05/14/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

What if Einstein Had Been in Business?

"It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relatively theory, however, time and space disappear together with the things," said Einstein. Yikes! His greatest legacy is probably his elevation of space and time to dynamic things on which we can experiment. Time, he says, is itself part of the physical universe: it is relative, not absolute. So instead of the three dimensions of space, we should think of the four dimensions of space-time, time being the fourth. Space and time can be changed depending on how fast you travel and how much gravity you experience. Space and time; energy and mass -- these are linked together.

Most business has not yet caught up with Einstein.

OK, his theories are hard enough to apply in science; can they really be applied to business? Strictly speaking, no. But let's ask a different question: "Have Einstein's theories of relativity usefully influenced our view of life and truth, the modern world view?" The answer, surely, is yes.

There are two ideas, broadly derived from relativity, that are extremely instructive, namely:

• Time is not a separate dimension in business. Rather, it is integral to the advantage that one business has over another.

• We need a 'relative,' not absolute, view of our world, including the business world.

The insight that time is at the heart of competitive advantage was implicit in folklore long before Einstein. In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin wrote that "time is money." In other words, time is intimately bound up in the process of delivering a product to the customer and can substitute for, or be substituted for, monetary value. Today we might add that "time is product" and "time is service." The same product or service offered faster or slower is not the same product or service; it is different and better, or worse. A new product that is offered after a one-year gap from the last generation of product, rather than the previous two years taken, is an acceleration of value delivered to customers. At a more prosaic level, a pizza delivered by Domino's within 30 minutes, or your money back, was a huge advance on previous home-delivery pizza, and gave Domino's market leadership that has endured for decades.

How possible is it to accelerate delivery of a product or service to customers? In most cases, it is eminently possible. For, as Tom Hout of the Boston Consulting Group has said, "Typically, less than ten 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." Budget airlines not only offer a much cheaper product; the shorter turnaround times at the gate, and improved punctuality from using smaller airports, also mean that in one respect at least, they offer a better one, a more timely service.

Think of time, or the reduction of time, as part of what you offer customers. Think product-time. Think service-time. It's all part of the same thing. Never think 'product' or 'service' independent of 'time.' Time is a key dimension that must be embraced to achieve success.

Here are a few hints about what to do:

• Measure the time it takes to do things for customers. The time from taking an order to fulfilling it is the most important 'thing'. But there are others, such as the time to introduce a new product or service; the time to provide after-sales service, and respond to questions or complaints; the time to incorporate an important customer suggestion or improvement into a product or service, and so on.

• Find out the dimensions of time and time saving which are most valued by customers. Then deliver them 2-3 times faster than you have done historically and 2-3 times faster than your fastest rival.

• Identify separately the procedural, quality and structural issues that are wasting time.

• Simplify the product so that time is compressed. Get rid of the least valuable features, the ones that clog up the works. A simple product delivered faster may be cheaper to make and yet more valuable to customers.

• Map out the process of delivering to the customer and where time is being used. Plug gaps that interrupt the flow.

• Direct marketing and selling effort to the customers for whom the benefit of faster delivery and greater responsiveness is greatest; and on finding new customers who value the time benefit the most.

• Measure customer retention -- the proportion of customers who repeat purchase from you. Measure it separately for your core customers, the ones who buy the most and are the most profitable in absolute terms. Ensure you raise the customer retention percentage each year, especially for the core customers, by exploiting your time advantage.

Time is not an independent variable in business. It is part of the fabric of your product offering. It is part of what we all offer. It is the route to higher profits and happier customers. Time is the most neglected dimension of product design and delivery, and the one that can do most for everyone. Isn't it time you took time seriously?