Business is about taking knowledge and reconfiguring it to solve a problem for a customer. Whoever solves it the best, the fastest, and the cheapest wins. It’s that simple.

There was a Home Depot in downtown Jacksonville, Florida that had difficulty selling off their lumber inventory. Sixty percent of lumber buyers were people who knew nothing about lumber. Therefore, they purchased their lumber based on appearance.

Most of the lumber that went unsold had wane on the edges. The boards and posts were not perfectly squared. For customers, this suggested that the lumber was defective – that the board or post wasn’t strong enough.

The reality was very different. The wane had nothing to do with the strength of the board, but it had everything to do with its appearance. Reality succumbed to appearance for lumber customers.

The consequence was that this “defective” lumber went unsold. When customers went to look at the shelves the wane lumber was all that was left. It didn’t look good and customers went elsewhere.

As the Home Depot’s lumber supplier came to grips with this problem, they quickly realized an opportunity. What if they made all of their lumber square? Not only would they fix the appearance problem their customers were having, but it was also possible that customers would pay a premium for appearance-grade lumber.

Taking these actions, the supplier managed to boost lumber sales by solving a customer problem.

Pay attention to your customers’ behaviours. If the lumber supplier had asked their sawmillers about the wane appearance problem they’d have said, “That’s crazy! The wane has nothing to do with the strength. We need to explain the reality to customers.”

The person who does the job knows the job well, but her or his perspective doesn’t usually reveal the customer’s problem.    

Is your organization focused on the job or on your customers’ problems?