Monday Mornings with Madison

The Battle between Speed and Quality

Word Count:  1,847 

Estimated Read Time: 7 min.

In the business world, there is a constant tug-of-war between doing something ‘right’ and doing it fast.  The pressure of profitability is forever pushing companies to get things done fast, and then faster still.  Managers submit requests and the due date is “yesterday.”  The more quickly a job is performed or a task is completed, the more it is praised by management and investors.  Employees are urged to pick up the pace.  An entire engineering discipline – ergonomics – was developed to focus on improving efficiency by saving time through small adjustments in motion.  Sayings abound about not wasting time.  Time waits for no man.  Wasted time is a wasted life.  Don’t waste time or time will waste you.

On the other hand, the more quickly a job is performed, the higher the chance of an error or mistake.  Software updates are released too soon, full of bugs and glitches.  New phones are rushed to market, often with serious defects such as combustive batteries. Haste is often the enemy of quality.   That is why there are also sayings about the problem of rushing.  Haste makes waste.  And haste does not produce breakthrough ideas.  Tham Khai Mend, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy, one of the world’s leading advertising agencies, once said “Miners shift five tons of rocks to extract one ounce of gold. Just like you have to shift a ton of rubbish to get a good idea.”[1] Detailed or creative work requires a great deal of thought, research, concentration, reflection and mulling over to produce the truly valuable nuggets. It is a process that cannot be rushed.  And, work that requires precision and accuracy — such as surgery, architectural design, accounting, proofreading, and dispensing medicine – also cannot be rushed.  In such work, quality is arguably more important than speed.  So how does an employer balance the need for speed and efficiency against the often painstakingly slow nature of achieving quality?  The answer is not to balance them.  Improve quality and speed is sure to follow.

The Case for Efficiency

There is something to be said for working fast.  How quickly a job is done can significantly affect how much can be achieved in a day, week, month and year.  Even a small increase in speed can add up.  Here’s a highly simplified example.  If a typical accounting employee is able to prepare and mail an average of 10 invoices per hour and does this 8 hours per day, that employee will generate 80 invoices in a day, 400 invoices per week, and 20,800 invoices in a year (assuming she is never absent and never takes a vacation).  But if another employee is able to prepare and mail just 1 invoice more per hour than the average, that employee will generate 440 invoices in a week and 22,880 invoices in a year.  That is an increase of 2,080 invoices in a year.  That is a 10% increase in productivity, assuming both employees worked every day of every week.  The challenge is in figuring out the myriad of ways to “work faster” and what tasks might be eliminated altogether.

In today’s typical workplace, working faster is really about doing work in the most efficient way possible.  This includes minimizing or eliminating interruptions from text messages, instant messages, and social media interaction.  It also includes creating a physical workplace that eliminates waste of motion.  For example, if an employee has to visit the supply room on the other side of the building daily to replenish materials such as paper in the copier or pick up staples and envelopes, this is time wasted.  Materials should be stocked in closer proximity to eliminate the time lost running those errands.  And, in some cases, it means automating a process thereby eliminating the task altogether. So instead of increasing the accounting employee’s productivity by 1 invoice per hour, it could be increased by 2 invoices per hour if the mail portion of the task were removed by automating the task using machines that fold and stuff letters into window envelopes.  As the sales guru Peter Drucker said, “Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”

The goal, then, is to increase the speed at which work is done in strategic ways.  According to entrepreneur and investor John Rampton, we should treat each minute of time like it is gold.  In his article published in Inc Magazine[2], he offered 15 tips for increasing productivity at work.  Among those, he recommended using a time tracking tool, such as Rescue Team, to determine exactly how much time is spent on all kinds of tasks such as answering emails, attending meetings, answering or returning calls, networking on social media, etc.  This is an easy way to see what is consuming the most time.  It is easier to stop leaks of time once the sources are identified.  He also suggested creating self-imposed deadlines or timeframes for open-ended tasks or projects.  Studies have found that productivity and speed tend to increase when there is a hard deadline looming.

Another way to stop time waste is to nix meetings.  It’s estimated that the average employee spends 75% of a work week in meetings that consume time and hurt productivity.  Instead, resort to email, phone calls, and/or Skype as a way to cut down on time loss.  And, for in-person meetings that cannot be avoided, resort to a standing meeting… which is just what it sounds like.  The discomfort forces brevity.  Or resort to timed two-minute meetings in which the presenter must boil down the initial presentation to just 2 minutes, with 3 minutes for questions and responses.

The Case for Quality

Most would agree that reducing interruptions and time-wasting tasks is smart.  But when it comes to actually increasing the physical speed at which a particular task is done, the question of quality arises.  Many would argue that faster is not always better.  Obviously, certain tasks should not be rushed.

Case in point.  No one wants a surgeon to rush an operation.  In that type of work, quality certainly matters, even for the most mundane of surgical tasks.  For example, fixing a hernia – a very routine surgery — is a task that generally takes about 90 minutes in most hospitals worldwide, and a study in 2003 of more than 1.5 million hernia operations found that the average cost for an open hernia surgery ranged between $4,200 and $6,200.[3] Generally, rushing through the task can risk the complications, increase costs, increase recurrence and even risk the life of the patient.  According to Atul Gawande, in his book Complications:  A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, “in 10 to 15% of the cases, the operation eventually fails and the hernia returns.”[4] In this procedure, quality certainly matters.  But, Gawande points out, there is an exception to the rule.

According to Gawande, “There is, however, a small medical center outside Toronto, known as the Shouldice Hospital, where none of these statistics apply.  At Shouldice, hernia operations often take from 30 to 45 minutes.  Their recurrence rate is an astonishing 1%.  And the cost of an operation is about half of what it is elsewhere.”  The key to their success has to do with a deep experience that has allowed them to perfect the quality of what they do.  There are a dozen surgeons at this hospital and they do nothing but hernia repairs, all day every day.  Where an average general surgeon might perform 600-800 hernia repairs in a lifetime, a surgeon at Shouldice does 600-800 hernia repairs per year.  How?  Well, to start, they do them faster (in half the time) and they waste almost no time between surgeries (just 15 minutes).  Every aspect of the surgery has been streamlined to the most efficient and effective way possible, such as putting the dining hall downstairs so that patients must get up and walk around immediately after surgery, thereby eliminating common complications from immobility.  According to Gawande, “With repetition, a lot of mental functioning becomes automatic and effortless…. A surgeon, for whom most situations have automatic solutions, has a significant advantage.”  Through repetition and process streamlining, these doctors achieve a level of expertise that allows them to function with the precision and speed that is almost like robots.  And with repetition comes unfaltering quality, which in turn improves speed, and that lowers costs and all but eliminates complications.  So quality not only matters, but it can actually contribute to speed.

The Dance between Speed and Quality

One of the first individuals to look at the push-pull of quality and speed in the workplace was W. Edwards Deming.  Although not a businessman, it was Deming who started to look at the interaction between productivity and quality.  An American electrical engineer, statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and management consultant, Deming is best known for his theory on improving management that was widely adopted in Japan and later in the U.S., thereby transforming the automotive and electronics industries.   His focus was to improve workplace quality through his 14 key management principles.[5] His ideas became the foundation for what later became known as Total Quality Management or TQM (and later expanded into Six Sigma and other management philosophies).  Recognizing the relationship between efficiency and quality, Deming’s focus was on how to transform business effectiveness.   One fundamental belief was that companies must constantly improve systems in order to improve both quality and productivity.  He also said companies should cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality and instead focus on building quality into the product in the first place.  He was a firm believer in on-the-job training and education so that employee skills would continually improve, and he felt that the purpose of leadership should simply be to help employees and technology do better.

With regard to quality and speed, he believed that employees shouldn’t be evaluated based on the quantity they produced, but rather on the quality, of their work.  To evaluate on quantity alone would be to remove pride of workmanship.  Ultimately, Deming believed that improving quality did affect productivity because it eliminated mistakes, customer complaints, the cost to repair or replace defective work, duplicate work and wasted materials. This was exactly what happened at Shouldice Hospital.  Quality, therefore, resulted in improved overall efficiency and speed.[6]

In short, Deming’s advice to business owners today would likely be that if the choice is between speed or quality, choose quality and reward experience because those will ultimately improve speed.

Quote of the Week

“Improve quality, you automatically improve productivity.”
W. Edwards Deming



[2] February 4, 2015, By John Rampton, Inc Magazine, “15 Ways to Increase Productivity at Work”,

[3] February 17, 2003.  By N. Stylopoulous, G.S. Gazelle and D.W. Rattner, “A cost–utility analysis of treatment options for inguinal hernia in 1,513,008 adult patients.”  Surgical Endoscopy ePub,  Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA.

[4] Gawande, Atul (2002), Complications, A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, Henry Holt & Company, Halzbrinck Publishers, New York, NY.

[5] Deming, W. Edwards (2000), Out of the Crisis, (1. MIT Press), Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

[6] Deming, W. Edwards (2001), The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education – 2nd Edition, (1. MIT Press), Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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