A few years ago, the Royal Mail in the UK looked to make improvements in their next day delivery service. There was public feedback that this was not good enough. As a starting point, 97 per cent of post due to be delivered the next day was actually delivered the next day. To improve this, they started looking at ways in which they could drive efficiencies and increase capacity to make up the three per cent. The law of diminishing returns dictates, that that three per cent is going to take a lot of tough work.
Then, someone asked a question: "what do customers think of our next day delivery service?" When the numbers came back, they showed the public perception was that 40 per cent of post due to be delivered the next day was delivered the next day. The perceived problem was much worse than the actual problem.
An awareness campaign was what was required rather than a very large project to close the gap of 3 per cent. Closing the gap on the 57 per cent was going to give much more returns because, even if Royal Mail had reached 100 per cent, the public perception would still think the service was sub par.
When people think of HS2, the high speed rail project in the UK, the cost versus time saving becomes a talking point. Is it worth £43 billion (some say £80 billion) to save 45 minutes on the journey from London to Birmingham? It has been said that deploying WiFi on the trains would be five to 10 per cent of the cost.
So, is the problem here the 45 minutes or is it that people don't perceive time spent on the trains as useful? In fact, is there something that could be done to improve the perception of travelling by train? If there was someone handing out free champagne to all passengers for the whole trip, would people want the train to go slower? It would probably only cost a fraction of the £43 billion too.
These were two examples that Rory Sutherland gave during a session he ran recently and I have been reflecting on his general point. Do I really understand the problem that I'm trying to solve? Is it a perceived problem or an actual problem? How can I think of a solution from a different angle? If I can change perception, will that solve the problem?
If you have never watched Rory Sutherland, you can find some entertaining and insightful TED talks here. I don't think you will regret it.