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Quality, the Customer and Whole Wheat Bread

by John Guaspari

The supermarket shopping list was exceedingly short. One item, a loaf of whole wheat bread, was all that my wife had asked me to pick up. I dutifully selected the prime loaf, giving it the obligatory little squeeze while checking the price: 99 cents. I pulled out a dollar as I walked to the express checkout aisle.

When I arrived, the cashier gave me a cheerful "Good morning!" as she pulled the bread over the bar code reader. The amount due flashed on the display: $15.60.

The cashier did a double take. "Something's wrong," she said.

"I'm inclined to agree," I replied.

She punched some buttons on her keyboard, but nothing changed. She called across the store to her manager, who came directly over.

"The system seems to be down," the cashier said.

The manager punched some buttons on the keyboard and then said to me, apologetically, "I'm afraid it's going to be a few minutes before we can get things back up."

I was in a hurry, so I asked, "Can't I just give you a dollar?"

"But I can't get the cash drawer open," the manager said.

"That's OK," I replied. "I don't want the penny. I just want to go."

The manager paused a beat. Then she smiled broadly, plucked the dollar from my hand, and said, very theatrically, "You may go!"

I laughed, adding in a burst of magnanimity, "Keep the change!"

She laughed. The cashier laughed. The other people behind me in line laughed. All in all, it ended in a pleasant experience.


I make my living working with business organizations on the general topics of quality and customer value or, to be more specific, on the fundamental connection between quality and customer value, and how easy it can be to lose sight of that connection unless you're very careful.

That's where the relevance of my little supermarket saga comes in. Sad to say, my guess is that many people would assume that the supermarket manager's mind-set would have led her to say, "Sorry, but you'll just have to wait until we iron out our system problems," thereby buying a whole heap of bad will--and, for good measure, a lost sale--in the interest of preserving the sanctity of the store's internal operating standards and practices.

That mind-set can be a very real issue when quality is the topic under discussion. Not all that long ago, much of the talk about quality tended to be couched in transcendent terms of "intrinsic goodness" and "inherent worthwhileness." It was a topic that might get trotted out at an organization's annual "Lip Service to Quality!" pageant, but nothing much would ever get done about it, at least not in any serious, systematic way.

To a very great extent, that has changed. Today, the language of quality is the language of productivity and profitability, market share and survival, and that is very good news indeed.

With this new enlightenment about quality has come a deeper understanding that quality is, at root, a process issue. For the most part, the degree of quality that can be produced is a function of the process by which work is carried out within an organization: "It's not the people, it's the process!" That calls for a deep and thorough understanding of those processes, establishing standards, setting targets, making measurements--absolutely appropriate and essential steps to take. Without such a rigorously bounded, measurable and therefore manageable approach to quality, you will not-cannot!-get it done.

But taking such a process-based approach to quality doesn't come without a price because, by focusing so intensively on process details, you can easily lose sight of why you're worrying about those details in the first place. It's easy to forget that quality is relevant in a broader context, that it's important insofar as it enables us to manage more effectively and to positively impact the environment in which we operate, i.e., the marketplace in which we do business.

Emboldened by our newfound expertise in quality, we can easily fall prey to a dangerous tendency to engage our customers in debates. "Oh, no," we can now confidently say to the complaining customer, "you're wrong. We have the data. We can prove to you that our quality is fine. We're on spec. We've hit our standards!" But while the quality might be fine relative to the supplier's standards, what matters is whether it's fine relative to the customer's standards-an important distinction to bear in mind because the customer is the one with the money, and the supplier is the one who wants it. It's a distinction that my supermarket was able to keep in mind. And, in the push and pull of complex organizational life, that's no small task.

In The Frontiers of Management, Peter Drucker writes, "[Business] institutions of the new pluralism have no purpose except outside of themselves. They exist in contemplation of a 'customer' or a 'market.' Achievement in the hospital is not a satisfied nurse but a cured former patient. Achievement in business is not a happy work force, however desirable it may be; it is a satisfied customer who reorders the product."

That is the standard that ultimately matters. Quality-mastery of our work processes-is the most direct and efficient path to reach that goal. But there is a distinction to be made between a path and a destination, and it's essential to keep that distinction in mind.


About the author

John Guaspari is a senior associate of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm Rath & Strong. The books he has written include I Know It When I See It and The Customer Connection.

Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.

E-mail him at jguaspari@qualitydigest.com
Visit Rath & Strong's Web site at www.rathstrong.com

Copyright 1998 by John Guaspari.


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