quality? depends on how you look at it

Quality is one of those words that we think we know what it means, except that it has several possible meanings. We know we want high-quality service and products, ads tout the excellence of items, critics and reviewers use quality as a measuring stick, but what do they mean?

Let’s consider cars as an example. Does “high-quality” refer to the build materials, the fit and finish, refinement, dependability, or longevity? Yes. No. Maybe. Stereotypically, Hondas and Toyotas last forever and are very high quality in terms of both dependability and longevity, but not known for refinement or build materials. There are several expensive German cars that are (again, stereotypically) known for the quality of their interiors, fit and finish, and refinement, but also have a reputation for fragile and expensive electronics, transmissions, and other sort of crucial parts. Then there is an old joke that General Motors cars run poorly longer than most cars run at all. So, in a weird way a Honda, Mercedes, and Chevrolet can all be considered high quality?!? That’s unhelpful.

Is a bicycle frame welded together by a craftsman in a small, low volume shop higher quality than a frame welded by computerized robots and vigorously inspected for even the smallest variances in a state of the art factory?

Which is higher-quality: the hastily built mcmansion with the expensive amenities that needs continual maintenance or the small, but solidly built house with very basic and cheap appliances and fixtures? It depends on what we mean by “quality”.

Talking about quality clearly puts us in a situation where the answer is meaningless unless we have a sharply defined question. What do we mean by “quality”? What do we need it to do? What outcomes do we expect? What tradeoffs are we willing to make?

What does quality mean in your business? What do your customers think in means? Are you sure?

Until we’re clear on the question, the answers won’t do us any good.

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