Time, Cost, Quality

In a recent discussion the old saw “Time, Cost, Quality- pick any two” came up. This is a common triangle of choices that describes the main points in any sale of services and is based on the tension between the three elements; you can only emphasize two of these at any given time. In other words, if you want it cheap and fast you give up control of quality. If you want high quality and fast speed, you give up control of price. If you are concerned with price and quality, then you have to give up control of time.

Something has always bothered me about this triangle. Two of the choices are simple; time and cost are definable qualities. Everyone knows what a dollar is and everyone knows what an hour is. Time is an easily definable facet; it will be done in 6 hours or it will be done in 6 months. It will cost $100 per hour, or it will cost $50,000; these are fixed concepts that don’t rely on an individual to supply anything more than quantity. Quality is a whole different matter.

Quality is, in my experience, where the ability of the parties to agree parts ways most often.

What is quality? How do I know it is quality? What part does quality refer to? These are tricky questions all by themselves, and made more difficult by being points that have to be both defined and agreed upon. The service provider is hampered by knowledge and the particular blindness that can come with expertise- how do you find out what the customer knows and separate that from what the customer thinks they know?

To make this even more difficult, quality is a fluid concept that changes with education and proximity.

Coming to terms on quality is probably the most difficult part of creating a construction project. There is no strict definition of quality. There are a few organizations that have attempted to qualitatively define “quality”, such as AWI. This often means that there is a set of rules about how a project can be inspected, such as “flooring will be inspected from a standing position or at a distance of 6′.” Diamonds are graded on qualities of color and clarity, both being aspects that take experience and training to know how to do; the average person isn’t likely to be able to see the difference.

In services this becomes important because it means the client’s expectations change through the process. This may seem fickle, but it is really an aspect of knowledge. The client is often the one with the least knowledge, and as that grows, things that they didn’t think were important become important.

As a service provider this can be frustrating. On the one hand you may want to educate the client from the outset- to inform them of all the details and the decisions they will need to make. That takes a lot of time, energy, and unless the client is intensely interested in the product the subject likely isn’t compelling enough for the client to understand, no matter how many words you use. On the other hand you may want to be brief at the beginning and create a good change order process so the job can be modified as the client reaches plateaus of understanding and can answer questions. This often leads to piles of change orders and a final cost that is far above the original estimate.

I don’t know if there is any one answer is to this dilemma. It is lessened by familiarity- any return customer is already trained to some extent and will have an idea of what is to come. I think one of the best methods may just be to explain this to the client. Let them know that there will be changes, that those changes will become more significant as the project progresses, and give them an idea of how much you think the project will change. That’s where your experience comes in, and the honesty may help cushion the pain of additional costs.

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