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What is Quality?
David Straker
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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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