Alot has been written about the definition of quality and just about every organization has its own definition. In many cases the definition becomes something that is measured against a standard but that typically falls short of the target because quality is much more complicated than a textbook definition.

Most quality gurus also have their own definition of quality but we’ll focus on two. Was Joseph M. Juran or Philip B. Crosby right about their definition of quality? Is quality “fitness for use” (Juran) or is it “conformance to requirements” (Crosby)? Well, a simple response is “yes,” but only in the broadest terms. It is necessary to be more explicit. 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 or a standard is to misinterpret what these two quality giants intended, and to 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. The professionalism with which the customer is 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. As Dr. W. Edwards Deming said, “Quality is everyone’s responsibility”—it just depends on the perspective of the viewer but it must involve everyone from the top floor to the front line worker.

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 and expectations are to be achieved because those needs and expectations are constantly evolving. As a consequence of this evolution, there is always an opportunity and need for quality improvement. Unrelenting pursuit of quality improvement is one hallmark of a mature, customer-focused organization.

Most quality experts agree that the final judge of quality is the customer and the ultimate consumer. Compliance with organization standards and specifications is necessary and expected as a minimum. Those standards, however, are relevant only to the degree in which they reflect the needs and expectations of the marketplace. Customers don’t just buy products and services; customers buy expectations.

These thoughts represent a fundamental, yet incomplete, set of principles which 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 as equal in importance. What most organizations sell is not just a product, but rather a business experience. That experience is the summation of every activity, every employee’s effort in the organization, just as Deming stressed.

 After a series of satisfying business experiences the customer will not only have purchased 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.

Essentially we are talking about excellence. Not product excellence or manufacturing excellence but total organizational excellence. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be casual or sloppy about some things and rigorous about others.

 Organizations must realize that the value of a customer is not based on a single purchase, but 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 money. Essentially quality is achieved when customers return and products do not.

 The heart of quality, therefore, isn’t about a standard, measurement, characteristic or technique. It is commitment to process excellence and an overall desire to do more than just deliver conformance to requirements or products which are fit for use. Juran or Crosby knew that satisfied customers vote with repeat business and their purchasing power. If organizations aren’t intently focused on meeting their customers’ needs in a way that consistently exceeds their expectations, someone else will be more than willing to do so. Quality is about survival.