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I Know it When I See It: The True Meaning of Quality

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What exactly is quality? Is a reliable old Ford worth as much as a reliable new Lexus? How are good and poor quality defined in your organization? Is good quality determined by customer expectations? Is quality really an abstraction? Tom Taormina, business consultant for Dell computers, answers these and other questions, and explains that defining quality can mean the success or failure of your business.
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The word "quality" is used often in our daily lives. We might use it to express our opinion of a meal or a consumer product, or to describe the outcome of a service. We might internalize it and file it away for future reference when we are dissatisfied with a product or service. We all want "good quality" products or services. None of us want to be the victims of "poor quality." What precisely do we mean by "good quality" and "poor quality"? What exactly is quality? As often as we use it, have we ever made our own objective assessment of what the word really means to us?

Does quality mean conformance to established standards, or is it "goodness", or is it excellence or superiority, or is it reliability, or is it the relationship of cost to value; or is it craftsmanship? If the word has different meanings in different contexts, might you describe quality as "I just know it when I see it?"

Defining what we mean by "quality" could be a fun, abstract exercise. A few moments of introspection might help us understand ourselves better and help us communicate our expectations more precisely to others. Defining quality could also be the key to the success or failure of our businesses.

Let's look at defining quality on a personal level. Is a gourmet meal in an elegant setting with a vintage bottle of wine a "good quality" meal for you? Is a real Italian pizza and a robust brew a "good quality" meal for you? Is one or the other "the" definition of "good quality?"

You must define the standard of "good quality" based on personal values, the context, previous experience, and expectations. That is, if you are a CEO entertaining the CEO of prospective company, you must first define your personal values related to eating in the context of a business meeting, based on previous experience entertaining clients, as well as your expectations of the restaurant you select. In some cases, a gourmet meal at a fine French restaurant might be indicated. In other cases, a great pizza parlor might be an exact fit. In either case, if the meal meets your expectations based on your personal values, previous experience, and the context of how and why you selected the restaurant, did you enjoy a "good quality" experience?

Let's look at another common personal example. My oldest son drives a nine-year-old Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck that has 310,000 miles on the odometer. It is difficult to discern the original color, since it hasn't been washed in years. The mirrors are held on with duct tape. For the last few years, only the passenger door opens because of a traffic mishap. The truck starts and takes him safely back and forth to work every day. Number one son is perfectly happy with his vehicle. My company leases a Lexus SUV for me. It is a fine piece of craftsmanship. It starts and takes me back and forth to work safely every day. I am very happy with it. Which of us has the "high quality" vehicle?

His is paid for and mine has a hefty lease payment. I have minor issues with my vehicle because the clock loses two minutes every month and the steering wheel is not exactly straight when the wheels are straight. Are these "trivial" issues a result of my expectations of quality? After all, my son is not disappointed about anything relating to his vehicle. What are our personal values? In what context are we judging "good quality?" What is our previous experience with vehicle reliability? What are our expectations?

This is an enlightening awareness exercise, but what does it have to do with my earlier comment about it being critical to the success or failure of our businesses? The same introspective process we did with food and vehicles may have never been done within your company about its products and services. If it has, it may have never been clearly identified and communicated to everyone who works there. Chances are that those who founded the organization have an internalized set of values that have never been clearly identified, codified, and communicated. Without clear definition from the founders, the workers may be defining good and poor quality by their own values that are significantly different than the intended definition of quality. Abdicating the definition of quality to "I know it when I see it" only works when we all have the exact same values, experiences, and expectations. How often is that likely to occur in a company of 5 or 5,000 people?

How are good and poor quality defined in your organization? Does the type of product or service you supply drive the definition of quality? The definition of good quality is quite different for a toaster than for a heart pacemaker. Good service quality may have entirely different meanings in a five star hotel than in a roadside motel.

Is good quality determined by customer expectations? Good quality in an emergency room might be defined as saving a life, while good quality from a plastic surgeon might be making you look ten years younger. They are both medical services with different contexts.

Is it determined by the limitations of technology and science? If I have a state-of-the art personal computer that I bought this year is it better quality than the state-of-the art personal computer that I bought five years ago?

Is quality really an abstraction? Good quality for a company that installs septic systems might mean that the customer will never have to think about it again. Again, the determination of quality must include context, values, experiences, and expectations. Those who have set the course for a company have often created a formula for failure if they have not defined good and poor quality for their product or service and communicated it to everyone in the company.

The process begins with defining exactly what product or service you provide, what industry norms exist, and what customer expectations you are trying to fill. This information is not permanently etched into the consciences of everyone in the company just because they are doing it for a living. In order for a Lexus car salesperson to make the car buying experience a superior event for the customer, he or she must clearly understand the values and expectations of the customer and the definition of customer service established by the company. It is not cost effective to train and pay a salesperson at a used car lot that caters to first-time buyers the same as the Lexus salesperson because the definition of "good quality" is in a different context, the expectations of the customers are different, and the values of the people running the businesses are likely quite different. If the Lexus dealer hires a salesperson who was the top earner at a used car lot, that person is destined to fail selling premium cars to mature buyers unless the values, context, and expectations are communicated, learned, and internalized. At the same time, a top salesperson at Lexus would likely be a dismal failure spending hours delivering top-shelf personalized service to sell a $2,000 vehicle to a teenager.

Defining quality in an organization can take the form of a mission, value, or vision statement, or a quality policy. Unfortunately, most of these statements are developed by the marketing group as a catchy sales slogan or by the quality department to try to instill some common notion of quality in employees and customers. "We provide the highest quality products that meet or exceed our customer's expectations." "Quality is our only product and customer service is our creed." "Our mission is to create the ultimate customer experience." Do any of these slogans sound familiar? Do any of them define quality for their customers? Can any of them be measured for results? Are any of them applied to practical processes that can ensure results? My recommendation, based on 32 years of practical experience, is to make the process of defining quality in your organization part of a strategic planning exercise that is done at least annually and is tied to key business measures and performance evaluations.

The first step is to ask three very difficult questions. Based on the values of those who lead and operate the business, what business results or behaviors:

  1. are absolutely required of all people, products, and services?

  2. will absolutely never be tolerated in all people, products, and services?

  3. are subject to continual evolution and improvement?

For instance, in #1, it may be required of all employees that they maintain the highest professional level of service dealing with customers. It may be that all products be 100% reliable over their product life. It may be that services are not considered complete until the customer is completely satisfied. In #2, insubordination or intoxication may be absolute grounds for dismissal. Delivery of a product that is not up to specification may be an absolute "never happen." For services, it might be that it is totally unacceptable to provide a service that cannot be completed in one site visit. Category #3 is the universe of latitude that you define for personal growth, product evolution, and service development. It is why we hire talented people and give them the mandate to be creative in their jobs.

This is not a trivial exercise. The prelude to the exercise is determining if the business leaders have ever codified their values, or if they have simply expected the employees to assimilate them through tribal knowledge or by letting them get burned a few times.

Once it is done, the outcome of the exercise is a vision statement, a set of values, and what I call the teachable business model. That is, in words, we define what quality means in all aspects of the organization. In objectives, we establish the mechanism to share these values with everyone in the organization. In implementation, we build a methodology to incorporate the values into each process within the organization and then measure the results against key business objectives on a continual basis.

I have been consulting to Dell Computer for over five years. I can report, without fear of any contradicting evidence, one of the keys to their success (and continued success in the declining computer market) is that every employee is taught Michael Dell's vision. Each is trained in the company's teachable business model. Everyone understands the model and how it affects company and personal success. The definition of quality at Dell is universal across the enterprise and is reflected in their products and service.

If you chose to replicate this example, the values of your organization will be lived by all who work there. The context of defining quality will not be an abstraction, and the expectations will be shared and uniformly evaluated as the basis for organizational growth, personal growth, and success.

Tom Taormina is a business process consultant who has published seven books on quality, business process improvement and leadership. More in-depth information on defining quality and on the Dell Computer model is contained in his latest book, Implementing ISO 9001:2000 – The Journey from Conformance to Performance, Prentice Hall, ©2002.

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