Speed vs. quality in the workplace: Trade-offs and rewards

From the transcontinental railroads to the creation of the Web, companies have always had to balance "good enough now" and "perfect too late"

Dear Bob ...

In your recent column, "May the best panacea win," you mentioned the "good enough now beats perfect too late" principle.

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I know there are many examples that demonstrate this adage -- successful companies that followed it and unsuccessful companies that didn't. Is the effect long-term or simply short-term for companies that follow the adage? Is it better for the company, the economy, the country, and the progression of knowledge to follow this adage, or is there a downside? How about green considerations? Is it greener or browner to follow this adage? If the latter, then do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?

- Questioning

Dear Questioning ...

The short answer to your question is that there are always trade-offs. I wrote about a classic example back in 2003 ("Cottonwood now or hardwood too late?"). The subject was the construction of the transcontinental railroad, when the Southern Pacific Railroad company couldn't manufacture railroad ties fast enough to keep up with construction. Its choices: Slow down construction to wait for the hardwood ties and run out of capital before revenue from passengers kicked in (which required enough track to make the rides useful) or use cottonwood to make the ties, which would lead to much earlier revenue, but would only last three year before needing replacement.

Easy choice: They used cottonwood, and the rest is, quite literally, history.

The entire early World Wide Web is the story of speed (short cycle times) and excellence (the presence of cool features) at the expense of quality (absence of defects). Everything about the Web was about getting sites up fast and dealing with minor glitches later. That is, the Web happened at marketing speeds rather than traditional IT speeds. For a bit of nostalgia, check out another very old column: "The Jackie Chan of business."

You ask if the effect is long-term or short-term. The cottonwood-tie example illustrates the answer: Short-term in that this is the whole point; long-term in that when companies take this sort of approach, they knowingly defer some costs to the future.

Or they don't, because their whole strategy depends on short product lifecycles, where products are retired long before they're perfected.

I'd also think that in general, a speed-rules environment will be less efficient, because companies that pursue operational excellence don't design it so much as they discover it. It's a learning process; these companies improve every week and their success depends on perfecting their processes and technologies over time. I'd expect this to make them much greener than companies that take a more disposable approach to things.

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Not necessarily, though, because companies that focus on operational excellence and the long haul make major investments in infrastructure. At some stage, they'll have to retire this infrastructure as it becomes obsolete. I imagine this would lead to some serious landfills.

- Bob

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