Recently I was sent an email with a photo of a poster saying “Price Quality or Speed – Pick Two”. It struck me at the time how old this phrase was and how out of place it seemed today. In its time the slogan meant that customers had only two choices and that it was too much to expect a business to offer all three. A short time later I ran into an old employee who mentioned the same phrase, this time reminding me that I taught it to him. I felt terrible. I felt like I’d corrupted him and yet, at the time we worked together it was our truth – or at least we thought so. For people who didn’t grow up in business in the 1980’s and early 90s this phrase must seem odd. Who would think that way today and yet a few decades ago we did. This would be just another interesting history lesson if not for the fact that today, some individuals and companies still hold fast to the notion that only two of these are possible. So what took a phrase that was prevalent in business thirty years ago and turned it into an arcane strategy today?
One of the most significant events that changed our thinking was the quality movement that began in the 1970’s (first in Japan and then the U.S.). The quality movement was about more than just quality. It changed how we thought. It represented a fundamental shift from internally-focused decision making to the customer-centric business model and a leadership system that we take for granted today. Statistical quality control taught us how to reduce variation in the quality of our products. “Good enough” was no longer good enough. Eventually, consistent high quality products was no longer something we touted as a competitive advantage. It became the expectation of every customer just to be considered as a supplier. Quality was taken off the table as a point of differentiation because everyone offered it. Now all we had left was price and speed.
International pressure also brought the need to be more competitive and cost conscious. So on the heels of the quality movement came “Lean” with its sights set on eliminating waste in systems. The result of leaner, more efficient processes meant we could deliver products faster and at a lower cost. We now had efficient and quick customer response time along with high quality. The nimbleness of highly responsive systems also enabled mass customization. No longer were we tied to long production runs designed to maximize machine efficiency.
There’s no question that technological advances in the digital age played a big role in making it all possible. Computer controlled machines made quality, consistency and speed possible. Electronic communication such as email compressed time and enabled data to be quickly and accurately dispersed to far flung corners of the globe.
I remember when one of my sales pitches was consistent quality and on-time delivery. Who would think of leading with that strategy today? Today the marketplace expects it. Decades ago we complained about the “unrealistic” demands of the customer. Not only do we not hear the complaint as much anymore, but we have a generation of employees who’ve grown up in a system of giving the customer with what they want, when they want it and at a fair price.
For most of us, improving quality, shortening delivery cycles and lowering costs required minimal if any investment. What it did require was that we change the way we thought. We began to look at all our processes with an eye for waste and inefficiency. We placed an emphasis on serving our customers what they wanted, when they wanted it. The quality movement changed our attitude. The digital revolution enabled it.
Satisfying customer expectations in a highly competitive environment is challenging for all companies. But those who embrace leadership strategies that support the idea that price, quality and speed are not only possible, but are necessary, have the greatest opportunity for success. Those that still expect the customer to “pick two” are often trapped in a perpetual struggle for survival.
Continually evaluating and evolving our leadership and competitive strategies to anticipate customer needs is critical to success. The competitive differentiating question we should be asking ourselves is “What do we believe today that ten or twenty years from now will seem as arcane as “Price, Quality or Speed – Pick Two”? Maybe, the new phrase for us today should be “Price, Quality & Speed – Pick More”.
If you’re struggling to get traction with a strategy or need to challenge old thoughts that are holding you back, let’s talk. I can help. You can reach me through the “Contact Us” tab on this page.