How Do We Define Quality?

Quality is a strange subject.  It’s strange because people talk about it a lot especially when they have a complaint or an admiration about a product or service.  At the same time, people don’t seem to take it seriously especially when they settle for a cheaper product or service because they don’t have the budget to spend more for a better one. 

Over the years there has been so much said and written about quality.  A very long time ago, it seemed to mean something done well for a very reasonable price.

But as time passed and people produced a lot of all sorts of stuff, quality has seemed to become doing things just right.  The price might go up but that’s because stuff became scarcer and not because it was made better.

Things of luxury would equate themselves as things of quality.  Brands that price themselves higher than others would market themselves as brands of higher quality.  Things that were made via a precisely painstaking process would consider themselves better quality than those made on a cheap assembly line.  A Swiss hand-made timepiece would market itself as superior to a Japanese mass-produced watch, for example. 

Quality lately seems to be influenced by the level of technology involved.  A state-of-the-art mobile phone with a bigger, high-pixelated screen and a camera that can take breath-taking photos would be touted as the best in the market. 

What should quality be, therefore?  Some would say it should be about what customers want.  It should be what customers specified.  It should be what customers value.  It should be in how it performs versus what it’s supposed to do. 

The problem with these definitions is it would mean quality is about satisfying everything for every customer.  As in everyone who buys the product.  But can a product satisfy everyone?

In the first place, not all products are for everyone.  All customers do not necessarily mean everybody.  Products cater to a group.  It can be a big group or a select group, but a group nonetheless. 

Quality then means meeting specifications for that group.  It means tailoring a product to a target market group.

I bought a bag of instant coffee sachets from the supermarket a few weeks ago.  One morning, when I picked out a sachet from the bag to prepare a cup of coffee, I noticed that the notch where it says “Tear Here,” wasn’t there.  There was no notch.  I had to get a pair of scissors to make a notch of my own in order to tear the sachet open to pour the instant coffee to my cup.

Did the sachet fail in product quality?  The coffee tasted fine.  Would I still buy the coffee sachets next time?  Yes, I would.  The lack of a notch was a minor inconvenience.  But it won’t prevent me from picking out the sachets again from the supermarket shelf.  The price was within my budget and the coffee tastes better than the other coffee brands I tried before. 

Other customers may do mind, however.  They may find the experience of seeing no notch to tear as a major annoyance.  What if a customer bought the sachet at a roadside cafe and as he looked forward to having a nice cup of coffee, he couldn’t tear the sachet because the notch wasn’t there?  And because there wouldn’t be an available pair of scissors, he’d be stressed trying to tear the sachet open.  The annoyed customer may swear he’ll never buy that coffee brand again.  He’ll buy a competitor’s sachets next time to avoid a repeat of that stressful experience.  He’d tell his friends and family members that he thinks the multinational corporation that marketed the coffee isn’t worth the trouble of buying products from.  All because a tiny notch was missing where it should have been. 

The perfect quality product is perhaps one that satisfies all of the customers’ needs and wants.  But nothing is perfect.  And how does one define specifications based on wants and needs of many customers?  And how does an enterprise balance the attainment of the ideals of customers’ wants and needs with whatever capabilities it has at the moment?

The answers to these questions would be never-ending.  But if there are to be working answers, they’d may be:

  1. A product’s specifications are manifestations of the enterprise’s perceptions of what customers want.  Therefore, enterprises should always be listening to customers for what they value from the products the enterprises sell.  This is where market research is important.  How a product sells over time would indicate how it’s meeting what customers want and need;
  2. An enterprise should always maintain consistency of its product’s quality by keeping control of the operations that make and deliver the product.  Consistency not only indicates control but also capability.  How a product consistently meets its specs would naturally tell the enterprise what it’s capable of. 

For the enterprise, quality is about meeting specifications.  Specifications are the features that an enterprise translates from what it believes customers want.  How well an enterprise bridges that belief with what customers really want determines its products’ quality reputations.  The specifications should match customers’ values, the product should consistently meet the specs, and the customers prove both when they choose what to buy. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

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