Cost versus Time versus Quality — An Essential Aspect of Critical Thinking

There is an old saying that goes something like this: Cost, Time, and Quality – pick two out of the three. That is, if you want high quality fast, it will cost you a lot of money. If you want high quality and low cost, it will take a long time to develop. And if you want low cost and quick development, the quality will suffer. In today’s global business environment, you want all three: high quality, low cost, and fast development. But in developing any new product or service, the job of management is to use critical thinking to consider the trade-offs among the three and select the optimal combination.

One facet of my first job as a software services curriculum specialist at Digital Equipment Corporation was to provide training for the field software specialists in their role as sales support, i.e., helping sales reps configure solutions and put together their sales proposals. The challenge was that the information they needed was spread across literally dozens of sources generated within the company, ranging from sales update magazines published by the sales training organization to technical product specification sheets produced by engineering groups to product brochures produced by various marketing groups. When I asked one of the specialists in my area how she kept up with all this information, she took me to her car and opened its trunk. The trunk was full of the mailings she received from various corporate groups. She estimated that if she stacked one month’s worth of the mail she received from these groups, it would be 12 to 18 inches high (per month!) – no wonder she wasn’t able to keep up-to-date.

[PLEASE NOTE: This was well before the introduction of the world-wide web, and while Digital had one of the largest internal networks in the world, the tools for creating what we now call web pages were years away.]

My solution was to create a “Network Presales Handbook” – a loose-leaf notebook that contained all of the information needed by software specialists in their sales support roles, with one tabbed section for each of the products in the networking arena. The notebooks would be updated once per quarter with the provision of any new or revised materials. Today, we would do this all on-line, but then there was no way of doing that, so we did it with print materials.

The response to this “training product” was overwhelmingly positive. But it took 6 months to get it out to the field. For the initial edition of the handbook, the development work was done in a little more than 2 months, but production seemed to take forever. I asked the production people why it took so long. The answer I got was that their standard operating procedures required them to go out to bid on each part of the job. That meant separate bids for the 3-ring binders, the tabbed sections, the printing of the materials, the printing of the tabs, and the assembly and packaging of the materials. And then, after getting the lowest bids on each job, the coordination of all the pieces so that the handbook could be assembled and mailed.

Once this was all done, and the initial mailings took place, I asked the procurement people to choose any one of the selected vendors and ask what the price would have been for that single vendor to do the entire job and, along with the consolidated price, to estimate how long it would have taken to do the entire job and have the handbooks ready for shipping. The answer came back that it would have added 27 cents per copy to the total price and that the job could have been done in 30 days. So, for a savings of 27 cents (on a total price of $37 for the four different vendors used) the publication of the materials was delayed for more than 2 months!

One of the key aspects of critical thinking is to question assumptions and beliefs. Was the savings from the use of multiple vendors in this case worth the delay in getting vital information to the field?