ManagementSpeak: Quality is free.
Translation: We have no intention of investing in our business.
This week’s contributor invested a high-quality ManagementSpeak in this column … for free.

We used to say, “Quicker, cheaper, better … pick two.” Then process re-engineering came along, promising improvements in all three through the magic of being more insightful than those who built the current process. Sometimes re-engineering succeeds. Sometimes it does more harm than good, in part because, as discussed in this space over the last two weeks, neither quicker nor cheaper consists of just one measure. While “Shorter cycle time, higher throughput, lower overhead, reduced unit cost, and better … pick a few,” sounds dull, it’s more likely to keep you out of trouble than its snappier predecessor.

Quicker and cheaper are each multiple measures. How about “better” — is that just one measure, or is it more?

From the perspective of any given process, it really is just one measure. Quality (“better”) means adherence to specifications.

A process is a factory, producing a large number of items which are supposed to be identical in one or more respects. If your goal is to improve a process — perhaps the most common objective of any IT-related project — then improving process quality mean its outputs more closely meet specifications.

Not every activity in a business is a process, though. A lot of time and energy goes into figuring out what specifications the company’s processes must meet. “Better” in this sense can’t be constrained by any simple, single measure.

How does this relate to IT? It isn’t a new point, but it bears repeating: Nobody cares if the software works, only if the business has changed successfully. That means IT needs to be able to lead business improvement efforts, which in turn means understanding how to make the business “better” in all senses of the term — adherence to specifications, and choosing the right specifications in the first place.

So … specifications have two major sources. The first are customers — people who make buying decisions about our company’s products and services. Customer-driven specifications are a matter of aesthetics.

Aesthetic specifications are never right or wrong in any objective sense — all they can do is match the tastes of the customers we’ve decided to target. The specifications for a Lamborghini Gallardo, which are all about speed, handling, acceleration, and looking very, very cool, are neither more nor less right than those for the Toyota Prius, which emphasize price, reliability, and incredible gas mileage. Two different groups of customers, two different entirely right specifications.

The other source of specifications is competition … winning and losing. What determines whether your company wins? There’s no simple formula.

Think baseball: Some teams win on pitching, some on rallies, and some on home runs. Different strategies work better against different opponents, except, of course, that all strategies beat the Cubs … but I digress.

Think chess: Some players emphasize positional chess, building unassailable formations from which they can launch attacks; others concentrate on combinations — surprising sequences that win by tricking an opponent into making a mistake. Which is better depends on who you’re playing.

In military doctrine, as my friend Curt Sahakian, president of the Corporate Partnering Institute, reminds me from time to time, maneuver warfare holds the current key to success. It works through a process-like formula called the OODA loop (observation, orientation, decision, and action) developed by Colonel John Boyd after the Vietnam War debacle.

Whichever side has the faster OODA loops generally wins. Which doesn’t, however, mean the process of developing competitive “specifications” has been reduced to a predictable, repeatable process.

Far from it. Speeding up your OODA loops only works when the accuracy of observation and orientation, and the suitability of decisions and action, don’t suffer.

If this weren’t the case, any decision made quickly enough would win, as would action no matter how sloppily executed. But that isn’t the case.

For while indecision almost always leads to failure, the world has no shortage of stupid losers whose only ability is to make snap decisions without first understanding the situation.

And while failing to act guarantees losing even more than failing to decide, taking action certainly doesn’t guarantee winning. It’s the ability to execute that in the end makes the difference.

Want another description of the ability to execute? It’s having the discipline to make sure you adhere to the specifications that are, after all, the products of worthwhile decisions.