A busy executive, his day filled with meetings, phone messages, and emails, rises each morning at 5 am to spend a quiet hour in his garden, practicing the art of bonsai. His goal: to focus his mind so totally on the bonsai that he creates a void. That way, whenever a problem arises during his business day, a solution will arrive instantaneously. According to Keri Pearlson, 41, and Ray Yeh, 60, professors in the business school at the University of Texas at Austin, this executive is working and living in "Zero Time." "Zero Time means that when something needs to happen, it can happen immediately," Pearlson explains. Adds Yeh: "Zero Time is not only about the compression of time. It's about the ability to react instantaneously, to provide value for every customer at every opportunity. Without the Internet, you can't be Zero Time — period." Pearlson and Yeh are pioneering the Zero Time Project at the UT-affiliated IC2 Institute, where they conduct case studies on Zero Time competition. Becoming a Zero Time company, they argue, means mastering five critical disciplines.
Zero Value GapThe world of Zero Time actually starts with negative time. "Recently, I was working with a mortgage company," Pearlson says. "Like most mortgage companies, this one takes weeks to handle the paperwork on an application. A Zero Time mortgage company would anticipate what needs to happen on a mortgage — before a customer applies for one. But most mortgage companies don't start the approval process until a customer asks for a mortgage. They don't operate in negative time." In fact, Pearlson says, companies can extend the Zero Value Gap discipline even further: "If you know what your customer's customer wants, then you know what your customer wants," Pearlson explains. "If you know what your customer wants, then you can anticipate that want and be prepared to satisfy it."
Zero Learning LagReal learning ability, say Pearlson and Yeh, enables companies to convert knowledge into customer value instantly. That means mastering three types of learning: stealth learning, just-in-time learning, and rapid learning. "Stealth learning happens when learning is built into the work process itself," explains Pearlson. "Just-in-time learning comes when you realize that you need to learn something specific, and you go and get that learning. Rapid learning happens when you attend a course or training session to get information that you'll need to improve your general performance."
Zero ManagementThe concept of Zero Management comes from holography. "If you look at a hologram, you see a two-dimensional picture," explains Pearlson. "If you slice the hologram in half, each piece will contain all of the information in the original picture." The same principle applies to a Zero Management company: Every part of the company will contain the entire organization's information, knowledge, and capacity for action.
Zero Resistance"Not long ago, I was scheduled to fly from Taipei to Singapore on Singapore Airlines," says Yeh. "When I got to the ticket counter, the service representative asked which frequent-flier program I wanted to assign my miles to. I thought that this was an exceptional piece of service. But when I mentioned it to the company's vice president of operations, he told me it was standard operating procedure." The work processes in that company are designed so that there is zero resistance to serving customers.
Zero ExclusionA Zero Time company includes all relevant parties in its key planning and decision-making processes. "You involve your suppliers, your customers, and your customers' customers," says Pearlson. "You share information both internally and externally." Yeh cites Intel as an example of a Zero Exclusion company. "Intel considers its entire market as an ecosystem," he says. "It shares information with its distributors and with the CIOs of large companies — in other words, with its customers' customers. Intel realizes that its customers' customers aren't buying computers — they're buying a technology direction." What makes Zero Time a compelling new business model? "In the 21st century, time is the independent variable — the variable that drives everything else," Yeh says. "It used to take 20 years to become a $1 billion company. Now it takes as little as 3 years. How do you capture this compression of time in a way that enables your organization to evolve? By becoming a Zero Time company. There's no other choice. Things are moving too fast." You can reach Keri Pearlson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ray Yeh (email@example.com) by email, or visit the Zero Time Project on the Web (www.bus.utexas.edu/~pearlson/zerotime).
A version of this article appeared in the Prototype Issue issue of Fast Company magazine.