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Time, Cost, and Quality. Pick Any Two.

Pick any two.

Pick any two.

We just bought some new drapes for our apartment in New York and asked a seamstress to tailor them to the space. She did a great job at a very reasonable price. But it took weeks to get them.

Our experience with the drapes reminded me of a rule-of-thumb that I learned long ago and has helped me through many a project since then. Here’s how I heard it:

Time, cost, and quality – pick any two. You can never have all three.

You can look at three parameters for any project, but you can only optimize two. For instance, you can make decisions about time – how long the project should take. You might specify that you want it done quickly or you might allow for a more leisurely pace. Similarly, you can specify that you want very high quality or that you’re willing to accept a few defects. For cost, you might choose to pay a very pretty penny to get the job completed. Or you might decide that the project has to fit within a rather tight budget.

Let’s look at the combinations.

Time and cost – you optimize for time and cost by deciding that you want the job done quickly and at low cost. That’s fine but quality is almost sure to suffer.

Quality and time – you want a high quality project done quickly. Great. But you’re probably going to pay very high fees to get it done. You can get quality work done quickly, but it will cost you.

Quality and cost – you want a high quality project done at low cost. OK, but it’s going to take a long time. (Our drapery example fits here).

The bottom line is that you can improve any two of the parameters but it will always create pain on the third parameter. I’ve thought about this on many, many projects throughout my career. It always works. Always.

The trick is to be very clear about what you want. In the case of the draperies, we weren’t in a hurry, so it made sense to optimize on quality and cost. In your projects, you’ll want to think through the parameters and decide which ones are the most important for that particular project. You’ll probably find that the parameters will change from project to project. That’s fine. Just be sure that everybody on the project understands which parameters you want to optimize. Otherwise, you won’t get two out of three. You’ll get none out of three.

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