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BUSINESS BRIEFS: Understanding Quality

December 1, 2009
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The job of a manager is to plan, organize and control every aspect of a business. One of the key aspects of any business, whether it makes a product or delivers a service, is quality. But what is quality? Before we answer that, let’s look at what quality isn’t.

Quality is not performance, contrary to what many managers may think. In the ceramic industry, performance and quality are often confused because of the nomenclature. We will designate certain ceramics as being higher quality depending on their alumina (or other key ingredient) content. Such distinctions actually allude to the performance of the product, not its quality.

A clearer example is in the automotive industry. Is a Corvette a higher-quality car than a Cobalt? A Corvette will certainly outperform a Cobalt. It will also cost considerably more. But will it meet its owner’s reasonable expectations? To answer that question, we must now define quality.

What is Quality?

Quality is consistency. Whatever level of performance is promised, the objective of quality is that the promise must be consistently kept. In our car example, Corvettes are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph in four to five seconds, depending on the skills of the driver. That expectation comes from the promise made by GM to the customer through the car’s specifications. It is that promise of performance that motivates the customer to pay more for the Corvette.

In the Cobalt, a driver might be lucky to go from 0 to 60 in 10 to 11 seconds. The customer buys the Cobalt understanding that that is the extent of the promise. Like the Corvette owner, he expects that promise to be kept. Quality simply keeps the promise by consistently keeping the car’s performance within specifications.

For example, would a Corvette owner be happy with his purchase if the Corvette went from 0 to 60 in four seconds one time, six seconds the next and five the next? Even at six seconds, the Corvette is still outperforming the Cobalt, but it is not performing to the owner’s expectations. What about the Cobalt owner? If the Cobalt went from 0 to 60 in 10.5 seconds, then 11 seconds, then 10.7 seconds, would that buyer be getting what they paid for? Who would be happier, the owner of a Corvette with inconsistent performance or the owner of a Cobalt with consistent (albeit much lower than a Corvette) performance?

Important Considerations

The car example raises some interesting points about quality. First, customers pay for performance, but they expect quality. A customer is willing to pay more for a 90% alumina brick than a 50% alumina brick. However, once that commitment is made, they expect the brick to consistently perform as specified. Inconsistent performance, regardless of the performance level, is very costly for the customer. It disrupts their scheduling, increases downtime, requires higher inventory levels, creates erratic repair costs and can even cause catastrophic failures.

Second, quality is a reasonable expectation. Quality is not what the customer says it is-it is what you say it is. You determine the specifications, and it is reasonable that a customer would expect you to consistently meet your specifications.

Third, while you determine your specifications, your competitor influences the expectations of your customer. Customers may demand a level of quality, but their demands won’t be met if there is no supplier capable or willing to provide it. Thus, the customer does not dictate quality. It is either you or your competitor that actually dictates the quality standards you need to meet in order to compete.

Finally, quality is not qualitative; it is quantitative. It’s not a goal; it’s an objective. You can use statistical analysis to determine what level of quality you are achieving. Thus, through statistical analysis you can compare your products to your competitor’s and demonstrate the superiority of your product’s quality (consistency). This is the essence of the Six Sigma effort. Sigma is the statistical symbol for standard deviation. When a product is within Six Sigma, you have reached world-class status. This is not a customer perception-it is a quantifiable statistical fact.

Prove It

The next time your engineers tell you that they are producing the highest-quality products in the market place, ask them to skip the platitudes and prove it with meaningful metrics that lie within a stringent statistical distribution. Quality is not in the eye of the beholder, nor is it some nebulous customer expectation-it is measureable, quantifiable and within your grasp.

Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.

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