The Trilemma Between Time, Cost, and Quality

This is from the “Accounting Makes Cents” podcast episode #8 released on Monday, 7 March 2022.

In today’s episode, we’re going to tackle the three primary forces in project management. These are time, quality and cost involved in the project. An uneven strength of one force causes an imbalance that could destruct the success of the project. This is really an important topic especially if you are doing E2 at the moment because this is heavily covered on E2.

Jump to show notes.

I’m sure most of us have seen memes showing the relationship between these three aspects of a project. Sometimes you’ll see it on paper, sort of like an ad, but most times, you’ll find a video on it, showing in action something done very quickly versus one that has been given enough time and resources to complete. 

To recap on these memes, or at least the lessons behind the memes, we are covering being good, being fast and being cheap. There are three taglines to this:

The first tagline is “What is cheap and good, will not be quick to make”

If management does not allocate enough money for the project, but still expect that the project be done meeting a certain level of quality standard, while it could be possible, the project manager will likely need to really spend time to get this done.

Let’s say as an example, we wanna build a house. You should be able to use cheaper but quality materials to build it with, but it may take you time to source these materials since they won’t be easy to come by.

The second tagline is “What is good and fast, will not be cheap to make”

If management wants the project to yield a good result and be done in as short a time as possible, then they should be willing to fork out the money to get it done. I am almost sure that the project manager could do this, if enough money is available to hire more talent and resources to help get this project done in that short time.

So with our house example, we want to have a good, quality house and we will need it in a week’s time. To be able to meet the deadline and the quality level, you will need to hire more hands to help you build the house non-stop for the next 7 days.

The third tagline is “What is fast and cheap, will not be good”

If management wants something done quickly and with as little money as possible, then the project normally doesn’t generate a very good result in the end. Everybody is rushed to do their parts. They become careless and accept mediocre work because they value to meet the deadline even though they know that it’s unreasonable. They also can’t spend too long on the project, because time is money. The more they work on it, the more likely they’ll be costing the project more.

Going back to the house example, if we decide not to hire anybody else, and just try to wing this on our own, trying to finish it in a week’s time, then the likelihood is that we will be forgetting to do something or don’t do something because there just wasn’t enough time. The house could turn out to be rather small, or worse, not even standing.

The trilemma

I do find it interesting that the choice is always to pick two, with the third one suffering. And while this is probably true if you want the best of all three, I’d like to say that in a project, it is possible to get all three to work together.

Project managers are often struggling to balance these three aspects. A good project would often set the quality level of the results at the very beginning. This allows everybody to understand what is expected of them. Furthermore, a good project would be one where enough money is set aside and enough resources are provided to get the job done. This ensures that the project is not lacking in terms of financial support. Lastly, the timeline of the project should be adequate and realistic. There shouldn’t be a lot of room for slack but at the same time, people should not be driven mad because the deadline is just too tight.

And of course, projects don’t always run as smoothly as it is set on paper. Even with all the necessary checks done, a project could still be derailed. Any derailment could result in one of the forces (cost, time or quality) to be affected. A good project manager would need to ensure that there is as little disruption as possible, and that if there were, that it is quickly dealt with and an alternative path is taken to correct the course of the project. This is to ensure that one effect would not cause an avalanche of many things going wrong.

How does the project manager actually do this?

Aside from looking at the project and thinking of these three constraints, something else that a project needs is risk assessment and management. Think of the project as a mini-company. It faces its own sets of risks and disasters. And if a project manager is aware and prepared for those, there would be mitigation steps that he or she would take to ensure that those events, when they do eventually materialise, that they are addressed.

I think there is a lot to be said about expectations too. While we say that the right way would be to get a good balance between time, cost and quality, management could come and say, or imply, that a specific aspect is more important than others. As an example, if you are working for a company that values the high quality of the products that it is producing, then it would be safe to assume that quality likely trumps over time and cost if a choice ever has to be made. Hopefully though, it doesn’t come to that because all three are important.

End note

Ultimately, the bottom line is that one should not accept projects where one of these constraints is compromised. If you can already see that it is not possible to do the project in time, or to do the project in the budget given, or to do the project in the quality level expected, then you should have the right to refuse to undertake such a project. I could add that there are also project management tools to help project managers deal with these sort of things, but we will save that for another episode.

Show notes simplified

In this episode, MJ the tutor explores the relationship between the three primary forces in project management, namely time, quality and cost. These three forces signify project constraints. MJ the tutor looks at how to navigate the different choices between these 3 forces and the possibility of the best solution.

“Ding Ding Small Bell” ( by JohnsonBrandEditing ( licensed under CC0 Licence.

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