Dictionary definitions of the word “quality” cover fairly similar ground. Merriam-Webster defines it as “degree of excellence” or “superiority in kind,” while Oxford opts for “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.” When talking about quality in terms of providing products or services, however, we have to drill a bit further down into how we define the term. In terms of providing a quality product or service, “fitness for purpose” is a useful benchmark. But perhaps a better definition still would be that quality is “customer satisfaction and loyalty” – because ultimately, the satisfaction of the customer and the loyalty that engenders is the true measure of success for any organization.
Defining the features and characteristics of quality
Quality can be understood by breaking a product or service down into a number of individual features or characteristics. There are various approaches to this, but a good starting point is David A. Garvin’s “eight dimensions of quality.” These are:
- Perceived quality
Other examples of quality features that might be applied in manufacturing industries could include factors such as ease of use, availability of custom options, and expandability. In service industries, examples of features could include accuracy, timeliness, completeness, friendliness, anticipating customer needs, knowledge, and the appearance of personnel or facilities.
Defining the customer
If we accept that quality is defined as “customer satisfaction and loyalty,” then to further understand the core concepts of quality management we must understand what we mean when we say “customer.” In this context, the wider definition of customer may surprise you – we consider a customer to be “anyone who is affected by the service, product, or process.” The most obvious – and important – customer of any organization is the external end user of the product or service; however, in terms of quality it serves us well to think beyond this. Intermediate processors such as retailers who sell your products to the end user, for example, are customers. Other external customers might include suppliers, partners, shareholders and investors, and even the media. In terms of quality management, we must also consider internal customers, such as other divisions of your organization that your department provides with information or components for assembly, or departments or individuals that supply products or services to each other. For example, when a purchasing team receives a specification from the engineering team for a procurement, then the purchasing department would be an internal customer of the engineering division. When that procurement is provided, then the situation is reversed and engineering becomes the internal customer of purchasing. The term “stakeholders” is often used to refer collectively to the totality of all external and internal customers.
The two dimensions of customer loyalty and satisfaction
Quality – that is, customer satisfaction and loyalty – is achieved through two dimensions: features, and freedom from deficiencies. Let’s look at those in more detail.
Although we’ve given some examples of features that might typically be used in quality management above, the reality is that there can be vast differences within manufacturing industries (for example, auto assembly versus pharmaceuticals) and within services (for example, banking versus restaurants). What is essential to achieve quality is for the individual organization to identify the dimensions of quality that are truly important to its customers. Features have a direct effect on sales income, and it’s also worth noting that the overall external customer base can often be segmented by the level of quality desired in relation to price – this is why, for example, both luxury hotels and budget hotel chains exist, and may operate under the same parent company. Features refer to the quality of the design, and it’s important to be aware that increasing design quality generally leads to higher costs and a higher consumer price point.
Freedom from deficiencies
Deficiencies have an inevitable effect on costs through scrap, rework, and even customer complaints. Deficiencies may be considered by different measures, such as volume or percentage of errors, defects, failures, or off-specification products. Freedom from deficiencies is ultimately tied to the quality of conformance of products and processes with defined specifications. Increasing the quality of conformance – and therefore increasing freedom from deficiencies – will typically result in lower costs, as well as delivering increased customer satisfaction. In addition to purely quality-based metrics, time and cost dimensions are also directly relevant to both features and deficiencies. By combining these dimensions effectively an organization can make progress toward achieving quality excellence.
Quality is defined by the customer
In the final analysis, quality is defined by the customer, and features and freedom from deficiencies are key determinants of customer satisfaction. While the various quality experts may offer slightly different shorthand definitions of what quality is – “fitness for use” (Juran), “conformance to specifications” (Crosby), “predictable degree of uniformity” (Deming) – these definitions are complementary rather than contrary, and each can come into significance at different phases of quality management activities. Today the concept of quality has expanded far beyond the manufacturing sector, to government agencies, healthcare, education and non-profit organizations. Quality principles are being widely applied not just to products, but also to services, processes, and data. As a final note: the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines quality as the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”