Seeking the true meaning of ‘Quality’

Seeking the true meaning of ‘Quality’

One of the most popular books of the last fifty years is the rather oddly named “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. It’s a novel that works on two levels. Firstly it’s a brilliant story of a road trip across America (something our md John Pymer recently undertook) and secondly it’s probably the best book about the nature of ‘quality’ ever written.

Quality is a strange thing, as the book testifies. As soon as you try to capture its true essence it slips from your fingers like an ephemeral thing and yet today ‘quality’ is big business and it’s the buzzword on the lips of Directors and Chief Executives the world over.

According to the Oxford Dictionary the definition of ‘quality’ is:

“The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something”

Now I’m not sure just how helpful that definition is – and as someone who promotes ‘quality’ in my career I really ought to be sure what quality means to me.

Certification International sells ‘quality’ – or more accurately we help our clients to demonstrate that their businesses offer quality through our certification process.

So, that being said, what do we really mean by this thing called ‘quality’?

Well, in the academic or business sense quality means something measurable – and today ISO 9001 is widely recognised as the most prevalent international standard. It provides a framework that enables businesses to develop and implement their own quality management system or ‘QMS’.

This is essentially an independent assessment of an organisations products and/or services that certifies the business as having reached a certain level of maturity that their clients and potential clients can rely on. It is a type of ‘confirmation’ that the business follows something called ‘best practice’ and that the business is operationally efficient. It also demonstrates that an organisation is serious about quality and is committed to following a quality approach in all its business activities.

So is ‘quality’ nothing more than best practice then? I don’t think so. Somehow, for me, that definition is still too narrow.

I’ve heard many senior people in organisations extol the virtues of their automated systems, streamlined processes, fully documented procedures, sleek methodologies, state of the art compliance software systems and multi functional toolsets. So are all these fine things manifestations of ‘quality’? Quite possibly so – and yet I can’t help but feel that something is still missing from the equation.

And maybe ‘feel’ is the clue. Maybe it is the ‘human element’ that is missing. As Robert Pirsig noted in his best-selling book, there are many objects or ‘things’ that exude quality and intrinsic to these things are the hands of the craftsman that created them. So is there then some kind of human element embedded into what we term ‘quality’? Yes, I believe there is.

Maybe the real ‘soul’ of quality is all about people – their motivations, commitment, resilience, focus and inherent skills. For without the people who make quality happen we are left with inanimate things or concepts with no life of their own.

So for me certifying quality is much more than a cold tick list. Instead it is more about the recognition of the people that make quality happen – because of their own dedication and commitment to succeed at all costs.

So have we finally succeeded in defining quality? Probably not, but I we now know where to start looking for it…

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