Fixed Axis

There’s a saying in business: “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.”

It makes sense! If you want quality work quickly, you generally have to pay out the nose. If you want quality work cheaply, you have to wait in line behind everyone else that also wants that. And if you want something quickly that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for, it probably won’t be that good.

That’s a general rule and of course there are exceptions – my local pizza place, for example, is inexpensive, fast, and amazing. But it’s definitely a good general principle to be aware of as you’re evaluating your options for a particular good or service.

And it’s generally a good thing that the market is flexible like that! My needs change from day to day and project to project. One day, I may need a solution quickly and I’m willing to pay top dollar. Another day, I may also need a solution but be short on liquid funds so I’m willing to take a lower-quality solution in order to get it cheap. For one item I may be willing to wait a long time because it isn’t urgent but I’d like what I do get to be of excellent condition, but in another instance I may need something very quickly. So overall, it’s a good thing that for any given product or service, there’s usually at least one option in each of the three broad categores: “Cheap & Fast; Not Good,” “Cheap & Good; Not Fast” and “Fast & Good; Not Cheap.” That lets everyone get what they need based on their particular circumstance.

But imagine one of those axes was fixed. For instance, imagine a mandatory 30-day waiting period was put on every product and service you could buy, thus removing any business’s ability to be “Fast.” Now, there’s only two measurements: the Bad-Good axis and the Cheap-Expensive axis. By removing only one axis, you put two out of every three companies out of business, because only the company that focused on being “Cheap & Good; Not Fast” has any competitive Edge. All of them are “Not Fast” now, so you’ve got one Good company, one Cheap company, and one Cheap & Good company. That’s an easy choice!

But not only do you put 2/3 of companies out of business in this hypothetical, you also do a lot of damage to the consumer. Sure, everyone gets great products at an affordable rate now. But there are many, many purchases where no matter how cheap and how good they were, they’re useless past a certain point. If I’m baking a cake for a party tomorrow and I suddenly realize I don’t have a cake pan, I don’t really need it to be of fine quality – the super-basic one from Wal-Mart will do, but I need it tonight. Waiting 30 days for the best one doesn’t help me; it’s not the right fit for my circumstance. Likewise, if the heater goes out in my house in the middle of winter, waiting 30 days for an inexpensive fix is not a better choice for me than getting an expensive fix tonight.

The other issue is one of supply. Let’s say you’ve got three Widget companies. One sells Good, Cheap Widgets (but they’re very slow to fill orders and deliver); one sells Good, Fast Widgets (but they’re very expensive) and one sells Cheap, Fast Widgets (but they’re very basic and the lowest quality of the three). Regardless of their production styles, none of them can produce infinite Widgets in finite time; there’s a limit to how many Widgets the population could buy from them at once.

So now down comes the decree that all Widgets have to have a 30-day waiting period. Since before you had to wait 30 days for Good, Cheap Widgets, but you could get the other two kinds in 48 hours, suddenly everyone places their orders with Good & Cheap. Why wouldn’t they? “Fast” is no longer an option. Except that’s more orders than Good & Cheap can fulfill (hey, they can’t re-order supplies any faster, either!), so suddenly there’s a huge back-log. Instead of 30 days, it’s months and months to get a Good & Cheap Widget because there simply aren’t enough.

Now customers are forced into one of two bad situations: Buy Good & Cheap Widgets but wait half a year or more to get them, or buy “Just Good” Widgets (that are neither fast nor cheap) or “Just Cheap” Widgets (that are neither fast nor good). Fixing one axis made literally every option worse.

All it takes is fixing one axis in place, and the whole thing falls apart.

The more flexible a system is, the more robust and resistant to damage it is. The better it can serve the greatest number of varied needs. When architects build skyscrapers, they build in the ability to sway in the wind – because if they can’t sway, they break.

Rigid things break, whether they be physical objects or complex systems. Let things adjust.

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