Simple trade off model

During stints in engineering and finance, I learned the following simple model from seasoned veterans to illustrate trade-offs of their work output.

Fast, Accurate, Cheap: Pick two, because it’s impossible to have all three.

By picking two of the three, you get the following combinations.

Fast & accurate, but not cheap. Why not cheap? Because to do things quickly and accurately you need top-notch systems, top-notch people and enough people to do the work.

Fast & cheap, but not accurate. Why not accurate? Because to get the work on the cheap, the department is understaffed, not staffed with top-notch people and systems are slow and cumbersome and usually not designed to support the work desired. Deadlines are so fast, there isn’t enough time built in to do proper quality checks, so lots of mistakes will make it through to the finished product.

Accurate & cheap, but not fast. Why not fast? To overcome the handicaps of non-top-notch people and systems takes extra time to double check work and find the inevitable errors.

Every field has this trade-off model. The art is finding it.

For example, the simple trade-off model for health insurance might be:

High access to care, Cheap, High quality: Pick two.

High access to care and cheap, but not high quality. Why not high quality? You won’t find the best people to provide care for everyone if you don’t pay them enough. So, anything that is cheap, you need to either ration access or quality, or some of both.

Cheap & high quality, but not high access. Why not high access? Same reason as above. You can’t attract enough people to provide care on the cheap if they have other options. So access is rationed with wait times, as it is in many countries that provide cheaper health care.

High access and high quality, but not cheap. Why not cheap? To attract enough high quality medical care professionals, they need to be paid better than their other options.

It’s helpful to keep this simple trade-off model in mind. It comes in handy to understand your personal situations and political topics.

Obviously, trade-offs are usually more complex than three, but considering three is better than considering none, which is what most people want to do when they want to have their cake and eat it, too.

It’s also useful when discussing these issues to get people — who typically aren’t thinking in terms of trade-offs — to more carefully consider their positions.





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