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Better Faster Cheaper

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Life of an Architect Podcast

Better Faster Cheaper

We have all heard the phrase “Better, Faster, Cheaper, you can have any 2.” Is it actually true? Yes, of course, it’s true, but we are going to talk about it anyways because this is really a conversation about quantity and quality, which is ultimately a conversation about value. 

February 22, 2021
Better Faster Cheaper
Better Faster Cheaper

We have all heard the phrase “Better, Faster, Cheaper, you can have any 2.” Is it actually true? Yes, of course, it’s true, but we are going to talk about it anyways because this is really a conversation about quantity and quality, which is ultimately a conversation about value.



The concept of Better Faster Cheaper – choose two - jump to 1:04
The concept behind “better faster cheaper” is fairly well known, but for those of you that have not heard it before, the premise is that you can choose any two of those items but you can never have all three. There is always a cost associated with the two items you select.
• You can have Better and Faster … but you can’t have cheaper
• You can have Faster and Cheaper … but you can’t have better
• You can have Cheaper and Better … but you can’t have faster

I could successfully argue that cheaper + better is so rare that it doesn’t really exist, at least not in the world of construction.

You Get What You Pay For - jump to 4:24
Before we get into this conversation any further, I want to set the table with another concept that could possibly add some color to my thinking. I’d like to run through John Ruskin’s “Common Law of Business Balance” which basically explains why you can’t pay less and get more. John Ruskin was a 19th century English Poet, fervent art critic … and socialist.

It reads as follows:

“There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”

This is a classic quote on the possible folly of automatically choosing low-cost as the best way to make a purchase decision. It appeals to those who believe, or who want to persuade others to believe, that price is a possible indicator of quality. While this is not always true, it does align with my way of thinking simply because I tend to see it played out this way on the job site. For the most part (and there are exceptions to the rule just as there are examples that set the rule) the really good contractors tend to work with really good sub-contractors and the combination of these two things generally translates into a superior product – which typically translates into a more expensive product.

What I try to talk about with my friends and clients is about finding the appropriate balance between product and cost – which would be the value. If you do not appreciate the more expensive item, or can’t tell the difference between something and its less expensive alternative, how can there be value in paying for it? The only time this really becomes an issue is when someone wants to pay for the cheaper alternative but expects the quality level to remain unchanged. It simply does not work out when the expectations don’t align with the associative cost.

Big Bag of Nothing - jump to 9:15
This is the “Big Bag of Nothing” concept as envisioned by yours truly – Bob Borson. The meaning behind this phrase is a person who will talk at length about a subject they don’t know anything about. It’s not much different than saying someone is “full of hot air” or “all talk and no action”. I have been using this phrase while trying to describe different types of clients and the way they approach their construction budgets – and yes, it involves bags – (but in this case, the bag is a metaphor for the client’s project budget.

Quantity over Quality
Client #1 views their bag as empty but sized to accommodate the budget – i.e. – they can put $500,000 worth of stuff in that bag. The way they perceive things, they select a project item and put it into the bag. After a while, the bag is full but they still have items left that they want inside that $500,000 capacity bag … so what do they do? They cram it on top, jam it into the side – whatever it takes as long as it gets in the bag. Don’t worry about the fact that some of the items already in there are getting smashed, broken, deformed … it doesn’t matter. If everything has to get a little worse so that there are more goodies in there then they are happy campers. Just get more stuff in that bag!

Quality over Quantity
Client #2 has their $500,000 bag but the way they see things, their budget is already in this bag. As they select items from the list, they take money out of the bag to cover the expense. When the bag is empty, they stop pulling items off their list. They may not get as much stuff but what they do get is going to be exactly what they wanted.

If you are getting the same basic pricing from everyone who looks at your project, you can’t expect to find one who can still give you what you want without there being consequences. If three bids come in and they are all around $50k to $70k over your project budget, the solution isn’t to find cheaper contractors.

Your Behavior Matters - jump to 22:12
A long time ago, I learned first hand the benefits of carrying yourself in a particular manner and I wrote about that experience in a post titled “Your Behavior Matters“. While this story isn’t truly connected to today’s theme, it’s still a story worth sharing. For the record, I did tell this story because the contractor completely blew his bid by forgetting to include an entire building in his number … and I had to deal with the fallout.

How to Accomplish “Better Faster + Cheaper” … and Still Lose - jump to 45:24
So can you actually achieve all three at the same time? Architects have been trying to pull this off forever, and there is a strategy in place that allows them to come close. If you can provide better and cheaper, you are left with solving the “faster” riddle. That’s easy … just work more hours every single day.

Is that a good long-term strategy? – No

Will you retain the very best and brightest in the office? – No

Will the quality of the work eventually be impacted because people are constantly grinding against deadlines? Of course, it will.

So in achieving all three items, you win by losing. Congratulations.

Would you rather? jump to 46:01
For today’s Would you Rather question, there is definitely a right and a wrong answer. As someone who has owned multiple dogs and multiple cats – all at the same time – I definitely know which is the correct answer.

Would you rather have six dogs … or six cats?

I could elaborate on the one major consideration that would steer your answer one way over the other, but I think you will better yourself by listening and hearing me work through this particular issue and why it doomed my answer.

“Better Faster Cheaper” has been a highly used communication lesson for years … although I’m not entirely convinced that it changes anybody’s mind or behavior. Our attempts to convey a sense of value through a balanced application of quantity and quality is almost always short-circuited by people’s desire to go beyond what is reasonable, mostly because how would they know what is, or is not, reasonable? Part of our role as architects is to educate people along the way so that together we can ascertain where they find value and in turn, we can find that balance between quantity and quality. The faster part … there is no lesson because everybody always wants what they want immediately and the best you can do is manage expectations – which brings us all the way back to the beginning … 2 out of 3.

Cheers my friends –

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