What Do You Mean By “Quality?”

Mark J. Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Plymouth, MN

When I talk with business owners about their product or service offerings or their company vision and values, I often hear them speak about quality.  They say things like:

“We offer quality products”

“Quality is important to us”

“We’re known for our quality”

When I ask them what they mean by the word “quality,” they get stuck.  I think this has become a word whose meaning is so assumed by everyone that it’s become hard to define.

To some, quality means their business manufactures parts that don’t break apart right out of the box or that they work the first time they’re used.  To others, quality refers to flawless workmanship in installation or using cost effective materials that stand up over time.  Others yet may point to their comprehensive training content, their healthy and locally grown food offerings, or their perfectly aligned printed materials.

Reasonable companies don’t set out to sell products that don’t work, don’t fit, or fall apart during the first year of (normal) use.  Warranties are supposed to make us consumers feel assured that manufacturers stand behind their work.

And besides, doesn’t EVERYONE offer quality goods and services?

So what does “quality” really mean?  Quality can be defined as fitness for use, meeting customer requirements, and freedom from deficiencies1.  In other words, quality is defined by the customer by meeting or exceeding their requirements.

Juran defines quality as satisfying customers through quality of design and quality of conformance2.

Quality of design centers around meeting the changing needs of customers and markets.  These include product features and options as well as service offerings.  We know that consumer tastes change over time and demand can be fickle.  Just look at the evolution of the cellular phone market.  There was a time when we were just happy to have cordless mobile phones so we could make calls while on the go.  Now we have features such as text messaging, calendars, ring-tone selections, speakerphones, cameras, and tip calculators that used to be options but are now capabilities included in about all cell phone offerings.  More recent options include internet access, music downloads, and a myriad of applications.  It’s an ever-evolving list.

Quality of conformance requires a reduction in scrap, customer warranty claims and complaints, rework, repairs and other costs associated with failures.  Freedom from deficiencies can result in significant reduction in costs.  Cost reductions can mean more profit for the producer and/or lower sales prices for the customer.

Rework is expensive whether we’re talking about re-machining a component that doesn’t fit, troubleshooting a circuit that didn’t work right, repairing broken web site links or fixing spelling errors in a marketing brochure that went to print.  The service provider eats these costs and the customer is quite likely to become unhappy if there are on-going or recurring problems.  Customers don’t like to be the ones to find errors and problems in their purchases.  And when there’s a broad-scale manufacturer recall, everyone takes a hit in cost, convenience, and confidence: witness the auto industry and, by way of un-ending “critical updates and service packs,” the software industry.

On a personal note, my dishwasher has lasted for over 16 years.  It’s never been a problem appliance for me.  Are there faster, quieter machines out there with more capacity?  Sure.  But I have no complaints for what I paid for it.  On the other hand, the connector on my cell phone car charger cable broke apart after one year.  Am I happy?  No.  Why should something that I don’t use that often fall apart under normal use after one year?  Whether this is a design or manufacturing defect or one of those “random, low-probability of occurrence” situations, I couldn’t say.  The phone seller replaced the charger cable at no charge to me, which is what I would have expected them to do but my impression of their charger quality is poor.

So in the end, quality is about what the customer wants and expects and how your business, as the product or service provider, delivers on that.  I recall an old adage from my days as a design engineer – you can’t inspect in quality, you need to design it in.  In other words, you can’t rely on inspections to catch failure-prone design problems.  If your system for developing and delivering products or services is flawed, inspections or reviews won’t catch every defect.  In my opinion, your best bet is to have a solid, reliable way to ensure that you understand customer wants and expectations and be able to deliver on those.  That’s quality.

  1. Vani, Jagdish.  McGraw-Hill’s Certified Quality Engineer Examination Guide.  New York: McGraw-Hill. 1995. p.9-3.
  2. Juran, J.M. and F.M. Bryna. Quality Planning and Analysis.  New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 4, section 1.3 cited in Vani, Jagdish. McGraw-Hill’s Certified Quality Engineer Examination Guide.  New York: McGraw-Hill. 1995. p.9-3.

Copyright 2009.  Kodyne, Inc.  All rights reserved worldwide