What is “Quality”?

Ask 20 quality experts a question and expect 30 different answers.  If that question is “What is quality?” then 30 is a gross underestimate.  There have been attempts to define quality since the dawn of time (well, it seems that long though it might only have been for the last 100 years) – all without reaching an agreed consensus.  Don’t be fooled by going to ISO9001, or any other standards in the ISO9000 series, and think any definition there is the final, once-and-for-all, definitive, unambiguous, all-reaching, agreed and undisputed answer.  It will be a definition that’s reached an internationally recognised standard but it will have been reached through barter and compromise and few people, even those who were part of its drafting, will actually accept it as totally correct and complete.

Let’s consider another word for the moment – let me ask you to define LOVE.  What comes to your mind when you read or hear that word?  What do you mean when you use it?  Is your understanding and use consistent?  Is it a noun or a verb?  Have you ever said you’d just love a cup of coffee (or tea or a glass of wine, etc.)?  Have you ever loved a film?  What about your wife/husband/partner?  Do you love them the same way?  I hope not (or your relationship is probably not going to last very long).  If you’ll permit me to digress a bit further, Greek had several different words for love:

  • agape (αγάπη) – brotherly love, love for a spouse; feelings towards somebody held with deep affection.
  • eros (έρως) – passionate or intimate love, physical attraction; more than friendship but not necessarily sexual.
  • philia (φιλία) – friendship, loyalty to friends and community.
  • storge (στοργή) – affection, as between parents, children and siblings.

These are just summaries: look them up and you’ll find their meanings overlap – four different words and still not possible to come up with precise definitions but the people using them will know what they mean.  Just as you, dear reader, will not confuse your love of coffee with love for your spouse.   The key is “context”.

Returning to the word quality, it too can have a host of different meanings, each depending on the context.  Quality of life or a quality product (or service); the word doesn’t necessarily mean good, although that’s a common assumption in use.  It can be used as a noun, adverb and adjective (and probably other grammatical forms, though three should be enough to illustrate variety).  The current ISO9000 definition of quality is:

“degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfils requirements” [ISO9000:2005 clause 3.1.1].

That really grabs my attention and speaks deep meaning to me (not)!  Of course, that’s just the English version – perhaps it might be different in another language, one that may have more than one word for quality.  And that raises one of the problems when trying to come to a common standard across nationalities and cultures – they’re all different and meanings will vary.  The above definition is a compromise where each member of the committee and voting panels accepted that it was near enough to their understanding to agree.  But how can we be confident we have a truly common understanding unless we have somebody who can think in all the different languages involved – not just published languages, but everywhere it will be used and read into the local tongue?

I don’t think we can be confident – but neither do I think we need to be.  I don’t think the written definition matters very much at all because only those people who read through the full standard and all the cross-referenced ones will get to it – only the “experts”.  Few businesses using ISO9001 have a copy of ISO9000, so the definition, no matter how well considered it may be, no matter how many experts may have agreed on it, the users won’t be using it.  Each person will continue to use his or her own understanding.  Quality is a concept that is personal to each one of us; we will each have a slightly (or even greatly) different understanding, emphasis and needs.  Whatever definition you have will be based on your experience (good and bad) and vary according to circumstances.  Sometimes quality will be an inherent property, other times a perception and perhaps something so vague you don’t really understand it yourself at others.

In an ideal world, we should have a commonly agreed definition of all the terms we use, and I won’t argue that would help the experts; it would also help business and probably put a lot of lawyers out of work.  But it would become a very boring world if we all thought the same.  Yes, we need to make sure we understand one another but ignoring the fact that we don’t all speak precisely the same language will only lead to tears (and more work for the lawyers).

So, where am I leading with this – what is quality.  It’s whatever you want it to be at the time – be happy using the word knowing it won’t mean exactly the same to everyone else; be aware of the context and be prepared to elaborate or include your own qualifiers or local definitions.  When it comes down to what matters, it’s the end result, not the definition that we need to get right.

(Posted as a blog on 22 August 2011)

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