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What is Quality?
David Straker
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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


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