Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

What Is Quality?

Slogans and useful phrases merely skim the surface.

I've recently been fascinated by the flood of letters another journal has published concerning the definition of quality. Evidently, many people were upset by one article's definition of the term and made efforts to share their own views. Some readers were creative in suggesting new meanings; others contented themselves with retrieving slogans and phrases they learned long ago in a class.

 People have tried for years to create a short, useful definition of quality and use it to build theories, concepts and methods, or simply to remind us what quality means as we pursue our day-to-day work. Many have found Philip Crosby's "conformance to requirements," Joseph M. Juran's "fitness for use" or others' "meeting or exceeding customers' requirements" definitions to be useful starting points.

 Unfortunately, defining quality abstractly is extremely difficult and not very useful. It's like defining the universe: Describing a portion of it seems to make sense, but extending this definition to cover all planets, stars and galaxies ultimately proves impossible. (Anyone interested in quality's deep philosophical meanings should read Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Bantam Books, 1984). Pirsig spends hundreds of pages trying to find out exactly what quality is.)

 Fortunately, defining quality in this way isn't the problem most of us face. We're usually trying to define it for a specific product or service, or for a key process that produces the product, provides the service or supports the organization creating them. What's important is whether customers buy these products or services, what they're willing to pay and what it costs us to produce them. If we can manufacture a reasonable number of products and services at good margins, sell a few items at better margins or sell enormous quantities at even very small margins, we're successful.

 Thus, the problem is discovering the critical dimensions that drive costs and customers' buying decisions. In the emerging Six Sigma language, this means focusing on "critical to quality" items early in the first phase of "define." Most students whom I've taught are amazed at how difficult this step is. Some of quality's aspects affect the customer, and others affect the cost of manufacturing the product or providing the service. But far more critical aspects are part of a complex relationship that must be well understood before going any further. In workshops focused on designing for Six Sigma, deciding what's critical to quality and understanding these relationships make up the bulk of the courses.

 For example, a customer may be interested in the breaking strength of a certain part. But we have almost infinite choices of materials, composites, structures, treatments, layering, thickness, shapes and designs to provide the needed breaking strength. Our final decisions must also take into account the costs and qualities of various raw materials, the costs and qualities of our own production processes, the environments in which we expect the customer to use the part, and our competitors' capabilities. The most fundamental truth is that quality is relative: If a competitor can produce a similar part and sell it at a lower price, we lose.

 The question of price is also complex. The customer sees, as an end result, the selling price, but how we set it depends on more than simple materials and production costs. We must recover our research and development costs; costs of capital; marketing, sales, distribution and service costs; and all other overhead. We must also provide the margins our owners expect. The customer focuses simply on value, seeing it as a ratio of quality over price.

 True quality management (whether we call it continuous improvement, kaizen, TQM, Six Sigma or any other term) is concerned with improving this value by reducing prices or improving quality. For many years, quality initiatives focused on reducing rework, scrap, internal failures, field failures, warranty costs and wasted materials. Later we broadened our definitions of costs of poor quality to include in-process inventories, finished-goods inventories, nonvalue-added steps, lost sales, energy usage, environmental problems, complaint handling and other process failures.

 More recently, many organizations have begun to focus on quality from the customer's standpoint. Unfortunately, in doing so they have fallen into the trap of adding every possible bell and whistle to each product. Peter Drucker gives numerous examples of wily competitors who have stolen market share by segmenting markets, streamlining products and offering only those features needed by specific segments. Automobiles and houses are highly visible examples of products loaded with features that we pay for but really don't want.

 So defining quality is, indeed, quite a complex task. Different customers define it differently. Our costs of poor quality must be a major part of the definition, but we must include all costs, including materials, production processes, capital, inventories, sales, distribution, service and even research and development. All of these are part of the value equation. Only when we offer more value than our competitors do we truly succeed.


About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles. E-mail him at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .

Menu Level Above

This Menu LeveL

Menu Level Below

[Contents] [News] [WebLinks] [Columnists]
[Harrington] [Godfrey] [Townsend]

Copyright 2001 QCI International. All rights reserved.
Quality Digest can be reached by phone at (530) 893-4095. E-mail:
Click Here

Today's Specials