No matter how good or bad a product is, companies get away with claiming high-quality levels on everything.

One of the reasons that the quality profession is struggling is because the claim to good quality is free.

Do you know of any company that does not claim to have good quality? I can't think of a single company that ever said, "Our quality is fair to poor." My experience has been that very few companies deliver the good quality that they claim.

My read on this situation-to adapt a phrase from Philip Crosby-is that the claim to good quality is free-and that's a big problem.

The quality profession itself has responsibility for making claims of high quality meaningless. ISO 9000 had the chance to play a quality compliance role, but its credibility was forfeited by an external audit system that is profit driven instead of credibility driven. Unlike ISO registrars, the FCC and UL effectively enforce pricing and safety claims. If they were enforcing ISO 9000 quality system claims in the same manner, we probably would not have the issue of meaningless ISO certificates today.

In addition to enforcement issues, consumers simply find quality hard to measure at the cash register. Eventually consumers learn which claims to high quality are valid and which ones aren't, but that is no comfort to the consumer that shells out big bucks only to find out a year later that he wasted his money.

Over the years, I have talked to many CEOs about using quality as a strategic tool and one common reply is, "Why put resources on quality when quality is a given?" I think they mean that if the consumer can't really tell if the product is going to break prematurely when they buy it, why expend resources on quality issues when spending on things such as advertising will generate more sales and more rewards now?

CEOs also tell me, "Our ISO 9000 certificate on the wall validates that we have good quality." Experienced quality professionals know that isn't true.

The difficult aspect to the problem is that companies with true high-quality products have to make a sale for consumers to see the benefits of the high quality. It can be hard to make a sale against a competitor that trades away quality for lower cost, but then claims the same high quality. Philip Crosby was right when he said, "Quality is free," meaning that an investment in improving quality pays itself back very quickly. While completely true, that assumes that the customer can differentiate quality levels of products at the cash register. Most consumers default to price when quality claims are identical.

In order to leverage Crosby's concept that quality is free, some changes need to be made.

The quality profession needs to fix the problems with ISO 9000. Quality leaders need to quit milking ISO 9000 for income and start making changes for the long-term good of the profession. Quality leaders should either call for an elimination of ISO 9000 or call for an overhaul of the external auditing function so that ISO 9000 certificates become credible.

The issue of short-term business focus is a more difficult issue to address. To a certain extent, this is improving. As corporate executives who cooked the books for fast profits get thrown in jail and shareholders who invested in these super high-growth companies watch their stock value plummet, executives and shareholders are starting to see the appeal in more long-term growth. The pendulum has started to swing the other way and that is good for quality professionals who know how to leverage quality to support long-term results.

When it comes to fixing the short-term profit focus in companies, focus on the consumer and investor instead of upper management in companies. Educating consumers on the concept that investments in quality pay back over time might affect their buying and investing decisions. Corporate executives are highly motivated to listen to their consumers and investors. If more consumers looked at product quality reports before they looked at the price tag or invested in a company, I believe this would be a very positive step to change companies and strengthen the long-term competitiveness of American industry.

I would be interested in knowing what you think. Is quality free? Is the claim to good quality free?