Doing it Fast vs. Doing it Right: There’s More Than One “Bottom Line”
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: I wrote this sometime in the late 1990s as an homage to my fond memories of working, primarily, in corporate America, following short stints as an on-call emergency dispatcher, an envelope-stuffing “machine” for American Express, six months as a telephone solicitor for a family-oriented film company, and a little over 2 1/2 years in telephone customer service for UPS.
Sadly, most companies only look at one bottom line . . . but there’s more than one.
Whether because of the fine-motor control and hand-eye coordination difficulties posed by my Cerebral Palsy or for some other reason, I have never been a particularly fast worker, particularly not when it comes to repetitive tasks involving manual labor (stamping, dating, coding, sorting and filing A/P invoices, et cetera). Furthermore, when faced with the choice between doing something fast and doing it right, I have always “erred” on the side of doing it right.
My employers have usually wanted “fast,” and they’ve appreciated my desire to do it “right” even less when they’ve compared my performance to someone whose able both to do things fast–and– according to my employers, at least, to do them right. I’ve been able to compensate for this somewhat by taking advantage of a comparatively-long attention span: I can’t (or at least I don’t) work fast, but I can work slower for awfully long stretches at one time–but even at this, my employers have been less than appreciative.
To a varying extent, this has been a problem for me in almost all the jobs I’ve had: for example, as a telephone salesperson, “I sent the customer the wrong Feature Films for Families, but at least I was able to do it fast!” Or, as a customer service representative, “I didn’t help that UPS customer much, but at least I got them off of the phone fast!” Or, in accounts payable, “I put a few extra zeros on that invoice, and it only cost the company a million dollars, but at least I got it done fast!” Or (my personal favorite), as an emergency dispatcher–“Oops! I sent the ambulance to the wrong address and that heart-attack victim died, but at least I got the ambulance to the wrong address fast!”
None of my employers has ever told me, (and I haven’t asked), “How right is ‘right’ when it comes to doing a job fast? I have a strong suspicion (a suspicion which might be completely unfounded–at least according to my employers–but a suspicion which is strong nonetheless) that perhaps my employers have been willing–to varying extents–to sacrifice doing something “right” for the sake of doing it “fast”. How many mistakes do my supposedly-more-“efficient,” “fast” coworkers make compared to me?
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe envelopes are only worth stuffing if they can be stuffed fast; maybe films are only worth selling if they can be sold fast; maybe customers are only worth helping if they can be helped fast; maybe invoices are only worth processing if they can be processed fast; maybe lives are only worth saving if they can be saved fast. I’m not sure.
I do know, however, that to many organizations, none of that stuff is worth doing unless it can be done cheap, and cheap usually means fast, because the faster an employee does something (even if s/he makes more mistakes doing it), the less a company has to pay that employee to do more work. Maybe it costs more to keep a customer than that customer is worth. A company may be completely unaware of how many customers it’s losing simply because customers come into the front door faster than they leave through the back door. And when customers leave (and oftentimes they leave because employees make mistakes) they usually don’t bother telling the company that they’re leaving; they just leave, and the company they’re no longer doing business with is blissfully ignorant, not only of why they left, but also of the very fact they left at all.
Maybe companies care less about the “bottom line” of how many customers they keep than about the “bottom line” of how much money they have to spend to keep them. It’s not hard to understand why. The second “bottom line” is easily quantifiable, in such terms as “cost per call,” and “dollars per hour” paid in wages, while the first “bottom line” is not so easily quantifiable: companies might not know (or care) how many customers they’re losing out the back door as long as a slightly greater number of customers come in through the front door.
If you’re a CEO, a COO, or a CFO, if your company is losing money and you’ve explored and tried to “arrest” all of the “usual suspects,” I invite you to give me a call before you call any Harvard-educated consultant. Chances are very good that I’ll have the answer for you–and chances are even better that my advice will cost a lot less than the Harvard alum’s. I don’t have a degree in mathematics, in statistics, in finance–or even a mere business degree for that matter. Still, I feel qualified (intrepid soul that I am) to say that if a company’s powers-that-be are more concerned about the second “bottom line” than about the first, the day will come when they will look at both, scratch their heads in puzzlement, and say, “Our customer service is so inexpensive! We’ve cut through the fat to the muscle, and through the muscle to the bone in a lot of places, but we’re still losing money! Why is that?”
The answer to the question lies in the following scenario: If I were to interview with your human resources manager for a position and s/he were to ask me, “Tell me, how do you feel about doing a job fast vs. doing a job right?” I would answer, “It depends. If you want a job done fast, maybe I’m not your ideal employee. If you want it done right . . .” If s/he were to ask me, “What if we want both?” I would answer, “If this were an ideal world, you could have both all of the time. But this is not an ideal world, so you can’t. If I can possibly give you ‘fast’ and ‘right’ at the same time, I will. But if I can’t give you ‘fast,’ I’d rather give you ‘right.’” Sadly, this would mean that in many companies I wouldn’t get the job, because in order to do that, I would have to tell the H/R manager what s/he wants to hear rather than telling the truth.
The good news is that your company can refuse to hire me, and chances are that I’ll never know why I didn’t get the job. If I happen to be working for your company, if we have an at-will relationship (which we probably do) you can fire me, and I’ll never know why–and even if I do know why, I can’t do anything about it. And which is more, you could have fired many of your “fast” employees for all the mistakes they’ve made, and I’d never know. (Which just proves the old saying, “You can only please some of the people some of the time.”)
Oh, by the way–if you want a job done fast, maybe I’m not your ideal employee. (Of course, it depends on the job: it only took me about an hour to write this article). On the other hand, if you want a job done right . . . give me a call.