Defining quality remains elusive, but a litmus test can help.

I find it interesting and ironic that the quality profession struggles to define the word "quality." It is a difficult word to define, but as a quality manager that is interested in shipping quality products, I must define it.

In some situations, such as incoming raw part inspections, quality is often easy to define. If a part meets its black-and-white specifications, then it is usually a quality part.

When the measurement method is not clear, or pass/fail limits are hard to define exactly, defining quality becomes more difficult. For example, is a small ink smudge on the back panel of a computer device a quality problem? Would you write a quality deviation approval for a food product that was slightly overweight? How do you tell a quality piece of software from a poor piece of software? How do you differentiate effective quality management from poor management? In these scenarios, quality can be difficult to define.

In the situations where it is difficult, you can no longer simply ask if the part meets specifications. Instead, you have to ask questions such as: Is it right? Is it good? Is it fair? Is it misrepresented?

These questions remind me of the questions that were asked in ethics classes that I have taken, and I have found it helpful to apply a simple ethics test to help answer these questions.

There are two schools of thought on business ethics. One school of thought says that a company should define, in detail, its ethical guidelines and rules for all employees so that it is crystal clear what actions are unethical.

While many companies adopt this ethical rulebook approach, I'm not a fan of it. I don't like this approach because it is nearly impossible to define a rule for every situation, and it is implied that any action that does not have a rule is ethical.

I prefer the second school of thought that does not try to define ethical behavior, or the word quality. I describe it as the, "I know what is ethical and of high quality when I see it" approach.

In the areas where quality specifications are clear, I am an advocate of defining measurement methods and specifications that define criteria for a quality part. When it comes to more difficult judgment calls, though, I think the "I know quality when I see it" approach makes the most sense.

I have made it a policy at my company that "we only ship quality products and we only behave ethically." In cases in which quality is well-defined by specifications, then we go by the specifications. In situations in which quality is less clearly defined, I use the "60 Minutes Television Test" to help decide if it is a quality part.

The test, which I've adapted from ethics theory, works this way. Imagine you are faced with a difficult quality or ethical decision. You make your decision and announce it to your staff. Right after the announcement, Morley Safer comes running up to you with a "60 Minutes" camera crew and shoves a microphone in your face and asks you, "Is it true that you approved shipping a product with an ink smudge on the rear panel?"

If you can explain your decision to the American viewers so that they will agree with you, and you feel good about the explanation, then you have made a quality, ethical decision.

When my co-workers ask me if a scenario will negatively impact product quality, I answer, "If you had to explain your decision on "60 Minutes," how would you feel about it?" It always works.

Quality remains undefined, but good decisions are made to ensure quality products are produced.

Critics of the "I know quality when I see it" approach argue that leaving it undefined leaves the door open to ship poor quality product. I don't see that as a real possibility when you tie it to the "60 Minutes Television Test." I think the collective conscience about quality is consistent. The "TV Test" has served me well for many years.

Try the "60 Minute Television Test" for yourself and see how it works for your company. If you have a better quality test than the "60 Minutes Television Test," or have a better definition for the word quality, then e-mail me and let me know.