A 40-Year-Old Bone of Contention

Taking another stab at the definition of quality

Ryan E. Day

January 13, 2022

Quality Digest (QD) was born 40 years ago. Birthed as Quality Circle Institute (QCI), the organization was conceived as a consultancy focused on bringing the success of quality control circles at Lockheed to organizations that were beginning to awaken to the importance of employee involvement in the improvement process. But times change and ideas evolve, and QCI became QD to better represent the broader quality industry, especially the movement toward international standards. In fact, the very definition of quality, and its role in manufacturing and business, has been something of a bone of contention all along.

Definition of quality

One might assume the definition of quality to be a simple affair. Apparently, this is not the case. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“Essential Meaning of quality = How good or bad something is, i.e.,
• Pollution affects air/water quality
• The restaurant serves food of high quality. [= the food at the restaurant is very good]
• The dress material is of poor quality. [= the dress material is not good]
A high level of value or excellence:
• Wine of quality [= very good wine]
• They offer quality at a reasonable price.”

The Cambridge Dictionary seems to agree:
“How good or bad something is:
• A store advertising top quality electrical goods
• The food was of such poor/low quality.
• Their products are of veryhigh quality.
• I only buy good-quality wine.
• The quality of the picture on our television isn't very good.”

But these two definitions are rather imprecise in application to business processes.

Back in 2001, QD readers, many of whom are quality and business professionals, provided their personal definitions of quality—each one filtered through the lens of their profession. A few examples include:
• “A product or process that is reliable and that performs its intended function is said to be a quality product.”
• “This is our slogan, and our policy: ‘Quality’ is to satisfy the ever-changing needs of our customers, vendors, and employees, with value-added products and services emphasizing a continuous commitment to satisfaction through an ongoing process of education, communication, evaluation, and constant improvement.”
• “Quality: The production of a commodity which conforms to standards applied to said commodity, be they mechanical standards, society's standards, etc.”
• “Quality itself has been defined as fundamentally relational: Quality is the ongoing process of building and sustaining relationships by assessing, anticipating, and fulfilling stated and implied needs.”

In the July 2000 issue of Quality Digest, Phil Crosby articulated what remains a popular understanding among manufacturing engineers and quality control professionals: “Those of us who have to make quality happen must have a definition that’s manageable and measurable.”

Role of quality for consumers

A consumer’s idea of quality is more nuanced than, say, an engineer’s. Whereas an engineer’s requirements for quality might focus on dimensional and functional tolerances, a consumer’s requirements always include cost as part of an equation. Consumers see quality in the context of value, and that is determined by a personal tolerance for quality vs. cost: “I’ll pay X amount of dollars for X amount of quality.” If the cost is too high for the apparent—or necessary—quality, the deal is off.

Bill Levinson had much to say about the context of the word quality, going so far as to suggest dropping the word “quality” from our lexicon altogether, and replacing it with “value” instead. Levinson makes many good points, but I still see quality as a component of value. Personally, I think much of the conundrum is caused by our conflating quality and value. Our definition of value depends on situatedness—the way we interpret and respond to the world around us.

Quality as defined in ISO 9001

If ISO standards highlight anything, it’s customer satisfaction’s central role in defining the context of quality.

ISO 9001:2015 specifies requirements for a quality management system when an organization:
a) Needs to demonstrate its ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements
b) Aims to enhance customer satisfaction through the effective application of the system, including processes for improvement of the system and the assurance of conformity to customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.

Again, according to Crosby, “I have always defined quality as ‘conformance to requirements’; the ISO 9000 procedures use that definition also.”

Role of quality for business owners

When satisfying customers’ requirements, manufacturers must include the customers’ interpretation of quality-as-value as one of the product specifications, right along with dimensional tolerances. This reality of product design makes decisions decidedly more complex for manufacturers than consumers.

First of all, product engineers must satisfy both internal and external customers. The product being developed must conform to dimensional tolerances, functional requirements, manufacturability constraints—oh, and come in on budget. Then there are the questions of how tight to set design tolerances, and what materials to use for construction.

For instance, if a manufacturer builds a product that lasts longer, it will cost more to produce, thus increasing the cost to the consumer. Will consumers pay more for products that last longer, or is the “Amazon” principle of cheapest-sells-best an accurate sales forecast? What are the ramifications for the viability of their own company?

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it…

If a “better” but costlier product were available, but no one bought it, well, why build it? But, how often do consumers have that option? Think about it. Our purchasing options are usually something like small, medium, or large. We’re rarely presented with the option to pay more for the thing that’s going to last 10 years rather than five months.

One might wonder how much planned obsolescence has to do with decisions concerning product specifications and tolerances. Not to mention choice of materials. Then there’s the pesky problem of business models that depend on new-model sales to stay in business (talking to you, Apple).

So what comes first? The company that produces a “better,” costlier option—at the risk of sitting on unsold product—or the consumers who demand such an option and are willing to buy it? Can a manufacturing company invest in developing a longer-lasting product option and remain profitable? Or have consumer habits already forecast that as a doomed proposition?

I suppose these are questions that could take another 40 years to answer.

About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.