One Good Idea

Finding the Gaps

Identify downfalls in your processes and keep customers happy

by Michael J. Armstrong

The gaps model1 of quality can help an organization take a big-picture look at its processes. As shown in Figure 1, the model starts with the view that quality is about meeting or exceeding customer expectations. If customer perceptions of a product fall short of expectations, the firm needs to find the source of this quality gap. 

Figure 1

The gaps model provides a starting point for this search by separating the overall difference into smaller component gaps. Each of these involves a different kind of problem, and may require a different kind of data collection and analysis to resolve.

There are five potential quality gaps, which can be described using examples from a passenger airline service.

1. Expectations

It is difficult to create good products if a firm misunderstands any key customer expectations. These expectations result from customers’ needs, their experiences with a firm’s product and those of its competitors, and other information such as advertisements.

A gap can occur if market research fails to hear the voice of the customer. A poorly worded consumer survey, for instance, might yield mountains of data but lead designers in the wrong direction if they misunderstand its meaning. A gap also can develop if front line employees have no easy way to forward customer comments to headquarters.

Airline management may believe that frequent service (many flights per day) is the main customer requirement and design its schedule accordingly. But if passengers are actually more concerned about fast service (direct flights to avoid stopovers), they won’t think much of that schedule.

2. Design

Some firms have trouble translating their understanding of customer needs into a good design. Designers may focus too much on technological gimmicks or on cost targets, rather than on customer needs. Or, in addressing one problem, they may create another.

An airline may discover that passengers want a wide choice of entertainment options. But if the menus on their seat-back televisions are too complex, they could frustrate instead of delight.

3. Delivery

Even with great design, quality can suffer if the actual product delivery fails to conform to design specifications. Internal factors, such as employee inexperience or machine variability, can create this gap. Problems also can occur externally with suppliers or partners.

To offer seamless travel from Los Angeles to London, two airlines might coordinate their flights so passengers can connect in New York. But what if those airlines use gates at opposite ends of the terminal and issue tickets without gate numbers?  Passengers will face long, anxious walks as they search for their connecting flight.

4. Perceptions

Gaps also can occur between the product as delivered and the customer’s perception of it. This mostly occurs with products that are complex or intangible, and thus difficult to evaluate. But even simple products can run afoul of consumer psychology. 

Economy passengers might willingly forgo in-flight meals in exchange for discount airfares. But suppose they’re rushed that day and don’t have time to eat before departure. Their nagging hunger may trigger low evaluations of an otherwise perfect flight.

5. Communication

Gaps between what the firm does and what it says also can cause problems. This sometimes happens when marketing and operations are not coordinated.  

An airline might rearrange its seating to provide 10% more leg room—a nice improvement. But suppose its commercials then brag about “huge” increases in space and raise customer expectations too high. Passengers could end up less satisfied than before.


  1. Valarie A. Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman and Leonard L. Berry, Delivering Quality Service, Macmillan: Free Press, 1990.

Michael J. Armstrong is an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. He earned a doctorate in management science from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Armstrong is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality manager, engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.

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