Speed Vs Quality: Can you have both?

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Island Adventures by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

5 minutes reading time

I was recently part of a panel discussion around the topic “What is quality?” and an interesting question came up. Is it always a choice between speed of delivery and the quality of that delivery? The thinking being that if you focus on one you will sacrifice the other.  Therefore, you have to choose one or find some way to balance the two which typically translates to being mediocre at both.  That’s when it occurred to me that this is actually a version of working harder in teams and what we should be doing in working smarter.

Working Harder for Speed or Quality

Working harder in the context means doing the work in the same way you have always done it but trying to do more of it. This typically leads to people taking one of two approaches. One is by working longer hours and the other is taking shortcuts by skipping steps not providing immediate value, then using the spare time for doing other work. 

At first both these strategies work quite well, you get the speed improvement and quality remains about the same. The problem is that all the effort is put into doing the work and nothing into improving the capability to do the work. If sustained for long periods those initial speed improvements will begin to slow and quality will diminish as the system gets harder to work with. Essentially you degrade your capability to do that work which further slows you down and brings quality down with it. 

This is probably why most people, including myself, have always thought of speed and quality as trade-offs against each other. Every time we’ve tried to go faster, the quality of the system has gone down. On the other hand when we work more systematically and usually slower, however, things remain more stable.

But is there another way? 

Working Smarter for Speed and Quality

In this case working smarter is not focusing on speed or quality but on your capability to do the work. Instead of just trying to go faster or improving the quality of the work, attention is focused on how that work is done. Specifically if any improvement can be made that could lead to improved speed, quality, or both. 

This is where things can be a little counterintuitive. At first, while the team experiments with their capability, their speed is likely to drop as they figure out a new way of working. There is an even higher chance of quality being affected as things can be missed, or unintended bugs are introduced.  But, as long as the team can collaborate effectively and learn from their failures the speed and the quality is very likely to improve in the long run. 

The Trap of Working Harder

The problem with working harder is that it’s addictive once you start. When you work harder you tend to see immediate results so it feels productive. Not only that but others notice it too and are likely to praise you for going the extra mile. That initial speed boost can make it feel like you’re getting more done in less time, especially if you’re taking a shortcut here and there. This can trap you into thinking that working harder is the best way to work. The long-term damage of not maintaining your way of working is that it can end up being the only way to get things done.

The Virtuous Cycle of Working Smarter

Once teams start improving their capability to do the work it tends to free them up as they are working more efficiently. This additional capacity is re-invested into spending more time on improving their capability further which can create a virtuous cycle of improvement.

Let’s call it Continuous Improvement

Personally I’m not a fan of saying you shouldn’t work harder but work smarter instead. Not only does it come across patronising but it leads to more ambiguity and misunderstanding. I do appreciate that we need to have some form of common language and having a defined terminology helps minimise the ambiguity and risk of misunderstandings. 

If we must call “working smarter” something then I’d opt for continuous improvement. While there is still a chance of it being misinterpreted, at least it has two of the keywords that working smarter is trying to achieve. 

Conclusion

Working harder and working smarter are two ways you can approach and think about how you are working in your teams. What we need to recognise is that working harder only allows you to choose between speed of delivery or the quality of that delivery. While working smarter, over time, can enable teams to deliver a quality product at speed. 

A good place to get started is having a shared understanding of what working harder looks like for you and your teams. How does it help and hinder your ability to deliver at speed or a quality release? From that identify areas that you can measure so you can objectively show that things are either getting faster, but quality is dropping or slower but quality is stable/increasing. Some good measures of speed are throughput of delivery such as leads times and release frequency. Quality can be tricker as it depends on what quality means to your team but a good proxy can be stability of releases based on change failure rates and mean time to recovery.

From there you can start experimenting with different ways of working that could incrementally improve your ability to do the work. All the while measuring to see if it is moving you towards delivering a quality product but at a pace that is faster than what came before. Which will enable you to move towards working smarter and begin continuously improving your ways of working

Further reading

I’ve only briefly described these two ways of working in this post. A much more thorough and detailed explanation is given in a 2001 California Business Review article “Nobody ever gets credit for fixing problems that never happen: Creating and Sustaining Process Improvement” by Nelson Repenning and John Sterman for which I must thank Joep Schuurkes who shared it with me on twitter.

Special thanks to Sarah Irving for proofreading and providing numerous suggestions to help make this post better than I could have alone. 

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