Saturday, August 29, 2009

The mysterious concept of quality

Again and again, often in various meetings with different people – among amateurs and among quality experts – there are lengthy discussions about the definition and substance of the quality concept.

Everyone can understand quality without explanations or formal definitions. Quality is a much used word in general everyday language. When something is associated with quality it is purpose to bring out positive features incorporated with that. Quality is a concept of good and success. However, if you will analyze the concept in details what does it include strictly speaking in different situations, it comes out a very wide range of viewpoints. This multi-mindedness is a self-contained character of the quality concept.

A variety of approaches to the definitions of quality concept may be grouped as follows although the different groups do not cross clearly or sharply:

1. Definitions based on product characteristics
Quality means measurable properties of a product. Quality means speed, efficiency, gold content, economy/business class, etc. Difference in quality depends on differences in these characteristics. Quality may be examined objectively. Such a concept of quality is often associated with price and cost, so that better quality means higher cost. For the same reason, a high price can be justified by the quality of the product. In this way the quality concept is often understood by the marketing people.

2. Definitions based on production performance
Quality is fulfillment of the specified requirements. This definition has been used in traditional quality engineering, which has its roots strongly in the manufacture of material products and prevention of manufacturing defects. Quality means the degree in which the product meets the design and manufacturing or contractual requirements. Quality is an objectively and unambiguously measurable quantity. It is expressed as a rate of nonconforming units or rate of number of nonconformities and managed by statistical process control. Operating target for the production is an acceptable quality limit, AQL, or zero defect level. Quality costs due to defects can be avoided only by doing everything right first time.

3. Monetary (financial) value based definitions
Quality is the use-value (utility) of an object. It is a measure of the relative satisfaction from the use of a product in fulfilling somebody’s needs. In this case, quality of the product is in connection with the added-value created by the producer. In classic free-market economic equilibrium, added-value corresponds to the exchange-value (the purchase price). Quality describes the ratio of use-value to price.

4. Real economy value based definitions
Quality of an item equals the real experienced and perceived benefit or advantage obtained by its user - even during its entire lifetime - regardless of what is paid (i.e. what is its exchange-value) and how much added-value it represents. E.g. quality in a human service may be achieved by right attitude of the service personnel without any additional cost. According to this definition, quality is an item's ability to meet the user's genuine - even implied - needs and expectations. Quality of a product traces back to the producer’s and the user’s needs and, therefore, it is always a subjective and also time-varying concept. Quality can only subjectively be assessed. Quality does not necessarily imply high costs of production. Quality is based on producer’s excellence in skills and customer-centered activity and by delighting each customer individually.

5. Philosophical and mythical definitions
Quality is of excellent goodness or luxury. Quality can not be measured or not even defined explicitly. You know what it is. Quality is based on the Platonic ideas. Love is the archetype of all quality considerations. Such a quality is the establishment of idealistic philosophy. In this way, the quality concept is also brought up a lot in advertising and the activities of "excellence" organizations. The quality is of reasserted superiority.


The multi-mindedness is included in the nature of the quality concept. Quality can not be forced into a single inflexible definition framework. Quality is always what you want it to be although this may also cause confusions or problems.

However, quality is also one of the basic concepts of business, production and marketing. For this reason, it is justified to have the international standard definition published in the ISO 9000 standard: Quality = ”degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills needs and expectations”. This definition reflects the practice and the multi-minded character of the concept.

In business context it is appropriate that the quality concept is understood in such a way that will support the organization's business objectives. In this case, quality should be attached to the company's products (goods and services) in a positive way. It is also often necessary to demonstrate quality undisputedly to organization’s customers or other stakeholders. Quality has a strong impact to customers' satisfaction. This can be achieved in a low-cost and competitive manner, when the company manages properly the production and product-related business processes and activities, i.e. the company's quality management is effective and efficient. Just in the same way it can be argued in public and third sector organizations.