We often talk about quality products and quality processes and try to define what we mean by quality (and I’ve previously written about the impossibility to arrive at a universal definition of quality); we also talk about quality processes. In each case, we are treating the term quality as an adjective – that is, we are assigning it as a qualifier that implies a high degree of goodness (if that’s even a valid English word). I’ve also written elsewhere about the need to differentiate outputs and outcomes – the former looking at short-term effects, the latter longer term effects (and the ones we’re really interested in).
Most attempts to define quality consider the shorter-term output dimension, possibly because that’s seen as something we can measure and readily feed back into a PDCA loop. Longer-term measures delay our ability to respond and improve. An alternative is to look at quality in the broader context, the longer-term approach and treat it as an outcome – one of the few uses like this being quality of life. This is often dismissed by QA experts as undefinable and, if it can’t be defined, it can’t be measured – and, consequently, is of little value. It’s too esoteric and doesn’t allow focus on detail but stepping back and looking at the broader picture will usually allow a more holistic approach to be taken – and, here, I’m stepping into the realms of systems thinking.
I’ve written about customer satisfaction being the gap between what is expected and what is perceived (i.e. what the customer believes he or she has received): if the perception exceeds expectation they are likely to be satisfied. If we ignore expectations or the customer’s perception and focus only on what is actually provided we risk the desirable outcome – satisfaction – the perception of quality.