What Is Quality?

If you walk through a chemical production facility anywhere in the world today, you will see containers of materials that have virtually identical ingredients and standards.

If you walk through a building and see the cleaning done, you will also see consistency in the standardization of equipment and methods.

The processes, strategies and tools for assuring quality may have changed over time, with automation and innovation, but basic customer expectations for quality have been fairly constant.

The focus during the last few years on establishing standards for quality coincides with the expansion of the idea of sustainability.

This has created a global confluence of consumers” priority for quality standards.

The word “quality” is often used to communicate the relative worth of things in such phrases as “good quality,” “bad quality” and the growing idea that “quality means sustainability.”

This idea is searching for a standard, and each industry organization is advocating its own certification, standard or model for describing “quality – sustainability” as a means of recognizing “good” products, companies or people who can be certified by them.

At the very least, this can be confusing to those who deliver cleaning products or services and to those who buy them.

That is why we must explore quality in an objective, rational way.

For this review, I want to set aside the popular notions of quality and focus on quality from the limited perspective of the central question for this paper: Is quality about the product or the customer?

If quality is about the product or service, then quality is a simple matter of producing products or delivering services whose measurable characteristics satisfy a fixed set of specifications that are generally defined by the traditional notion of a checklist or activity list.

If quality is about customer satisfaction, then quality products and services are simply those that satisfy customer expectations for their use or consumption.

Phillip Crosby

Crosby is best known for his “zero defects” concept and his best-selling book, Quality is Free.

He is known for translating quality terminology into more common terms, which everyone could understand, using real situations and fictional characters.

Crosby”s emphasis is that doing things right the first time adds nothing to the cost of a product or service.

In Crosby”s view, what costs more are reworks, tests, warranties, inspections, services, damaged reputations and even litigation after doing things the wrong way.

Crosby also emphasized that problems with quality are caused by management actions.

Crosby seems to adhere to the idea that quality is defined by the buyer documenting the practices of the service provider, contracted or in-house — what we would call the task/frequency specification.

It is not at all clear from Crosby”s definition whether there are different levels or attributes inherent in his view of quality as binary.

For example: Acceptable and unacceptable; delivered, not delivered; completed, not completed.

It”s not clear, for example, that all product or service units that conform to the specified requirements are of equal quality.

Crosby doesn”t address this issue, but I get the impression that his answer to this question is, “Yes, it”s about the specifying product.”

W. Edwards Deming

Deming changed our lives by advocating more structured ways for people and organizations to plan for quality and continually improve relationships, processes, products and services.

His philosophy is one of cooperation and continual improvement, and it doesn”t fix blame while seeing mistakes as opportunities for improvement.

Deming is perhaps best known for his work in Japan.

There, from 1950 onward, he taught top management how to improve the design of products and services through various methods including the application of statistics.

Deming was the creator of the “plan-do-check-act” model.

Deming does not settle on a concise definition of quality.

In any event, Deming”s perspective is consistent with a customer-focused definition.

In fact, the title of his chapter on quality is titled, “Quality and the Consumer,” indicating the extent to which he equates high quality and customer satisfaction.

In the end, Deming is advocating that the customer defines quality, not the buyer, not the manager or even the consultant.

The difficulty in defining quality for Deming is to translate future needs of the user into measurable characteristics so that a product or service can be designed and produced or delivered to give satisfaction at a price that the buyer is willing to pay.

It”s not always easy, and as soon as we”re confident we understand quality, we find that the needs of the customer have changed, competitors have copied us, or worse, we”ve become commoditized.

Armand Feigenbaum

Some say that the name Feigenbaum and the term “total quality control” are virtually synonymous.

Feigenbaum”s ideas are contained in his classic book, Total Quality Control, first published in 1951 under the title, Quality Control: Principles, Practice, and Administration.

His Total Quality Management book also became a standard text for an entire industry.

The book has been translated into more languages than any such paper, including Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish.

He views quality as an effective system for integrating the product and service development, quality maintenance and quality improvement efforts of the various groups in an organization so as to deliver products and services at the most economical levels, which allow full customer satisfaction.

Interestingly, Feigenbaum highlighted the idea of a “hidden” plant — the idea that so much extra work is performed in correcting mistakes that there is effectively a hidden plant within any factory.

Feigenbaum”s definition of quality is about the customer.

His message was to move away from focusing on the technical aspect of quality control and seeing quality as not meaning a product that might be called “best” but, rather, what might be called “best for the customer.”

If quality determination is up to the customer and we need a surrogate for quality for the product or service delivered, then we have to translate customer satisfaction into product or service attributes.

Feigenbaum notes that marketing evaluates the level of quality customers expect and are willing to pay for.

This need to determine what customers are willing to pay is the mechanism to approximate their ideal product or service and then translate that information into specifications for a variety of product or service attributes is the nightmare that challenges every quality advocate.

Feigenbaum”s ideas seem weak on the subject of translating customer expectations into product or service specifications.

On the other hand, it is difficult to find a better outline of the basic components and issues of a modern quality-focused organization than the one presented in his book.

Much of his thinking could easily become a certification course.

The book is well-organized, comprehensive and concise.

A well-worn copy should be on the desk of everyone who has special responsibility for assuring quality.

After all is said and done, Feigenbaum is a “quality means customer satisfaction” guy.

Kaoru Ishikawa

Ishikawa was a Japanese university professor and influential quality management innovator best known for his cause and effect diagram — also known as the fishbone diagram — that is used in the analysis of work processes.

In one single snapshot, top management gets to see exactly why the problem is occurring.

The fishbone diagram and collaborative team approach were key elements of Ishikawa”s “company-wide quality control” quality strategy.

His “quality circles” model became popular worldwide for the fresh breath it provided previously stale problem-solving strategies.

In recognition of his lifelong efforts of making “quality” a household word, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) instituted the Ishikawa medal as an annual award that recognizes leadership in the human side of quality.

Ishikawa”s definition of quality is also a customer-focused definition.

He is very insightful, has a great deal to say about the principles of quality control and is clearly interested in quality assurance at the in-plant, practical level. He does not, however, have much to say about how manufacturing procedures can be designed to assure the satisfaction of customer needs and expectations.

On the other hand, Ishikawa makes it clear that proof of high quality is the satisfaction of ever-changing consumer expectations.

In a continuing pattern, Ishikawa advocates the idea that customer satisfaction is the end game for all the efforts to deliver a quality product or service.

Joseph Juran

In his extraordinary career, Juran made many contributions to the field of quality management.

His book, The Quality Control Handbook, is only one of dozens of books and continues to be a classic reference for all quality advocates.

He revolutionized the Japanese philosophy on quality management and in no small way worked to help shape their economy into the international leader it is today.

Juran was one of the first to link the people aspect of quality management, which is referred to as total quality management.

He also developed the widely adopted “Juran”s trilogy,” an approach to cross-functional management that he used to connect three managerial processes: Planning, control and improvement.

In 1979, Juran founded the Juran Institute, and in 2004, he became an honorary doctor at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden.

Juran”s definition simultaneously attempts to be product-focused and customer-focused, claiming that a practical definition of quality is probably not possible.

One gets the impression that Juran would like to define quality in terms of customer satisfaction.

To do so, however, he must deal with the relationship between customer satisfaction — for which he suggests no comprehensive measurement strategies — and the conformance of service attributes or product specifications — which can be accomplished fairly well in the workplace.

Because he is not satisfied with efforts to integrate customer satisfaction with product characteristics, he first attempts to define quality in two different and possibly inconsistent ways.

When that appears not to work, he defines quality ambiguously as fitness for use.

In any event, I don”t find his definition of quality practical.

What measures of fitness for use do we have that would enable us to assess the quality of a product or service?

Walter Shewhart

The early ideas of total quality management and continuous improvement trace back to a former Bell Telephone employee named Shewhart.

One of Deming”s teachers, he emphasized the importance of adapting management processes to create profitable situations for both businesses and consumers, promoting a creation of his own: The statistical process control chart.

He brought a sense of logic to the idea of what constituted causes of failure.

He advanced the notion of “common causes” and “special causes” of production quality issues.

He analyzed these with his famed Shewhart charts or “control charts.”

In truth, Shewhart laid the statistical foundation upon which all modern industry is built.

Although Shewhart has a healthy concern for being able to determine measurable characteristics of high-quality products and services, the focus of his definition of quality is consistent with a customer-focused quality concept.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that Shewhart wrote his definition in the 1920s, particularly since I believe it to be more insightful to the definitions of the gurus who followed him.

Genichi Taguchi

Taguchi is well-known for developing a methodology for applying statistics to improve the quality of manufactured goods and reduce costs.

In the United States, his ideas are known as the “Taguchi methods.”

He also developed the quality loss function.

Taguchi”s methodology emphasizes the idea of pushing the concepts of quality and reliability back into the design stage — prior to manufacturing.

He defined an efficient technique for designing product tests even before beginning the manufacturing process.

His methodology is fundamentally a prototyping technique that enables engineers/designers to produce a robust design that can survive repetitive manufacturing in order to deliver the functionality required by the customer.

While it may be difficult to imagine that quality is defined as a loss, it is actually easy to imagine what Taguchi has in mind.

He is suggesting that the maximum quality experienced by society occurs when society gets exactly what it wants and expects.

The greater the difference between what society actually gets and what it wants, the less quality society will experience.

In truth, this concept of societal loss is a little confusing.

On the other hand, if you replace the “societal loss” idea with a “customer loss” idea, the concept is a way an individual customer might actually think about the quality.

Taguchi says, “Quality is the loss a product causes to society after being shipped.”

Or, I suspect, a service delivered.

If we are correct in suggesting each potential customer in a marketplace has a quality profile that looks much like this, then the challenge for us is to estimate the loss to society by somehow aggregating the quality loss of individuals to obtain a societal quality profile.

Then, by minimizing loss to society — which is Taguchi”s objective — we maximize quality.

In a real sense, this is the challenge that confronts the market research and design and the product or service development efforts of every company.

Is Taguchi”s definition about product quality or customer quality?

Although it is not easy to tell from his writings, I think that Taguchi”s definition is about customer quality.

Taguchi is, unfortunately, unclear about how societal quality can be determined.

He tries to explain his idea, unsuccessfully, for individual customers who make up a given marketplace.

How you can go about the business of determining loss to society if the model”s input information is a collection of quality profiles of individual customers?

Yet, it is clear that his focus is about the customer.


So, is quality about the product or the customer?

Clearly, there are differences and shades of opinion on this question.

The expert opinion is nearly evenly split.

So, on a bet, you”d be safe to take either position.

Yet, there is a clear pattern that, even where product quality reigns as most important, customer input and requirements is a factor in design.

Given the review, it seems that the earliest of the quality gurus, Shewhart, gets it right.

Both definitions of quality are important and driven by the dominance of satisfying the customer.

For my part, I”m going with the customer idea for quality.

Without the customer, the quality of the product just doesn”t matter.

If you”re listening carefully, the customer will tell you what”s important and what quality means to them.

Your task is then to design and deliver a product or service that they are willing to pay for.

An exceptional design is an engineering success; an exceptional customer is a business success.


Posted On December 12, 2011

Vince Elliot

Founder, President and CEO of Elliott Affiliates Ltd.

Vincent F. Elliott is the founder, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Elliott Affiliates Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Maryland, He is widely recognized as the leading authority in the design and utilization of best practice, performance-driven techniques for janitorial outsourcing and ongoing management.

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