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Once upon a time I wrote something on my whiteboard. I wrote it there because I really wanted everyone to see it. I repeated it in advisory councils and technical presentations and executive briefings, in staff meetings and vendor negotiations and user groups… and I still do. It’s a lesson that bears repetition. “Faster, Better, Cheaper. Pick One. Sometimes Two. Never Three.” People who try to ignore this make me Always Grumpy.

OK… if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: I shouldn’t exaggerate. It does happen – rarely – that you can get two of these benefits in one swell foop. And once in a blue moon you might even get all three. But don’t let on, or your boss will expect you to do it three times before breakfast, and that’s on Sundays. Most of the time, any change you make will give you one, usually at a cost in both of the other two. This is called a trade-off.

It’s a lesson that should pervade all of our lives, but it’s especially relevant in business and engineering. You want a faster time to market for that new product? No problem… all you have to do is spend money (on more staff, or consultants, tools, etc.) and possibly also reduce the feature set. That’s faster, but at the cost of better or cheaper. You want a better customer service rating? Easy peasy… take the time to train your staff, give them incentives based on quality rather than quantity, and pay them a decent living wage with benefits. Oh wait! You got better, but at the cost of faster and cheaper. Even more simply, think about buying a car: you want it cheaper? It almost certainly won’t have better fit-and-finish, or go faster.

How does this lesson escape us so often? As an engineer, the question leaves me feeling Often Dopey. I don’t get it, at least not in my gut. In my brain, I think it’s part wishful thinking and part double-think. “If I close my eyes shut tight, and wish really hard, maybe my employees will deliver on impossible deadlines, improve service and save me a bundle all at once, every quarter until I retire!” Yeah. Right. “And they’ll do that while I reorganize twice a week without consultation and implement new process layers at a rate that would make even the most aggressive consultant blush.”  Sure. Brains over gut please, people!

I’m not a leader. I’m not even a manager. But I have spent enough time in the corporate workforce to know that it falls to all of us, all of the time, to remind our colleagues – whether they report to us or we to them – that reality has a way of reminding us, often by biting us in the bum. To paraphrase Carl Sagan and Marcello Truzzi, exceptional claims require exceptional proof. Someone says they want, or expect, or can get faster, better and cheaper? Ask them to prove it.

In fact, I’ve shortened my mantra, in order to avoid confusion. What does it say now?

Faster, better, cheaper. Pick one.

It’s on my whiteboard to this day.

Jonathan Gladstone is alwaysgrumpy at or follow me on Twitter @jbglad59.


One Comment

  1.,, or Twitter @jbglad59? Pick one, maybe two, never three. 😉


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