What are we actually trying to improve?

“Boiling the ocean” is one of those phrases that can be quite accurate but is still slightly irritating to use or hear. It refers to analyzing something to death or tackling a problem with an impossible scope. And it’s an easy trap to fall into when you are looking for opportunities. The usual reason for doing what inevitably ends up as a waste of time is the lack of a hypothesis. If you go searching for opportunity without some idea of what you are trying to determine, you may well have someone throw this phrase your way.

So the starting point for any opportunity hunt is a hypothesis. We use something we call “universal customer value” to begin to identify where to focus. Universal customer value is simply the recognition that four things are important to virtually every customer: speed, accuracy, cost and service. Any of these elements can be improved, but it’s helpful to choose one on which to focus. To determine which one, you must assess which attributes are most important to your customers (or users), and then identify what the gap is between what the current and desired performance levels. Analytically, speed is cycle time; accuracy is error rate; cost is productivity; and service is schedule attainment.

Even if you don’t know what the right number should be, you can identify the gap between what it is and what it could be. That difference is where all the opportunities lie.