What is this thing called quality?

The exact string “high quality consulting services” renders over 100 000 hits on Google (without the quotes you get over 30 million). Having been in this business for some time, I always get a bit annoyed by such phrases. My platitude indicators are flashing red. What is meant by “high” I wonder. And by “quality” for that matter. And why is nobody ever offering “medium quality” or “low quality” services or products?

The word “quality” comes from the latin ”qualitas” which means “from what”. One common definition of the word is “The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.” (ISO 8402:1986). “Features” and “characteristics” are according to Dictionary.com synonyms so just “features” would probably suffice. But “stated and implied needs” is rather good. It says that we should not only address the explicitly stated needs but also those that we need to read between the lines or guess. “Bear on”, again according to Dictionary.com means to affect, relate to, or have connection with; be relevant to. Quality is therefore according to this definition the total amount of product or service features that are relevant to its ability to satisfy (customer) needs.

Kano model

Peter Drucker says “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for.” This definition shifts the perspective from the product or service to the customer. The Japanese professor Noriaki Kano refines this by suggesting that not all features are equal when it comes to creating customer satisfaction.

Necessary features are those without which the product would be totally worthless. An example of a necessary feature of a car is propulsion. The graph to the right illustrates that you can never win a customer with only necessary features since all the competing products have them too. You can at best get a customer that is indifferent to your product or service.

Expected features are those that the customer typically puts on his or her shopping list. For a car that could be a navigator or a collision avoidance system. Yesterday’s expected features tend to become today’s necessary features. With enough expected features customers may prefer your product or service instead of that of your competitor.

Attractive features are features that makes the customer say “wow” in Tom Peters’ terminology. They are per definition unexpected. As illustrated in the graph, attractive features add substantially to customer satisfaction. It is hard to come up with examples of attractive features as they cease to be attractive as soon as the customer has got used to them. I said “wow” when I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on my laptop and the 3G dongle worked out of the box without configurations or installations. (With version 9.10 there was a regression of this functionality that made me rather annoyed. Attractive features soon become necessary features and may then backfire.) Still, attractive features are a very efficient way to increase customer satisfaction (when they work).

That all makes sense but we’re not done yet. In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the main character Phaedrus came up with the following definition of quality: “Quality is the response of an organism to its environment”. (Then he went mad.) Inspired by this rather philosophical definition I believe we can refine the definitions of Kano, Drucker and others to the following:

“Quality is what makes our customers do something positive for us, in response to our products and services.”

Yours truly

This means that quality is whatever makes the customer recommend our products for his or her peers and come back and buy some more. Quality doesn’t need to be in the product itself. It can be in the “One-click shopping” of Amazon.com that makes it (too) easy to buy books. It may emerge when we see to it that one of our customers writes a paper involving our products and presents it at a conference. Or it may be a friendly voice on the telephone.

This may not be the ultimate definition but I have the audacity to believe it’s better than many of the alternatives.


[1] Robert M Pirzig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
[2] Tutorials on the Kano model.
[3] Alternative definitions of quality

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2 thoughts on “What is this thing called quality?

  1. Wonderful essay, thanks.

    In his novel “Lila,” Robert Pirsig continued his inquiry into Quality first begun in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. His main character in “Lila” (which was, again, himself, but this time as a more distant assessor of the once-mad Phaedrus) evolved throughout the story a very different understanding of Quality as Pirsig had adopted previously. Pirsig concluded in “Lila” that: “Good is a noun. That was it. That was what Phaedrus had been looking for. That was the homer, over the fence, that ended the ball game. Good as a noun rather than as an adjective is all the Metaphysics of Quality is about.” (p. 409).

    I think his latter understanding is spot on. Quality IS. It’s not a state of mind, a recognition, a motivation, or any particular assemblage of attributes. It is, literally, the Good — which, I readily concede, sounds quite pompous. But like Evil, the Good is for humans a transcendent truth that, together with Evil, sets the opposing boundaries of morality. The closer a product or service can come to “the Good side” of that spectrum, the more Quality we ascribe to it.

    And now my head hurts. Time for a glass of wine. Cheers!

  2. Thank you for your comment and feedback! Hope it was a glass of Quality wine! I have read the motorcycle book three times and Lila at least twice and I have to admit I’m still struggling with the ideas even if I find the books very inspiring and thought-provoking. It seems to me that Pirzig is trying to define a word that is a name for something intuitively felt but hitherto not well defined. I have a problem with this as the feeling varies quite a bit between individuals. It’s a bit like trying to define “justice”. As an example, some people see Q in a SUV whereas other see Q in a compact hybrid vehicle. So to me Q has to be subjective. In the eye of the beholder. Otherwise all competing products would look the same and have that Q-thing. The same goes with morality. There are quite a few different opinions about what that is. (I have to go back to Lila and check what the conclusion was – my recollection is that I didn’t entirely agree with it.) -Arto

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