Over the years I have been amazed at the discussion, sometimes not so friendly, by quality professionals and others on the subject of quality. It’s a simple word that we seem to have difficulty defining.

Joseph M. Juran said quality is “fit for use.” W. Edwards Deming said, “Quality control does not mean perfection. It means the efficient production of quality that the market expects.” Philip B. Crosby, of zero defect fame, said that quality is “conformance to requirements.” Armand Feigenbaum, father of the Total Quality Management movement, said that quality is “the total composite product and service characteristics of marketing, engineering, manufacturing and maintenance through which the product and service in use will meet the expectations of the customer.” Lastly, Genichi Taguchi defined quality as “the total of features and characteristics of a product that bear on its ability to satisfy a given need.”

We will not discuss their between-the-lines messages, other than to say that the main point is to know customer wants and needs and ensure we are meeting those expectations.

The various theoretical definitions of quality can be a stimulus for interesting discussions. However, when it comes to determining what product passes and what product fails on the factory floor, quality needs a working definition that is consistent, useful and productive-a definition that reaches the very heart of quality.

As a young inspector, unsure of the “right thing to do,” I found myself seeking the advice of supervisors and co-workers who could provide guidance.

I’ve had much to learn. Over almost half a century in the heavy machinery industry, I’ve had the pleasure of working in several facilities. Not all things are perfect, and there have been many gray areas over the years. So, the questions remain the same: “What is OK to accept?” or “Is this OK to ship?”

In my career, the people I went to for help were very willing to advise and counsel. Sometimes I was given the theoretical or strict definition. I would be asked, “Is it to the print?” or “Does it meet specifications?” In time, however, a consistent message kept coming to the surface. Many experts, or old timers as I call them, delivered a powerful message through their actions that has been, for me, a guiding principle.

The lesson learned is to develop a working definition of quality for quick, effective decisions. When customers are depending on product, we don’t always have the luxury of waiting for decisions or finding someone to make that decision for us. Therefore, in time, I found it effective, when caught in those gray zones to say: a quality product is one that you should feel good about shipping to yourself or to a close personal friend. When we truly understand and execute this working definition, we become empowered and work diligently to make good decisions.

We should remember that customers do not generally have blueprints, functional specifications or procedures to use as a guideline for acceptability. They expect the product on-time, defect-free and delivery of what has been promised. As far as defect-free, quality must be considered from the customer’s perspective and not from the producer’s perspective. In the final analysis, that is all that counts.

Without this working definition, we are more likely to allow marginal quality product to ship because it is shipping to a destination or a stranger. If we are inspecting a product that is borderline acceptable and the customer is our best friend, most of us would be more critical and possibly make a different decision.

Try scrutinizing each product inspection against this working definition of quality. Think about how you would feel meeting the same friend immediately after she received the product that you were responsible for approving for shipment. After all is said and done, customer satisfaction is the barometer by which quality is truly measured. This approach will help to reinforce a culture that the customer comes first and that, ultimately, the entire organization is dedicated to delivering products on-time, at the expected quality level, and delivering the cost-value relationship.