What is Quality?
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
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
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:
optimising the whole system
of value exchange
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