BUT WHAT IS QUALITY?

Ad Sparrius’ Quality Corner – Guest Writer to Beyond Quality

But what is quality?
Most would answer that when a product fulfils its specification, then that product has quality. Although that answer is obvious, it turns out to be incorrect. The first issue is who determines whether a product has quality? It is not the supplier, nor the SA Bureau of Standards, nor some other statutory body. It is exclusively the user of the product, or the buyer of the product, who has the sole authority to determine whether a product has quality or not. The second issue is on what basis does that user or buyer determine whether a product has quality? Surely the product specification should be crucial in that determination? The problem is that users or buyers seldom have access to the product’s specification. Why would the supplier release that? Say you wish to purchase a new microwave oven—how would you obtain its specification? Most suppliers release copious marketing blurb, but that should never be confused with a specification. A specification is a document that states all the requirements for a product, for instance functional requirements, physical requirements, constraints, et cetera. Of course the product should conform to its specification, but that is not quality.

Quality concerns user satisfaction. User satisfaction needs no specification. For example, I needed root canal treatment by a dentist and he precisely followed the best practice procedure. But I hated the background music that was playing, so for me, that was poor quality. The product fulfilled the specification but the quality was poor, at least for me. That is the third issue—quality is wholly subjective. What is quality for me, could be poor quality for you, and vice versa. The engineer would argue: How can you manage quality if you cannot measure it? The marketer says: Wow, what a wonderful way to build a brand! Of course, it is not only the user or the buyer that needs to be satisfied. Regulatory bodies define mandatory requirements, for instance about safety, about which the user has no say. This expanded set of people who need to be satisfied are usually known as interested parties or as stakeholders.

The key to quality is to distinguish a specification from stakeholder requirements. A specification specifies a solution, but stakeholder requirements define a problem. For instance, I feel left behind by my peers and need something to show that I am keeping up with the Joneses. My problem is self-esteem, and the solution is a fancy German vehicle. Neither the precise vehicle nor its specification really matters. Quality is defined in terms of stakeholder requirements, not in terms of a product and its specification.

The formal definition of quality is: Quality is the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics of a product fulfils requirements [ISO 9000:2015]. The following notes are not part of the definition but clarify some issues.
Note 1 “Generally implied” means that it is custom or common practice for the organization, its customers, and other interested parties, that the particular need is implied.
Note 2 A specified requirement is one that is stated, for example in documented information.
Note 3 A qualifier can be used to denote a specific type of requirement, for instance, product requirement, quality management requirement, customer requirement or quality requirement.
Note 4 Requirements can be generated by different interested parties or by the organization itself.
Note 5 It can be necessary for achieving high customer satisfaction to fulfil an expectation of a customer even if it is neither stated nor generally implied nor obligatory.
A characteristic is a distinguishing feature of a product and is the manifestation of a requirement—a requirement is to-be, but a characteristic is as-is. Some characteristics are inherent, permanently embedded within the product. Other characteristics are assigned to a product, for instance, its price, or who owns it. Assigned characteristics are not part of quality, only inherent characteristics. Price is never part of quality!
ISO 9000 (2015): Quality Management Systems—
Fundamentals and Vocabulary.

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