How Do You Define Quality?

Well, it’s a new year, 2013. We’re 13 years into what Dr. Juran said would be the “Century of Quality.” I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask Dr. Juran exactly what he foresaw.  If someone asked me if we were making progress, I would say it depends on what you think of as quality. A recent debate by a lay audience about the many definitions of quality came to my attention.

Over the years, there have periods when the quality community, too, debated the need for a definition of quality. Generally the vote goes like this: Half says quality cannot have a single declarative definition, and the other half says until we have single declarative definition we can’t do anything meaningful to advance quality because we don’t know what it is. If pressed at a cocktail party to define quality, I use the definition from an old National Quality Month poster: “Quality, the systemic pursuit of excellence.” But then I immediately think of a hundred applications of quality that are not illuminated by that simple definition. 

When ASQ conducted the 2011 Future of Quality Study  (PDF), I instructed the panel that, for purposes of the study, quality was defined by whatever the panelist thought it to be.  This drew an immediate and strong reaction from a professor at a significant university who said that you cannot do research without a definition of what it is you are researching.  And when I explained my quandary in selecting one declarative definition, he said it didn’t matter what definition I chose.  Any would lead to better research than none.  And I was left wondering.

So, during the study, I asked the panel to provide the definition they followed when interacting with the rest of the panel.  And, as I expected, they provided a significant collection of definitions, all good, depending on what part of quality you were illuminating.  Some panelists used a consumer perspective, some used a producer perspective.  Some held definitions specific to the product or service, and others took a larger view of quality – say, quality of the enterprise.  And there was, of course, a philosophic view of quality, too.  See pages 38 and 39.

What do you use as the best, most inclusive, and illuminating definition of quality? Test your definition against a variety of questions. Does your definition cover the difference between cassette tapes and CDs? Does it cover an explanation between a low-cost vehicle and a luxury vehicle? Could you use your definition in explaining quality to the CEO of your company? Does your definition embrace what benefit quality brings to humanity if fully realized?

If someone has a single declarative definition, it would be a real service to the quality community.  A few years back, ASQ’s then-president Roberto Saco tried his hand at a definition.  His filled a page.  It can also be found in the Future of Quality study, page 40.

Such a definition is not an easy task.  I’ve tried.  However, it’s a worthy task especially when we’re starting a fresh new year with hope and optimism.  If the 21st century is to be the century of quality, we only have 87 years left.  We best hurry, there’s much to do.

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3 Responses to How Do You Define Quality?

  1. Paul
    I have taken up your challenge to develop a more refined definition to Quality that meets the needs of objective measurement and studyability.
    I have come up with a proposal.
    Interested in your thoughts
    see: [http://www.medicallaboratoryquality.com/2013/01/defining-quality.html]

    Michael Noble

  2. JIverson says:

    The difference between customer perceptions and expectations, of course! See the service quality body of knowledge (SQBOK).

  3. Jeffrey Worthington says:

    DEFINITION OF QUALITY
    Of course there are many definitions and I like to think of quality to involve in all aspects the concept of “for its intended use.” For example, even for the popular concept of information transparency, I believe it can be best understood and defined when talking about is as “information transparency for its intended use” recognizing that no single definition is always going to work.

    For quality, what I find useful now is to consider it in 4 aspects.
    1. Fitness for use – does the product/service have the features my customers need? And when trying to delight the customers, does the product/service provide additional features not requested but make it better for them?
    2. Freedom from defect – does the product/service continue to work in terms of reliability in a reasonable time frame? What if it has everything I want but just doesn’t work.
    3. Customer service – the people aspect (applicable to hard products as well as the information world) Did I enjoy my personal contact with the organization providing the quality product/service?
    4. Efficiency – for the manufacturer perspective, can I build or provide the product/service at a reasonable cost to make a profit?

    What is interesting about the above items is that one of the principle target for saving money and increasing efficiency is the area of reduced defects. This all brings up Juran’s concepts of “quality costs.”

    I would add a last area to consider. Customer satisfaction. It may be important for there to be a clear distinction between customer satisfaction in all 4 areas and the term customer service. Customer satisfaction is also important and I will leave that to other customer satisfaction experts to elucidate.