The Psychology of Quality and More

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What is Quality?

David Straker

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

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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’.

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