The father of my childhood best friend was always tossing out one-line bits of wisdom that fit just about any situation. As a boy I remember him saying “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” I was several years into my career before I realized just how profound a statement that is. During our academic careers we’re taught to search for “the right answer” or to analyze something until we come up with the best solution. What we are rarely taught is how to recognize the best solution in a complex, real world scenario. Paradoxically, what seems like the perfect solution on paper is rarely the best solution.
Understanding Quality vs. Grade
A large part of the “perfect solution paradox” lies in confusing quality with grade. A product’s quality can be measured by its lack of defects or its ability to consistently perform without errors. Grade addresses a product’s features or level of performance. One market in which quality and grade are commonly understood is gasoline sales. The grade of gasoline indicates the product’s octane level. The quality is rarely mentioned because drivers demand high quality gasoline. Low quality fuel might contain contaminants, damage your engine or create problems while you’re driving.
My bicycle is another example of grade verses quality. When I purchased my bike I wanted a high quality road bike but I wasn’t too concerned with the grade. I expressed this to my local bike shop by telling them I wanted a good, entry level bike. The resulting purchase is an excellent example of a high quality, mid-grade product. The bike, which I have ridden several thousand miles, is made of steel, which means the frame is very strong (high quality) but also relatively heavy (low grade from a cyclist’s perspective). The components on my bike are also high quality but they are mid-grade. Since high-grade road bike components tend to be differentiated primarily by their weight, it doesn’t make much sense to mount them on a heavy, steel frame.
Four Reasons Perfect Is Usually Wrong
Now that we understand quality verses grade, here are four reasons the “perfect” solution is rarely the best solution.
- Perfect solutions take a long time to design and build.
- Perfect solutions are much more expensive than acceptable solutions.
- Perfect solutions become obsolete, or at least imperfect, before long.
- Your customers usually don’t care.
Perfect Solutions Take a Long Time to Design and Build
By their very nature, perfect solutions are not usually easy to find. As a result they require significant resources to identify, design, and build. To make matters worse when you’re looking for a product or service that will be used by large numbers of people, it becomes nearly impossible to find the perfect solution for all of them. The old cliché about making some of the people happy some of the time speaks directly to this dilemma.
Perfect Solutions Are Much More Expensive Than Acceptable Solutions
Because of the difficulty in identifying, designing and building a perfect solution, they are generally cost prohibitive. If you’ve ever been involved in a custom building project you will understand this. Years ago I helped a client manage a data center construction project. The initial designs were gorgeous. The building was going to have paved walking trails through a wood section of the lot, high end landscaping with mature trees, lighting that would provide a safe environment after dark without being too bright or gaudy, interior wall coverings that could serve as white boards and non-glare projector screens, a sound deadening system to automatically muffle nearby conversations, and night vision surveillance cameras capable of automatically recording video when specific events occurred. All of these items would have added up to a nearly perfect work environment. Unfortunately every one of them got dropped during budget reviews.
Perfect Solutions Become Obsolete, Or At Least Imperfect, Before Long
The speed at which business moves often demands solutions that can be implemented quickly and changed easily. Some problems call for very specialized, custom solutions but, as previously discussed, they take longer to develop and are usually expensive. The extra resources poured into a perfect solution can be justified if the result is something that will be used for a long period of time. Unfortunately many problems are slowly, steadily changing and by the time you implement the perfect solution, the root problem has changed. There’s also the very real phenomenon that nobody really knows how good a solution is until it is put into practice. In the software development industry it’s been estimated up to 80% of software system features never get regularly used. With any new tool it is difficult for people to accurately assess how they will use it until they actually start using it.
Your Customers Usually Don’t Care
While any good craftsman strives to consistently deliver excellence, quite often your customers don’t care about the grade of product the craftsman wants to deliver. A great historical example of this can be found in the rise of the transistor radio. Prior to transistor radios American consumers purchased radios powered by vacuum tubes. Because they were relatively large, the companies that manufactured them prided themselves on their beautiful finish. These radios not only played music and the evening news, they also doubled as an attractive piece of furniture for the home. When inexpensive, portable transistor radios hit the market American manufacturers didn’t take them seriously. They were convinced nobody would buy a cheap plastic radio when they could have a beautiful vacuum tube radio with a walnut finish. Ultimately consumers didn’t care much about the finish. Price and portability were more important and tube radios were doomed.
Pareto’s Law says 80% of your results are achieved by 20% of your effort. The same holds true for the solutions to most problems. While a perfect solution to a problem might eliminate the unwanted results 100% of the time, such solutions are not often worth pursuing. There are circumstances where high quality, high grade solutions are required or at least worth exploring but more often than not quality and grade get muddled together and we don’t stop to sort them out. The next time you consider various approaches to solving a problem try to separate the quality requirements from the grade requirements and see if that points to a solution that’s less expensive, faster to deploy, or both.
The Impact Makers’ Difference
In June Impact Makers introduced Daniel Vacanti of David J. Anderson and Associates to Richmond. Daniel presented an overview of Kanban, an Agile approach to managing projects and processes. Over 50 people met Daniel and we received overwhelmingly positive feedback. As a result, we’re bringing him back to conduct a two day Kanban training session. Whether or not you attended in June, you’re encouraged to participate in the training on September 14 and 15. More details about this unique opportunity will be published soon. For now, mark your calendars and save the date!