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What is Quality?

David Straker

This article first appeared Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


The domain of the quality professional has changed. From its humble beginnings in manufacturing, it is now expected, along with other infrastructure professions, such as IT, HR and finance, to contribute at the organisational level. Unlike those other professions, quality expertise can be hard to define, perhaps because there are many views of what business-level quality means. David Straker considers current definitions of ‘quality’ and offers a new one, considering its ramifications for the quality profession.

At its simplest level, quality answers two questions: ‘What is wanted?’ and ‘How do we do it?’ Accordingly, quality’s stomping ground has always been the area of processes. From the bread and butter of ISO 9000, to the heady heights of TQM, quality professionals specify, measure, improve and re-engineer processes to ensure that people get what they want.

So where are we now?

There are as many definitions of quality as there are quality consultants, but commonly accepted variations include:

  • ‘conformance to requirements’ - Crosby

  • ‘fitness for use’ - Juran

  • ‘the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy stated and implied need’ - ISO 8402:1994

  • quality models for business, including the Deming Prize, the EFQM excellence model and the Baldrige award

 So what is wrong?

Philip Crosby’s definition is easily toppled: if requirements are wrong, then failure is guaranteed. His focus is the domain of QA where, without a specification, quality cannot be measured and thus controlled. You cannot have zero defects if you do not have a standard against which to measure defectiveness.

 This reflects the early days, where quality was clearly about product. Quality control, and later QA, was our domain - we didn’t care about customers; the research and design department was responsible for designing the job and sales and marketing for selling it. But those halcyon days of definitive specifications and jobs for life are long gone.

 Though Juran takes a step further down the value chain, to the use of the product or service (at which point customers had forced their way into the frame), he still presupposes that we can fully understand how the product will be used, which is a great challenge (and not always possible). As Deming himself said, some things are ‘unknown and unknowable’.

 ISO 8402 recognises this uncertainty with its ‘implied need’. It uses the word ‘entity’ as opposed to the ‘product or service’ definition of its earlier (1986) version, indicating a broadening uncertainty. Nonetheless, it suffers again from a simplistic, single-minded focus - all we need to do is to figure out what is wanted and then deliver it.

 The quality models are a step further into broader business. Here, although processes are important, quality is much more about people: customers are there, but so too are stakeholders - employees, partners, suppliers, shareholders and society. Perhaps wisely, the models avoid nailing down a specific definition of quality, leaving us without a definition that encompasses a broader business view.

 ISO9000:2000 steps in this direction also, talking about ‘customer and other interested parties’, but leaves the definition of quality at a rather generalised ‘degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfils requirements’.

Initial problems

 Let’s face it, quality is difficult to define. We want to be precise, to create a quality definition, yet language is limited. Nor does it help that our domain has expanded from the relatively- constrained factory floor into the open realms of a broader business context, and beyond that, to environmental and social domains.

The IQA dallies with all of the above definitions on its website (, demonstrating the difficulty of naming quality. In the end, it plumps for a customer focus of quality that ranges throughout the product/service chain: this is still is not enough.

The perception of ‘quality’ as almost impossible to define, is not confined to our profession; in 'The Timeless Way of Building', architect Christopher Alexander calls it ‘the quality without a name’. In the same way that we know a good room when we use one, but cannot define exactly what makes it good, we can name its attributes of quality, but cannot define quality itself. One way to find a good definition of anything is to take a broader view. Alexander does this in his definition of a ‘pattern language’ for architecture, which reduces the whole of building and town design to 252 simple rule-sets. So can we find a new definition for quality by looking at the bigger picture?

A new beginning

Now for the audacious part: having knocked the existing definitions of quality and acknowledged that definition is not easy, let’s try it nonetheless. In the words of Susan Jeffers, we should ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. The focus of our definition will remain in the general business arena. This is where most of us make our living. What if we follow the early quality mandate and ensure that we meet requirements? Of course, we can go out of business by producing goods that do not sell. So, strike the product/requirements-only focus.

What if we gave customers everything they wanted? What if they were totally delighted? Sounds good. But what if it cost us so much that we failed to make a profit? Again, we would go out of business. We need customers and products and services to satisfy them, but this is not enough. Why are businesses started? - To meet the needs of the people who start them, of course. So we must also meet the needs of the owners of companies, not all of whom are interested solely in money. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started HP to make a difference to society while having fun with the electronic engineering that was their passion. But they were aware that they had to make a profit to pay for their higher goals. Public companies are less egalitarian and have to toe the line that analysts and shareholders demand, which means a return on investment.

 Effectiveness and efficiency are words we often use to define quality. Effectiveness is about meeting requirements, usually of customers. Efficiency is doing this at a minimal cost, which meets shareholders’ needs. Could we just focus on these? Skip the carpets and cafeterias; pay people the absolute minimum. Perhaps not, as in these times of hyper-competitiveness and scarce talent, your people are your most important asset. Employees have both needs and legs, and if the former are not met, the latter get into action; when you ask too much of your people, those with ‘get up and go’ are the first to do just that. We can be effective and efficient and still go out of business as our best employees leave and the rest repay our lack of care for them with a lack of care for us.

There are still people who can drive us out of business, from uncooperative suppliers and partners to environmental pressure groups and punitive governments. Where is the common thread? The phrase most commonly heard is ‘going out of business’. Deming recognised this when he pointed out that survival is optional. This is all somewhat negative, so let’s turn it around and say:  


Quality means
staying in business


Testing the definition

A good definition will withstand all kinds of serious criticism. What about those people who need things? Staying in business means keeping them all reasonably happy, so this works. What about growth? This is an interesting question: why do so many companies seek to grow constantly? If shareholders demand growth, and will take their money elsewhere otherwise, then it is still about staying in business. If our competitors grow, we need to grow to stay in the game.

Growth can be a management trap: if it leads to over-extension or unmanageable diversity, such that the business fails, this is not a quality situation. To quote Ricardo Semler1: ‘The biggest myth in the corporate world is that every business needs to keep growing to be successful. That’s baloney. The ultimate measure of a business’ success, I believe, is not how big it gets, but how long it survives.’

One of the frustrations we meet in quality is the focus on longer-term company survival; we know that products containing defects will lead to dissatisfied customers. We know that incomplete customer knowledge impairs our ability to correct external problems and repair internal processes. But we come up constantly against managers who are working on short-term problems, such as getting a delivery out today or pacifying an angry customer on the phone. So who is right, given our new definition of quality? The answer is both. Our perspectives may be different and we can both benefit from sharing one another's concerns, but we both want to stay in business, which means focusing on both the short- and long-term.

How do we stay in business?

If quality means staying in business, how do we do that? Perhaps there is no single, simple answer, but by exploring the issue, including going back-to-basics, we can take a few steps in the right direction.

What is business?

 While we are rushing in where angels fear to tread, perhaps we should scrutinise what we mean by ‘business’. At its most fundamental, business is barter: I will swap you two sheep for one cow; I will invest in your business if you give me a good chance of getting rich quicker than the bank. What makes barter work is that we value things differently, for example - I have plenty of sheep but no milk. Business is not so much barter as value exchange.

 If business were just about customers and ourselves, it would be easy. We would find what they wanted, make it and sell it to them. But it is not that simple: our problems begin when we find we are at the crossroads of many exchanges of value. There are shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, partners and governments, all engaged in a complex web of value exchange.

 To make things worse, we cannot make all of the people happy all the time. With a limited pool of resources, we try to keep customers happy, while being profitable enough for shareholders, while paying our suppliers (eventually), while paying for the new employee rest rooms. Sorry folks, but there is not enough cash to go around. Like any paymaster, we will need to make some tough decisions.

Staying in business then, means playing a dynamic balancing game, optimising value exchange, with an awareness of the very real resource limitations with which we work. This gives us a second level of detail we can use for our quality definition:

Quality means
optimising the whole system
of value exchange


What does this mean for quality?

 Casting a keen quality eye over this revised definition may lead to a certain queasiness. Optimising means making compromises but we have technology: remember Mr Pareto and his law, and Juran’s ‘vital few’. We are not counting defects but units of value, in terms of value created and of the levels and types of value required to keep each player in the game.

 A simple conceptual model is to imagine everyone putting coins into a central pot and then taking them out again at a later time. As long as there is money in the pot, and there are people to play, the game continues. Staying in business means keeping the game going.

 A consideration within this game is that some players can easily leave. When they are critical value contributors (as customers often are), they can demand a higher level of value in return. This can lead to low-value customers which many of us tolerate under the ‘customer is always right’ banner. What we sometimes forget is that if someone is taking too much out of the pot, they can be asked to leave.

 If quality is making this game work, then quality professionals need to understand the game. It does not mean abandoning our concern for customers and products: far from it. But it does mean optimising the system so that the whole thing continues to operate. Blind quality is what killed TQM in many companies. Why should I map my processes? - Because it is the right thing to do. Why do I need to empower everyone? - Because it works. The revised view of quality proposed here pushes against such mantras. Thus, one more defining statement is:


Quality means
understanding and optimising
the whole system
of value exchange


If we are to accept this definition, the most important result is that it changes the what we must do as quality professionals. We must act on the words: understanding, optimising, system, value and exchange. It means understanding how things truly work, both individually and as systems. It means understanding people, what they value and how they effectively trade with others. And it means working out how these imperfect systems can be optimised so our businesses thrive.

An ancient Chinese emperor once asked his wise counsellor’s advice for the greatest thing that could happen. The counsellor said: ‘Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies.’

The emperor was shocked at such a morbid suggestion until he realised that changing this sequence would bring a far greater sadness. The same applies to our companies, which are often much like our children. We can change and advise them in many ways, but the greatest thing we can do is to give them the strength to outlive us.



2 Harvard Business Review, September/October, 2000


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