Defining “Quality”

Defining “Quality”

Defining what is meant by the word “Quality” goes back a long way. Even Plato and Socrates spent a lot of their time discussing and debating this elusive term and I think they would be very surprised to learn that it is still debated today! And yet given how much we all talk about it, it’s surprising that there is still a lot of confusion about what quality actually is.

Seth Godin, one of the most successful and prolific “bloggers” working in the media today, has an interesting take on the whole subject of quality which is worth sharing.

Seth once posed the question: “Which is the higher quality car: a one-year old Honda Civic or a brand new top of the line Bentley?”

Although the answer might seem obvious, according to Seth there are at least two useful ways to describe quality and it is the conflict between them that leads to confusion…

Firstly ‘Quality of Design’: The thoughtfulness and processes that create ‘user delight’. In other words the factors that will lead someone to seek out a product, pay extra for it or recommend it to a friend. Secondly the ‘Quality of Manufacture’: In other words removing any variation in tolerances that a user will notice or care about.

At the time Seth was writing, and somewhat surprisingly, the quality of manufacture of the Civic was actually higher by traditional measures and standards. The manufacturing process applied to the Civic was more exact – and the likelihood that the car would perform (or not perform) in a way you wouldn’t expect was tiny. On the other hand, most people would probably agree that the design of the Bentley is more bespoke, luxurious and desirable. Fortunately, today, Bentley manufacture is also top quality which goes to show that there is always room for improvement!

Another example Seth raises is ‘manufacturing variation’. Fedex promises its clients overnight delivery. 10:20 versus 10:15 is not something the recipient usually cares about but tomorrow versus two days time they care about a lot. The goal of the manufacturing process isn’t to reach the perfection of infinity. Instead it’s to drive tolerances so hard that the consumer doesn’t care about the variation. So spending an extra million dollars to get five minutes faster isn’t as important to the Fedex brand as spending a million dollars to make their website more delightful.

Dropbox is a company that seem to have got both aspects right. The design of the service is so useful it now seems obvious. At the same time, though, and most critically, the manufacture of the service is to a very high tolerance. Great design in a backup service would be useless if one important file were corrupted.

According to Seth, Microsoft often struggle because sometimes they get both wrong. Software that has a user interface that can be a pain to use rarely leads to delight and irritating bugs represent significant manufacturing defects. Sometimes (and usually just before a presentation), the software doesn’t work as expected.

Quality ‘guru’ Deming defined quality as: (result of work effort) / (total costs) and unless a business understands both parts of that fraction they will have a hard time allocating resources.

Put another way – it’s cheaper to design ‘marketing quality’ into the product than it is to advertise the product and it’s cheaper to design manufacturing quality into a factory than it is to inspect it after the product has already been built.

According to Seth these principles go hand in hand.  As he so clearly puts it, “Don’t tell me about server uptime if your interface is lame or the attitude of the people answering the phone is obnoxious. Don’t promise me a brilliant new service if you’re unable to show up for the meeting. Don’t show me a boring manuscript with no typos in it, and don’t try to sell me a brilliant book so filled with errors that I’m too distracted to finish it.”

Some believe Seth’s ideas are too radical and as for me, I think the quality debate will continue for many years to come.
I wonder what Plato and Socrates would think?





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