Good, Fast & Cheap

I pass a sign for a business near my place quite often that offers “Signage – great quality, fast service & low prices.” I doubt it. If there is one thing that I’ve learned in my years of involvement with custom, made-to-order fabrication, it’s that you don’t get “good, fast and cheap” all at the same time.

These three factors: quality, fast delivery and low price comprise a kind of triad of perfection that is forever sought by clients. The unfortunate truth is that at best, you will generally only get two of the three. Pick any two, it doesn’t matter. Want it fast and cheap? You can have it, but the quality will be sorely lacking. Prefer inexpensive, but high quality? This too can be had, but you’d better be prepared to wait and wait for it.

There are exceptions, but they generally flow from two situations: inexperience or desperation. Inexperience will manifest itself in quotes that don’t anticipate all costs, or that have an overly optimistic schedule. Desperation too, can lead people to greatly undervalue their services in an attempt to get out of whatever hole they find themselves in. Either way, these aren’t healthy business relationships — somebody ends up getting taken advantage of, and the project is in great peril of going off the rails.

Let’s face it — fixation on lowest price is at the root of all of this. It’s rampant in the public and private sectors for both goods and services procurement. It places emphasis on one factor with the tacit assumption that all other factors are equal among all available alternatives. In the end it can often carry hidden costs by encouraging gaming of the system by “extras” artists who bid low and exploit ambiguity in scopes of work, or through shoddy workmanship or blown schedules.

Best value approaches to contracting offer a way out of this conundrum. They provide a way to stop fixating on price and look at procurement holistically. I’m not saying that these processes are perfect, far from it. They can often create a deterrent level of effort for bidders and clients alike, while providing only the thinnest of advantages over traditional lowest price processes. But, they’re a real step in the right direction, and I applaud and encourage them, as imperfect as they may be.

OK, now it’s off to Starbucks for that cheap cup of coffee — wait, what?

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