What Comes First: Quality, Cost, Delivery, Time, or Innovation

In today's slow economy, with pressure to be first to market and with engineers wearing more hats beyond just “design engineer,” it seems as if that special “x factor” in a product or design is slipping away. Are we as innovative as we can be? Do we need to take a step back and look at where we want to go instead of running as fast as we can and then figure out later where we are? Sometimes, we think we are going somewhere fast and making great progress — until we look down and see we are running on a treadmill, wearing ourselves down and going nowhere.

I've had many pet peeves and struggles as an engineer. You've surely heard that famous bromide, “Time is money.” Well, that may be true, but I always say, “If you don’t take the time, then it will cost you a lot of money.”

Do you ever find yourselves creating multiple versions of a project schedule and spending days on the task, without knowing if the project you're working on will even function?

Are you asked to take cost out of a design before you even start designing?

I think today that engineers are forced to move so fast that they don’t have time to fully test or are forced to skip steps and cut corners. Meanwhile, management wonders why the product is failing, UL is not approving the design, or reworks are forced to be made just a week before production. Schedules end up delayed anyway, so why not consider this on the front end. Initially, the schedule forces the design — and the schedule slips anyway. Because the schedule demands a rushed process, designs end up costing more than they would have if realistic schedules were in place.

What about innovation? Can we be innovative if we have to somehow put more features on a product, but do it for less cost than a previous basic model? I think too much emphasis is placed on cost on the front end rather than creating an innovative product that the customers need, one that solves a problem. Can’t we try to reduce cost later, rather than cutting costs before a design starts?

Engineers used to be people that sit in a lab, creating schematics with a pencil, sniffing solder fumes, blowing up ICs, staying up all hours soldering massive amounts of 30AWG wire to their handmade boards. However, today it seems engineers are sitting at tables comparing supplier costs, negotiating, and trying to get an IC a penny under the competition. Don’t get me wrong, we have to have cost-effective, innovative designs so they can actually hit the market and be affordable to purchase. However, should engineers have to worry about whose op amp is cheaper, or should they focus on design and solving problems?

Should purchasing groups become more technical so they can negotiate better? Should purchasing understand what an engineer needs and take away the cost burden from engineers? In my past experience, I worked with purchasing teams that saw a PCB and knew that it cost a certain dollar amount, but had no idea what the cost number meant or what made it up. How can you negotiate if you don’t know the product and what you are negotiating?

I remember the days where I had to order parts for production before my first engineering samples were complete or we had even started testing. This may not have been a problem if R&D had already proved it out. Many companies don’t have R&D groups. Do R&D groups cut down on development cost?

I would like to hear some opinions on what the priority list in development should be. Out of quality, cost, delivery, development time, and innovation, is there a special balance or formula for the perfect development cycle? Let me know what you think.

3 comments on “What Comes First: Quality, Cost, Delivery, Time, or Innovation

    March 5, 2013

    An expansion on the old adage… Of the following: time, cost, and quality… pick two of the three. I see delivery as the time-side of things. Innovation is a good adder, but can also relate to time as well.

  2. eafpres
    March 5, 2013

    Hi Jason–I think one of the casualties over the last several years has been thinning out functions that don't directly touch product going to customers.  This means many companies have no R&D, and not much D(evelopment), and just get by with “designing what the customer wants” and getting it to production.  They say necessity is the mother of invention, so meeting an unrealistic schedule at at unbelievable cost point with never-before-seen features should drive lots of innovation, but I agree with you in reality it is the opposite.

    Where I may depart from you is that I don't think you should saddle the customer engineering function with all the innovation expecations.  You need some other folks who work on different time schedules away from certain deadlines to come up with some of the new stuff.  As one manager I recall told a VP who was demanding a schedule for something we didn't yet know how to do “You can't pace invention”.

    As far as priority, my view is in customer engineering delivery must happen, quality is a given, and time is what you have to work with.  Innovation then may be the top of the heap if it really requires something new to meet all the expectations.  Otherwise, if something known will meet the deadline and reduce risk, I will save innovating for the next project.

  3. goafrit2
    March 7, 2013

    >> What comes first – quality, cost, delivery, time or innovation?

    I think I will say quality. Quality cuts across everything. It costs across delivery, time and innovation. Without it, there is no business.

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