I was judging a national innovation award. Discussion with the other five judges soon revealed significant differences in our understanding of quality.
Let me add context. The judges were mostly senior managers from the technology sector. They’ve grown up with technology and innovation. But all have very different experiences and very different education, both formal and on-the-job. And quality (of the resulting innovation and of the innovation process) was a parameter scored in judging the awards.
The judges’ attitudes to quality differed and each judge came from one of three points of view. The first was that quality was simply compliance with the international quality management standard, ISO9001. For them, quality was about following set procedures. The second sought measurement against established performance measures – for them, quality was about compliance with absolutes. Few judges supported the third and more nuanced view of quality that recognises the central position of the customer.
What Quality Is
As judges, we had achieved the state described by Robert Pirsig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “When you try to say what quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof.” “Round and round (we went), spinning metal wheels and nowhere finding any place to get traction”. We all had differing views.
For TimelessTime, quality can be simply summarised.
- Quality is defined by the customer.
- Quality is having zero defects.
- Quality is getting deliverables right first time.
- Quality is being fit for purpose.
Quality management is also a lot about making incremental improvement.
For example, if the customer expects a motorcycle to run without mechanic intervention for 100,000 miles, and it does, then that’s quality. If it runs for less before failure, it’s not a quality machine and it doesn’t fit the customer purpose. Of a thousand motorcycles, zero defect demands that every one meets the 100,000-mile test.
Generally, the differences in views about quality come from differing formal education on the subject. For example, many older technologists see quality as inspection and trapping of non-conforming goods and services. For them the dominant term is ‘quality control’ coming from UK’s manufacturing base. But, arguably, if there’s failure at the point where it can be measured, it’s too late. It’s quality assurance that matters – doing things early in the design and production process that will achieve a predictable level of performance. Quality is designed in early in the lifecycle, not tested in later.
For many people, ISO9001 conformity is absolute. The assumption is that ISO9001 tells us how to do everything and that once a system is in place, defined by some guru, it’s sacrosanct.
In fact ISO9001 teaches and demands that the firm says what it’s going to do, does it, and then proves it’s done it. ISO9001 is fluid. What’s to be done can be defined and adjusted, on behalf of the customer, as the system evolves. There’s nothing rigid, particularly with the new version of the standard, ISO9001:2015.
The result of such absolute ideas about quality is a discomfort among many older technologists regarding new ideas like the Agile software engineering methodology. Agile demands that the team produce an early-day model, bugs and all. This ‘prototype’ is then offered to the customer for comment. The customer might even press this early day variant into use! The development team then takes note of customer comment and creates a defects list that team members work on until the next showing of the latest work. The project lurches on in this way until a satisfactory deliverable is achieved. For many, this is a difficult concept. For those people, the older Waterfall approach, with its specification followed by development and test, sits better with their beliefs.
Enter the Customer
By understanding the target customer and bringing them to the fore in managing quality, the firm first makes a statement about its customers’ expectations. This instantly links specification and price – a fundamental idea to determine the price point for a given performance. It does of course require the firm to translate customer requirements into useable characteristics – the discipline of the product (or service) manager in the firm.
Once defined, quality management systems can then assess products and services against these requirements, seeking conformity. Quality exists if there’s conformity. Under this regime, there’s no space for levels of quality. Quality is compliance and hence quality is freedom from defects against those requirements.
This idea of quality as lack of defect gives the unit of measure of quality – cost. Defects or non-conformities with specification will need to be rectified. Products will need to be re-worked and services re-provided. Such re-work costs the supplier money as they strive to make sure all deliverables meet the requirement in order to invoice. Getting zero-defects first time costs nothing (in terms of re-work). Compliant goods and services are delivered. Of course, it may cost in quality assurance measures, but the argument is that it always costs more to re-work than to design the products and services right in the first place.
In the end, quality is fitness for purpose. The customer defines the purpose and the rest flows from there.
As mentioned, this fluid, customer-centric approach to quality is not for everyone. It’s reminiscent of the approach to information security where the company first defines its assets and its risks and then works to control those risks. Many folk prefer absolute guidance. Having to think deeply is difficult. It’s easier to follow some ‘best practice’.
Sorry folks. Quality requires thought. There’s no best practice – only that which is right for the customer.
Quality Obeys Emotion Laws
Now all this said, Pirsig, in Zen makes an interesting point. He suggests that many laymen and laywomen would comment that quality is a characteristic of something that can only be felt. Pirsig postulates that the object – the product or service – causes an emotional reaction in those experiencing it.
Under Pirsig’s definition, quality therefore obeys Frijda’s Laws of Emotion (see our blog of February 2016). The model from this blog is shown below.
Working left to right using this model, a person sees, hears or feels an object – the ‘event’. They appraise this sensing, and compare it with their internal ideas about the object. Depending on the relationship between the experience and their internal reference, they may be aroused. That arousal then generates behaviour – a smile, a positive comment or more importantly, agreement to accept delivery.
This description supports the anecdote that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, or rather, under this definition, quality is in the internal reference of the customer. So quality obeys emotion laws.
In the earlier more technical definition of quality, we noted above that ‘quality is defined by the customer’. This new, more nuanced definition, is not at odds with the technical definition – it’s just that the final arbiter is the customer. It is the customer who the supplier of products or services wants to have a positive emotional response and to respond with positive behaviour – like payment of invoice.
Ultimate Need for Definition
Of course, such a sequence of events is just a hope unless we actually define quality. It’s here that the technical definition makes sense. It’s here that we claim, on behalf of the customer, that they expect zero defects, that they want the supplier to get things right first time and that ultimately, they expect that the supplier will only supply products and services that are fit for their purpose.
Those who say that quality is about beauty, and about something felt rather than something tangible, are quite right. Even artists and musicians can surely agree – a quality painting or a quality concert is something absent of re-worked brush strokes or wrong notes.
In the end, despite the hype suggesting that brilliant artists paint to arouse their own inner emotions, most artists and musicians perform for their customers. Their reward comes from doing something that engenders a change in their customers’ behaviours.
Quality, judged by the customer, even has space for expediencies like Agile – so long as, of course, the customer did not want Waterfall.
So quality is not one thing. There are many differing views of what quality is and hence many differing views on how to achieve quality in products and services. Quality can be beauty. It can be something in the mind of the customer. But of course, if it’s trapped in the customer’s mind, it can’t be used to manage quality in supplying firms – unless that is, it is made real by specification. To be useful in contracts, we must, on the customer’s behalf, translate quality to talk of fitness for purpose, having zero defects, getting things right first time and be the result of continuous improvement.
In the end, the customer is the final arbiter, but to recognise this, all projects must start with a statement of the customer’s definition of beauty.