From the Editor: Measuring "Quality"

October 1, 2003
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What is the true measure of quality? Is it enough for a manufacturer to have all the statistics, measurements and analysis to convince a customer that his is a “quality” product? If there is no objective quality data, the best marketing department in the world will not convince a customer to buy a product. That said, quality is also often defined by small perceptions from actual use of the product.

A recently rented car brought home the seriousness of my habit of slamming car doors. Economy, midsize, full size, SUVs and trucks. I am an equal opportunity slammer. As I closed the door on this rental, I thought the door was going to come off its hinges.

The car was a smaller model, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. My personal vehicle is on the smaller side and when I close the door, it closes with solidness. A recently rented Ford Focus surprised me with its solidness of doors. Car size isn’t the only factor in this measurand. So what’s the point?

I based my decision about the car’s quality on a relatively small factor. Because my direct experience with that vehicle was a negative one—no Pareto charts, histograms or measurement devices available to use as objective means—that serves as the basis of whether to rent that vehicle again. I am not alone in using such “personal measurands” to determine product quality. Are they still quality vehicles if they can’t endure a little extra force on the doors and trunks? Yes and no.

Domestic and foreign carmakers have come a long way in ensuring that vehicles are made better. Today’s complaints are usually regarding more mundane issues. Recalls have decreased in frequency and severity. These strides forward are the direct result of better manufacturing and quality practices and tools. However, those accomplishments are not the sole determinant as to whether vehicles are considered of quality.

Despite statistical analysis, data points or sigma results, a large part of quality is meeting customer perceptions. J.D. Power and Associates measures customer satisfaction and dependability. For many companies, ratings have improved, but all manufacturers have room to improve.

In the case of automobiles, the consumer is the customer, but the perception vs. the reality of quality is not limited to consumers nor to the automotive industry. The customer can be another manufacturer, and his perceptions are even more critical than the consumer’s. A dissatisfied consumer might be enticed back to a company in whose product he was previously disappointed, however, another manufacturer will have a longer memory. It’s difficult to win him back despite improvements a supplier might make. Ask someone who has disappointed Intel Corp. or Ford Motor Co. Such a supplier may meet and exceed needed changes in his product, but is likely to find the door to those companies still closed.

So, as you prepare to invest in new tools to ensure quality from a measurement and analysis standpoint, also invest in discovering what your customer considers to be the measure of quality. The best data or measurement tools won’t ever offset the negative view that comes when a car door can’t take an occasional slam.

Does your company measure the customer as part of its quality? Let me know at williamst@bnp.com.

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