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Fast Good Cheap, Pick Two

posted 1 Sept 2011, 04:21 by John O'Sullivan

The Project Management Triumvirate

John O’Sullivan, 29 Jun 2011


I can’t remember when I first heard it or who said it but the phrase stuck with me as an obvious truth of project management (it also applies to providing a service or doing business in general).

It can be phrased a number of ways:

“I can do cheap, fast and well. Pick two”.

“I can deliver on-schedule, on-budget and in-spec. Pick two”,


“Scope/Cost/Schedule” etc.


I’ve looked at it any number of ways to get around it and there doesn’t seem to be a solution which offers the whole triumvirate as all three seem to be mutually exclusive.


In my area of automation project management the key is to determine the client’s requirements. Obviously they will say they want it all but it’s important to agree on the priority. Ask for their order of preference so one of the trilogy has to be third choice. More often than not, one point is demonstrably the primary objective with the other two equal last.
In the pharmaceutical area costs can be absorbed by profitable blue-chip companies, schedules are well planned and organised so quality is the prime objective.
In discrete manufacturing, the demand for validation and documentation is not as onerous but schedules are tight, downtime is a crime and cost control is all important.
In transport, quality of safety systems is the key. It is important to get this info explicitly defined at the kick off stage, or better yet, at the tender stage so that everyone knows what is important.


As a supplier/service provider it is equally important to communicate the priorities internally to the team. There is no point in an engineer spending days striving for 5 9s accuracy or millisecond response when the customer is not willing to pay for it or wait for it.


Also at review meetings, the trilogy can be used as a convenient short hand to capture status. “Are we on budget? Are we on time? Are we on spec?” If the answer to any one is no, then are we slipping on the highest priority item or the lowest?


We can’t deliver all things to all men but we can clarify the priorities early and often so that everyone is on the same page. This way

1)      The client expectation is met

2)      The team is more productive and efficient

3)      The project is kept on track