The Concept of Zero: When One is Not Enough

In its simplest form, the Concept of Zero strives to completely eliminate non-essential systems, functions, or work. However, the real power of the Concept of Zero comes in challenging traditional assumptions and replacing them with a new set of paradigm-breaking or “extreme” assumptions that radically change the problem set.

The Concept of One is a powerful tool for reducing costs and creating efficiency by consolidating multiple organizations, systems, platforms and processes into one. With the Concept of One, you do it once, do it right, and use it everywhere. However, certain circumstances require an even more powerful tool — the Concept of Zero.

The Origin of Concept of Zero

During the 2001 Turbo Charge AT&T Network Services initiative, a team was tasked with applying the Concept of One to gain further cost efficiencies through further consolidation of functions. The challenge was that the functions being investigated were already at scale due to previous consolidations. As a result, the Concept of One consolidation would have yielded minimal benefits but would have incurred significant costs. Rather than accept this answer, the team was challenged to go back and examine their consolidation assumptions and take a more radical approach.

The team came back a week later with the first iteration of the Concept of Zero, where they gained efficiencies by completely eliminating functions rather than consolidating them. For example, they completely eliminated on-demand maintenance activities, rather than attempting to optimize them. This approach required a radical shift in the design paradigms where solutions were engineered with enough excess capacity that service could be rapidly restored by automatically shifting to spare equipment and the failed equipment replaced as a routine maintenance event, likely performed by the vendor. As a result, operational expenses were replaced by capital.

Applying the Concept of Zero

Originally conceived in the context of network operations, the Concept of Zero is now being more widely applied to other problems within the business. While on the surface Concept of Zero deals with elimination, its actual power comes from strongly challenging the status quo and examining extreme or paradigm shattering assumptions that would radically change the function or activity. In many cases, it is more productive to construct an extreme view of the future state and work backward to the present situation than it is to try to move forward from the present state and its current complexity.

In many ways, the Concept of Zero is like Root Cause Analysis in that it requires a sequence of “why” questions that challenge basic assumptions and go on asking “why” until the most fundamental drivers or causes of the activity are discovered. Changing these fundamental drivers in a radical way can create a paradigm shattering effect that causes the whole problem to be viewed differently. The capital/operating expense tradeoff in the maintenance example cited above is illustrative of this point.

Another example of the paradigm shattering effect of the Concept of Zero can be found in how it is being used to drive the “Running the Business” (RTB) expense to zero. While zero RTB expense is indeed an extreme assumption, and on the surface appears ludicrous, the exercise clearly pushes the envelope on what is achievable much more than a target of an incremental reduction of RTB by 10 or 20 percent would ever achieve. Moreover, the series of “why” questions is exposing and challenging the fundamental RTB cost drivers. It is important when applying the Concept of Zero to focus on truly extreme or paradigm shattering assumption sets.

As the telecom industry continues to reshape itself in fundamental ways, advantage will accrue to the carrier that can get ahead of the financial trajectories of the industry by radically reshaping its cost structure. The Concept of Zero is a powerful tool for achieving that objective.

The essence of the Concept of Zero is in challenging the status quo and examining paradigm-shattering assumptions in order to eliminate non-essential intensive systems, functions, or work.