How the 80/20 Principle affects your Business Operations (Part 1)

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What is the 80/20 Principle? The 80/20 Principle tells us that in any population, some things are likely to be much more important than others. A good benchmark or hypothesis is that 80 per cent of results or outputs flow from 20 per cent of causes, and sometimes from a much smaller proportion of powerful forces.

The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 per cent of what you achieve in your job comes from 20 per cent of the time spent

The 80/20 Principle can and should be used by every intelligent person in their daily life, by every organization, and by every social grouping and form of society. It can help individuals and groups achieve much more, with much less effort. The 80/20 Principle can raise personal effectiveness and happiness. It can multiply the profitability of corporations and the effectiveness of any organization. It even holds the key to raising the quality and quantity of public services while cutting their cost.

The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 per cent of what you achieve in your job comes from 20 per cent of the time spent. Thus for all practical purposes, four-fifths of the effort—a dominant part of it—is largely irrelevant. This is contrary to what people normally expect. So the 80/20 Principle states that there is an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and effort and reward. A good benchmark for this imbalance is provided by the 80/20 relationship: a typical pattern will show that 80 per cent of outputs result from 20 per cent of inputs; that 80 per cent of consequences flow from 20 per cent of causes; or that 80 per cent of results come from 20 per cent of effort.

In business, many examples of the 80/20 Principle have been validated. 20 per cent of products usually account for about 80 per cent of dollar sales value; so do 20 per cent of customers. 20 per cent of products or customers usually also account for about 80 per cent of an organization’s profits.

Pareto’s discovery: systematic and predictable lack of balance

The pattern underlying the 80/20 Principle was discovered in 1897, exactly 100 years ago, by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923). His discovery has since been called many names, including the Pareto Principle, the Pareto Law, the 80/20 Rule, the Principle of Least Effort and the Principle of Imbalance; By a subterranean process of influence on many important achievers, especially business people, computer enthusiasts and quality engineers, the 80/20 Principle has helped to shape the modern world. Yet it has remained one of the great secrets of our time—and even the select band of cognoscenti who know and use the 80/20 Principle only exploit a tiny proportion of its power.

So what did Vilfredo Pareto discover? He happened to be looking at patterns of wealth and income in nineteenth-century England. He found that most income and wealth went to a minority of the people in his samples. Perhaps there was nothing very surprising in this. But he also discovered two other facts that he thought highly significant. One was that there was a consistent mathematical relationship between the proportion of people (as a percentage of the total relevant population) and the amount of income or wealth that this group enjoyed.4 To simplify, if 20 per cent of the population enjoyed 80 per cent of the wealth,5 then you could reliably predict that 10 per cent would have, say, 65 per cent of the wealth, and 5 per cent would have 50 per cent. The key point is not the percentages, but the fact that the distribution of wealth across the population was predictably unbalanced.

Why the 80/20 Principle works in business

The 80/20 Principle applied to business has one key theme—to generate the most money with the least expenditure of assets and effort. The classical economists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed a theory of economic equilibrium and of the firm that has dominated thinking ever since. The theory states that under perfect competition firms do not make excess returns, and profitability is either zero or the ‘normal’ cost of capital, the latter usually being defined by a modest interest charge. The theory is internally consistent and has the sole flaw that it cannot be applied to real economic activity of any kind, and especially not to the operations of any individual firm.

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