, argued that time is not independent of space. Rather, he said, instead of there being three dimensions – of space – there are four, time being the fourth.
The theory of relativity changed our ideas of ‘space’ and ‘time’. Neither of these, Einstein said, were real, but a simple psychological effect, a product of the material world.
Yet the business world has failed to accept that time is relative. That is good. It can give us an edge that is denied to most of our business rivals.
Time is Not ‘Other’
Here are two themes to help you massage your business idea into a unique shape.
First, in business as in the rest of life, time is not ‘other’. It is part and parcel of the physical things we made and provide to customers. Time is part of our products, part of our services, part of our raw material, and part of our output.
Therefore, we should not think of what we do for customers as separate from the time we take to do it. We should not think of products or services on the one hand, and time on the other. We should think of ‘product-time’ and ‘service-time’. Time is part of the value we add or subtract.
Providing an existing product or service much faster could change its economics and give you a terrific new business opportunity.
Second, time is not finite and short, nor is it our enemy. Time is an integral part of what we do and who we are. Time is a dimension where, like space, we can express ourselves and create value for others, and therefore ourselves.
Unless you are in prison, you wouldn’t say “I don’t have enough physical room to express myself; there is not enough space in my life.” Yet how often have you heard people say something like this – “I don’t have enough time to express myself; I don’t have enough time to do what I want.” It sounds more plausible; it makes as little sense.
By combining the theories of Einstein and Pareto we can discover that if 80 percent of wealth or well-being is created in less than 20 percent of the time available, then there is no shortage of time. For individuals, and for businesses, there is no shortage of time. The problem is our trivial use of time, not time itself.
We use our time most productively for only a tiny part of our existence – most of what we do matters little. Our problem is not time but triviality – few of us achieve our full potential or anything like it.
The Pareto principle says that any person or venture could achieve much more while using much less time.
But the Einstein twist is this – the activities that make the very best use of our time must define our business and make it unique.
Creating 80/20 Time
Here are two steps to create 80/20 product-time and service-time:
1. Compress Delivery Time to Customers
A product or service delivered in half the time, or double the time, is not the same product or service. About three weeks ago I made the mistake of having my laptop couriered by the UK firm Royal Mail from London to Cape Town, where I am writing this essay. I am still waiting for it to be delivered and to be honest have given up hope. Astonishingly, it was tracked to Johannesburg, but the tracking then was stopped, and nobody has a clue where my machine is. Clearly that is not the same service as offered by couriers such as DHL or Fedex!
My laptop is an extreme example. Yet delivering in less time will usually both cut costs and please customers – a double win that should be reflected in higher sales and higher margins, something that is a rare combo.
One way to cut time to offer a product is self-service – a very old idea that still has terrific innovative power. Self-services delegates certain tasks – preferably the most costly or time-consuming ones – to the customer. It’s amazing how long it has taken for supermarkets – built on the principle of self-service – to get customers to check out their own goods.
And of course, online shopping can save both time and money for suppliers and customers alike – but only if the product design is really clever. The extent of self-service activity is only constrained by imagination. What might an ingenious self-service revolution in your business arena look like? Elements of self-service are now being incorporated into the buying and selling of homes – making it quicker, less expensive, and less stressful.
Time may be compressed in many other ways. When I started in management consulting, a typical project took nine months. When I hung up my consulting boots two decades later, it took three months – and the firm I co-founded had invented the one-week study. Maybe it can all be done in an afternoon now.
Belgo, a restaurant chain that started in London in 1992 with my backing, illustrates time-compression. It offered a high-quality meal in a glitzy restaurant at half the price then prevailing. Yet Belgo was extremely profitable. How did we manage that?
By turning the tables very quickly. Most restaurants have one or two sittings a night; at Belgo we went up to seven or eight. I joked to my partners that we ran a fast-food restaurant – they were not amused.
The service in Belgo was extraordinarily prompt. Drink orders were taken within a minute of customers arriving, food orders within three minutes, and the food arrived just five minutes later. We ran a just-in-time factory.
2. Make a Detailed Plan to Cut Time
Typically, more time is taken between the boxes than within them – firms spend more time doing nothing that doing something. A study by the Boston Consulting Group concluded that generally “less than 10 percent of the total time devoted to any work in an organization is truly value-added. The rest is wasted because of unnecessary steps or unbalanced operations.”
The best way to get more enjoyable time in your life is to make more money, and so get other people to do the less enjoyable things. One of the best ways to make more money is to innovate with product-time and service-time. Make time your friend by saving time for your firm and your customers. With a little bit of thought and ingenuity you can have happier customers and higher profits.
Why not try it?