Face of Quality: What is Quality Anyway?

May 27, 2009
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Was Joseph M. Juran or Philip B. Crosby right about the definition of quality? Is quality “fitness for use” or “conformance to requirements?” I’ve pondered this issue a lot and my simple response is yes, but only in the broadest terms. It is necessary to be more explicit. For thought and discussion consider the following:

Quality is a continuous variable and, as such, exists in greater or lesser degrees. To judge quality solely on the basis of meeting or not meeting specification limits is to misinterpret what these quality giants intended and misunderstand the true nature of quality.

All products are accompanied by some type of service, either from the manufacturers’ service organizations or from independent providers. In lieu of their own service organization, some manufacturers will provide a list of factory-approved service providers. The professionalism with which the customers are greeted, the understanding of their needs, the way their questions and concerns are addressed, and the timely delivery of their products and services are all quality issues. Quality is truly everyone’s business-it just depends on the perspective of the viewer.

Customers and consumers have unprecedented needs in addition to their own perceived expectations. Organizations must have an alert and proactive attitude in all functions if user needs are to be safeguarded. Moreover, these needs and expectations are constantly evolving. As a consequence of this evolution, there is always opportunity and need for quality improvement. Unrelenting pursuit of quality improvement is one hallmark of a mature, customer-focused organization.

The final judge of quality is the customer and, ultimately, the consumer. At a minimum, compliance with organization standards and specifications is necessary and expected. Those standards, however, are relevant only to the degree in which they reflect the needs and expectations of the marketplace. Customers buy expectations, not just products and services.

These thoughts represent a fundamental, yet incomplete set of principles and those principles underlie a definition of quality. For example, quality can be defined as “the degree to which products and services satisfy the needs and expectations of the customer and ultimate consumer.” Products and services, in most cases, should be considered of equal importance. What most organizations sell is not just a product, but rather a service or business experience. That experience is the summation of every activity, every employee’s effort in the organization. As stated earlier, quality is truly everyone’s business.

After a series of satisfying business experiences the customer will not have bought only a product, but also an integral business relationship. As time goes on, the customer develops an ever-increasing regard for the organization. Ultimately, the organization is what is being sold. The business transaction is the vehicle for selling the organization and the product becomes the medium of exchange. Organizations must combine product quality with service quality to provide the highest levels of customer satisfaction.

Let’s recognize that what we are talking about is excellence-not product excellence or manufacturing excellence-but total organizational excellence. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be causal or sloppy about some things and rigorous about others.

Organizations must realize that the value of a customer is not based on a single large purchase, but on a lifetime worth of purchases. Loyal, repeat customers account for a high proportion of sales and profit. If an organization does not meet expectations, dissatisfied customers find it hard to remain loyal. Quality is important at all levels in an organization, but a majority of customers dissatisfied with consistently poor service quality will look elsewhere to spend their purchasing dollars.

The heart of quality is not about technique; it is commitment to process excellence and an overall desire to do more than just deliver conformance to requirements or products fit for use. Juran or Crosby, as well as many other voices of quality, knew that satisfied customers vote with repeat business and their purchasing power. I believe this to be at the center of their definitions of quality.

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