Any company interested in being successful, whether offering a product or service, promises quality to its customers. Those that don’t deliver, die away. Those that do, survive. Those that deliver quality consistently, thrive. Seems like easy math. But then, 1 + 1 = 2 seems like easy math until you struggle through the 350+ pages Whitehead and Russell1 spent on setting up the proof for this very equation. Add the subjective filters for evaluating “quality” and one is left with a measure that is essentially indefinable in any practical way.
Math aside, when it comes to quality, everyone “knows it when they see it,” usually in counterpoint to a decidedly non-quality experience with a product or service.The nature of quality is indeed chameleonic – durability, materials, style, engineering, timeliness, customer service, utility, aesthetics – the list of measures is nearly endless. Reading customer reviews can reveal a surprising array of criteria used to evaluate the quality for a single product.
The view from within the company, however, isn’t so clear. Businesses often believe they know quality when they see it. Yet that belief is often predicate on how the organization defines quality, not how their customers define quality. It is a definition that is frequently biased in ways that accentuate what the organization values, not necessarily what the customer values.
|Figure 1. Quality Mismatch I|
|Figure 2. Quality Mismatch II|
Organization leaders may define quality too high, such that their product or service can’t be priced competitively. If the high quality niche is there, the business might succeed. If not, the business loses out to lower priced competitors with products that satisfy the customer’s criteria for quality at a price they can better afford (see Figure 1). On the other end of the spectrum, businesses that fall short of customer expectations for quality suffer incremental, or in some cases catastrophic, reputation erosion. Repairing or rebuilding a reputation for quality in a competitive market is difficult, maybe even impossible (see Figure 2).
The process for defining quality on the company side of the equation while difficult is more or less deliberate. Not so on the customer side. Customers often don’t know what they mean by “quality” until they have an experience that fails to meet their unstated, or even unknown, expectations. Quality savvy companies, therefore, invest in understanding what their customers mean by “quality” and plan accordingly. Less guess work, more effort toward actual understanding. Furthermore, looking to what the competition is doing may not be the best strategy. They may be guessing as well. It may very well be that the successful quality strategy isn’t down the path of adding more bells and whistles that market research and focus groups suggest customers want. Rather, it may be that improvements in existing features and services are more desirable.
Focus on being clear about whether or not potential customers value the offered solution and how they define value. With that benchmark in hand, companies are better served by then working to define quality in terms of “good enough” in the eyes of their customers and then setting the internal goal just a little higher so as to maximize internal resources (usually time and money) and deliver a product or service that satisfies the customer’s idea of “quality.” By understanding where the “good enough and valuable” line is, organization leaders are in a better position to evaluate the benefits of incremental improvements to core products and services that don’t break the bank or burn out the people tasked with delivering the goods.
Case in point: Several months back, I needed a set of cutting tools used to put the thread on the end of a metal pipe – a somewhat exotic tool for a woodworker’s shop. Shopping around, I could easily drop $300 for a five star “professional” set or $35 for a set that was rated to be somewhat mediocre. I’ve gone high end on many of the tools in my shop, but in this case the $35 set was the best solution for my needs. Most of the negative reviews revolved around issues with durability after repeated use. My need was extremely limited and the “valuable and good enough” threshold was crossed at $35. The tool set performed perfectly and more than paid for itself when compared with the alternatives, whether that be a more expensive tool or my time to find a local shop to thread the pipes for me.
Determining what is “good enough” depends on what the goal is. Sending a rover to Mars, “good enough” had better be as near to perfection as possible. Threading a dozen pipes for bar clamps can probably be completed quite successful with a low quality tool that’s “good enough” to get the job done.
1Volume 1 of Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (Cambridge University Press, page 379). The proof was actually not completed until Volume 2.