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
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?
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
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.
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.