From A to J – the Minimum Valuable Service

Pareto – the brilliant Italian engineer and economist – proposed that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. So why would you start with a solution that builds for 100% of the effects…especially if you’re not sure which are the 80 and which the 20?

The Minimum Valuable Service, or MVS, follows the principle that any person facing a challenge wants to solve a few core things. Then they will worry about better performance or the “wow!” factor. We all want to delight the customers, but if we’re not even satisfying their needs then we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you went from zero to 100%, there are probably some things you’d want to change afterwards, meaning that some of the effort you put in was wasted. If you only go from zero to 20%, there might still be some waste, but it will be a lot less.

The MVS is the main output of the five-day service design sprint and provides the basis for more detailed evaluation, starting implementation and learning how well you really understand the needs of your ecosystem.

Seek first to understand…

My second favourite of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (my most favourite is: “Begin with the end in mind.” Although he was talking mainly about communicating with others, it translates well when considering service or product development: understand the jobs, wants and needs of those you purport to serve. Then ask them to understand your offering and pay for it.

There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that not everyone gets that. There are countless examples of products that have been developed and which have flopped because their makers clearly didn’t understand their customers.

Consider the following high-profile examples:

Juicero: This company recently promised to put an industrial fruit press on everyone’s countertop, for the ultimate juicing experience. Unfortunately, the device they made couldn’t do that (there’s a reason why presses are really big and heavy) and needed expensive prepared bags of fruit to work. Moreover, it was discovered that these bags could be squeezed by hand! Juicero filed for bankruptcy in September 2017. More about Juicero…

New Coke: Doubtless one of the biggest missteps of the 1980s, Coca-Cola abandoned their long-successful formula to produce something that more closely resembled Pepsi, their arch-rival in the cola wars. Even in the era before social media, the backlash was deafening, and Coca-Cola was forced into an embarrassing and costly climb-down. They first tried to re-release the original recipe as “Coke Classic” and then, when that gambit failed, abandoned the new formula altogether. More about New Coke…

Segway: Although these are popular amongst mall cops and some tourism companies, as a new form of individual transport, the Segway never took off. Unfortunately, the cost and the size of the Segway meant that it was impractical for city-dwellers, the mostly likely people to use it, and, citing safety concerns, most cities banned it from both roads and sidewalks, sharply limiting its prospects for success. Segway is still around but at a fraction of its promised scale. More about Segway…

What’s the common element here? Companies that decided to build and fund so-called “solutions” that either didn’t solve a real problem, or solved it in a way that was no better – or was worse – than the way people were already solving it. By failing to understand their eco-system (customers, approvers and service chain) properly, and the jobs they were trying to accomplish, the makers not only let down those people, but wasted a lot of time and money that could have been more productively applied.

By failing to understand, they guaranteed that they wouldn’t be understood.

Don’t Push a Rope: Draw a Picture to Understand Problems Better

When I began learning how to become a mechanical engineer, one of the first courses we studied was Statics. This is about the forces on things that don’t move. Think buildings, bridges, the walls of pressurized tanks, the teeth on a gear (relative to the rest of the gear they don’t move – or shouldn’t!) and many other applications. It’s a fundamental concept for many forms of engineering, especially for mechs.

A lesson that was hammered into us, time and again, was the importance of drawing a picture to show which way the forces were pushing or pulling. It’s a big deal if you get tension and compression mixed up. Ropes and cables, for example, only work in tension and if you get it backwards, your calculations will be all wrong. Hence: you can’t “push a rope”. Without a simple sketch, though, it was easy to get mixed up, especially when the problems became more complicated.

As I moved through my career, I returned to this lesson over and over. Diagnosing a piped system failure? Sketch it out and discuss with the trades to see why the water isn’t getting where it should. Process breakdown? Map it out and talk to the various people involved to see where the hangups lay. Need to describe how something works? Draw a picture and create a shared understanding.

Having a drawing – even a rudimentary one – helps bridge gaps in understanding and creates a common way of looking at a situation. You don’t need to be an artist – if you can draw a box and a line, you’re more than halfway there.

If you’d rather pull ropes than push them, start with a sketch – and create real understanding.