In business, engineering and manufacturing, quality has a pragmatic interpretation as the non-inferiority or superiority of something; it’s also defined as fitness for purpose. Quality is a perceptual, conditional, and somewhat subjective attribute and may be understood differently by different people. Consumers may focus on the specification quality of a product/service, or how it compares to competitors in the marketplace. Producers might measure the conformance quality, or degree to which the product/service was produced correctly.
Support personnel may measure quality in the degree that a product is reliable, maintainable, or sustainable. A quality item (an item that has quality) has the ability to perform satisfactorily in service and is suitable for its intended purpose.
There are five aspects of quality in a business context:
- Producing – providing something.
- Checking – confirming that something has been done correctly.
- Quality Control – controlling a process to ensure that the outcomes are predictable.
- Quality Management – directing an organization so that it optimizes its performance through analysis and improvement.
- Quality Assurance – obtaining confidence that a product or service will be satisfactory. (Normally performed by a purchaser)
Quality applied in these forms was mainly developed by the procurement directorates of NASA, the military and nuclear industries from the 1960s and this is why so much emphasis was placed on Quality Assurance. The original versions of Quality Management System Standards (eventually merged to ISO 9001) were designed to contract manufacturers to produce better products, consistently and were focused on Producing, Checking and Quality Control.
The subsequent move of the Quality sector towards management systems can be clearly seen by the aggregation of the product quality requirements into one eighth of the current version of ISO 9001. This increased focus on Quality Management has promoted a general perception that quality is about procedures and documentation. Similar experiences can be seen in the areas of Safety Management Systems and Environmental Management Systems.
The emergence of tools like Asset Optimization and 6 sigma is an interesting development in the application of quality principles in business.
Managing quality is fundamental to any activity and having a clear understanding of the five aspects, measuring performance and taking action to improve is essential to an organizations survival and growth.
In the manufacturing industry, it is commonly stated that “Quality drives productivity.” Improved productivity is a source of greater revenues, employment opportunities and technological advances. However, this has not been the case historically, and in the early 19th century it was recognized that some markets, such as those in Asia, preferred cheaper products to those of quality. Most discussions of quality refer to a finished part, wherever it is in the process. Inspection, which is what quality insurance usually means, is historical, since the work is done. The best way to think about quality is in process control. If the process is under control, inspection is not necessary.
However, there is one characteristic of modern quality that is universal. In the past, when we tried to improve quality, typically defined as producing fewer defective parts, we did so at the expense of increased cost, increased task time, longer cycle time, etc. We could not get fewer defective parts and lower cost and shorter cycle times, and so on. However, when modern quality techniques are applied correctly to business, engineering, manufacturing or assembly processes, all aspects of quality – customer satisfaction and fewer defects/errors and cycle time and task time/productivity and total cost, etc. – must all improve or, if one of these aspects does not improve, it must at least stay stable and not decline. Therefore, modern quality has the characteristic that it creates AND-based benefits, not OR-based benefits.
Quality, especially in manufacturing and diverse industries, is regulated, tested, and certified. Diverse methods, models and standards are provided to test the quality. For instance, the fitness for use (FFU), concept introduced to help test the quality of various types of electrical and electronic equipment, including household appliances and video/audio equipment. All types of equipment are manufactured in accordance to relevant standards, including performance testing requirements. FFU testing means testing products to ensure their ‘fitness for purpose’; that is, to certify their quality as well as durability.
One view of quality is that it is defined entirely by the customer or end user, and is based upon that person’s evaluation of his or her entire customer experience. The customer experience is defined as the aggregate of all the interactions that customers have with the company’s products and services. For example, any time one buys a product, one forms an impression based on how it was sold, how it was delivered, how it performed, how well it was supported etc.