How to exploit trade-offs to complete your project

There are really only three things you can trade off one against the other when you are trying to manage the completion of a project. They are: time, cost and quality. How so? Please read on.

Before I go any further I need to take a few minutes to talk about quality specifically and what it really is. Most people understand time and cost easily because they are measurable. Everyone knows what one month means and that two months is twice as long as one month. Equally, everyone knows that $30,000 is 50% more than $20,000. What few people will disagree on is what is higher or lower quality. So if you asked a kitchen installer to build you a kitchen with a “high” quality countertop and he installed a quartz countertop and you were thinking granite, then we will have the basis of a lot of arguing on what quality means.

Another example: you contract out the construction of your website. You allow visitors to upload documents. Your website builder allows only Microsoft Word files to be uploaded but not pdf documents. You argue that it is a higher quality experience for the user to be allowed both. Your contractor says that was not in the specs and says it has nothing to do with quality.

Ok, let me be blunt. The contractor would be right in this case. And let me tell you why.

First, burn this into your memory: Quality = Features.

There it is, the easiest way to quantify and qualify quality. Notice all the q’s?

When you think of quality as features, it is easier to be specific. You have a feature recorded in your requirements document or contract. It is described exactly. So let’s take our earlier examples and put that in. For the kitchen we say: install a granite kitchen counter, type: Bianco Antico, completely sealed with a water based solution, stain proof, scratch resistant, heat resistant. That is a feature which can be described specifically. Contrast that with just “high quality”. No wonder the contractor was confused.

What about the other example of the website. Here are the requirements: Allow the ability on the website for users to upload Microsoft Word documents and pdf files with administrative capability to control and vary the size of files that can be uploaded. That is a specific feature. It is also an element of quality.

Here is another example related to a service: “provide high quality customer service by providing a quick turnaround time in responding to queries” is vague about quality. “Turnaround time of 24 hours” is more specific and is a feature.

I think it is becoming clear to you that what makes anything of high quality is the sum of all its specific features. That is how you should see things as a manager when making specifications for a product or service that needs to be delivered.

Ok now that we got all that out of the way let’s go back to our trade-offs. We already said there are three things we can trade off one against the other: time, cost or quality. And now we know that quality means features.

Now that we have three very measurable things the rest becomes easier. We know that to speed things up, that is reduce time, means more cost. For example hiring four people to pack your household furniture will take much less time than if you had only one person. The work will be divided between four people. However you will have to pay four people instead of just one especially if they charge per assignment rather than by the hour.

We also know that when you reduce the number of features (quality), it will cost less to complete a project or take less time or both.

These three items, time, cost and quality (features) are joined as in a triangle. You can manipulate them one way or the other reducing or increasing one while allowing another to move in another direction. That way you have a tool to better manage your project at the outset and also when it is in play and you need to make adjustments.

Just beware of certain situations. There are times when something just cannot be changed. In our example of moving your household furniture there could be a constraint such as pay for a minimum of three hours for each packer. So if the job is going to require one man to work for six hours to complete it, dividing it amongst four would mean that it would take only 1.5 hours to complete. However since you have to pay each for at least 3 hours, then you either accept the cost of paying people for hours that they will not work in exchange for a shorter time to complete the job or hire only 2 people, pay each for 3 hours and complete the job in 3 hours. See how the math works?

There are also times when a job cannot be divided like this. For example organizing the layout of a web page is best done by one person who puts everything together. Throwing more bodies at the task will not make it go faster.  This is called the pregnant woman syndrome. It takes nine months for a pregnant woman to have a child. Adding another woman to the mix will not reduce it to four and a half months.

There are also times where one side of the triangle is already fixed. If you have a fixed budget you cannot change the cost factor. You may be able to play with the time or the quality. In other scenarios there is a fixed deadline, maybe a government imposed compliance date. Or the quality (read “features”) is fixed especially where safety is a concern or when you need to make sure your product meets industry standards or are at least be as good as your competitor’s.

Bottom line, these are the three variables that you are able to juggle to deliver your project.

I hope you found this useful. Send me a comment and give me your feedback on this article.

Thanks for reading.


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