What does quality really mean?

In normal usage, quality means different things to different people in different places and times. It is similar in business, although everyone who has thought deeply about quality agrees that it most definitely does not mean luxury. Some would say the gurus contradict each other, but really the differences are simply about emphasis.

Good quality does not necessarily mean high quality. It means a predictable degree of uniformity and dependability with a quality suited to the market.

W Edwards Deming (Founding father of quality management)

So should you make up your own definition? Yes and no. Yes, because your definition will affect how you set about achieving quality, and what you do should be appropriate to the particular circumstances of your business. No, because much brainpower across the world has gone into this subject. Why reinvent the wheel?

It is sensible to adapt a definition by one of the gurus. ‘Adapt’ not ‘adopt’, because slavish compliance with someone else’s definition is not likely to serve you well. You might even need different definitions in different parts of your business. It’s also important that the definition that applies to your particular area is agreed across your organisation. Otherwise, work in various parts of the business may conflict with each other.

When thinking about your definition, it may help to consider the ingredients of quality in business. The first aspect is consistency. It’s no good producing something that’s wonderful one day and dreadful the next. That’s why, at first, much of the focus of quality was on improving production processes.

To keep ahead of the game, however, companies had to think more widely. Soon, more and more aspects of management came under scrutiny, and ripe for systemisation.

This internal focus could result in regular production of excellent lead balloons, so quality began to take more account of customer interests. This led to the idea that every business process has a customer, which gave rise to the concept of the internal customer chain. The customer has become more and more central over time, and the now the common underlying theme is to improve four aspects:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Productivity
  • Profit margins
  • Staff involvement and motivation.

This is done by reducing

  • Costs
  • Waste
  • Errors
  • Complaints
  • The numbers of lost customers
  • Staff absence and turnover.

So if your company has not yet defined quality as regards its particular circumstances, it’s OK to put your two penn’orth in. If it already has a definition and you disagree with this, it’s also OK to argue the case for change (subject to company culture, of course). To help you, some of the main definitions developed across the years are listed below.

Customer satisfaction

Key concept

A thousand improvements of one per cent are better than ten improvements of 90 per cent.

In essence, this definition – that of W Edwards Deming – means consistently providing something of a quality the customer is prepared to pay for. Thus, what this actually means in practice will vary considerably: what it means to Aldi will not be the same as for Harrods, for example.

  • Deming’s approach concentrates on certain aspects:
  • Making lots of bottom-up (worker-led) small improvements
  • Evidence-based improvement
  • Long-term approaches, such as working with suppliers on a partnership basis and making gradual improvements to working practices
  • Mutual benefit – such as no pay incentives, for example, or open management.

Total quality control

Developed by Feigenbaum, this involves integration of effort across an organisation to most economically allow full customer satisfaction.

This definition stresses the methodical approach and proposes three steps to quality:

  • Quality leadership
  • Modern quality technology
  • Organisational commitment.

Fitness for purpose

Key concept

Quality is defined by the customer, not the supplier.

Developed by Juran, this moves the customer more obviously toward centre-stage and relies on

  • Management responsibility
  • An organisation-wide approach
  • Customer-defined quality
  • An internal customer chain
  • A project approach
  • Specialist responsibility for planning and coordinating
  • Measuring progress – statistics and surveys
  • No quick fixes.

Conformance to customer requirements

Key concept

Zero defects – get things ‘right first time’.

Crosby’s approach takes an essentially pragmatic stance: poor quality has a financial cost (Price of Non-Conformance – PONC). The main focus is on

  • Conforming with customer requirements
  • Performance standard is ‘zero defects’ rather than ‘good enough’
  • Measuring the cost or price of non-conformance
  • Quality comes from preventing rather than curing errors or defects.

Delighting the customer

Key concept

Management by walking about (MBWA).

Peters’ definition majors on leadership, empowerment and culture, on people and action and on building positive relationships with employees as well as with customers. The main thrust is that the following should happen:

  • Leadership sets common values for people to work within
  • Managers walk the talk
  • Encourage innovation by employees at all levels
  • Learn from the customer.
  • Concentrate on what you’re good at rather than diversify incautiously
  • Minimise your administrative overheads
  • JDI – ‘Just Do It’.