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Quality: where customer and supplier meet

Have you ever stopped to think about the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “quality”?
One of the first images often associated with the word “quality” is that of a person, equipped with measuring instruments or checklists, verifying the work carried out by others. Indeed, there is an ancient Egyptian inscription showing two men standing next to a block of stone and checking its dimensions with instruments similar to a ruler and a compass. This immediately gives us the impression of quality control on that artefact: someone is checking whether the dimensions match those required for the specific use of that block of stone (perhaps in the construction of a pyramid?).
At other times, we may imagine a chaotic desk with stacks of forms to be filled out or documents to be filed. Seated at the desk is a clerk who diligently completes, checks, registers, sorts into piles, stamps and signs all the documents.
From these examples it seems that the word “quality” is therefore associated with the concept of control by others, or the resulting bureaucracy.

But is this really quality?

Let’s start at the beginning, because in order to understand what quality is, we first need to examine the concept of quality.
Every human being performs actions. When needing to perform an action, there are two possible approaches: do it because “it needs to be done”, because the task is required, sometimes more out of duty than awareness, or because it is clear that work of those downstream in the value chain depend on the result of what is done.
You will already have guessed that of the two, it is the latter that corresponds to the true concept of “quality”: our customer, whether external or internal, experiences and perceives in the product or service provided how capable the supplier is in meeting their needs. Seen from another perspective: customer and supplier come together in the concept of quality.
We’ll look more at this later; for now I simply want to add one further perspective to better define the concept. It is only possible to speak about quality objectively when looking at the concept within a context that is created by introducing a verb, a specifier and an attribute to accompany the word quality. In fact, quality is made, built, designed, anticipated, generated. Quality is always relative to a purpose or a concrete method: design quality, product quality, quality of a decision, quality of a service provided, quality of life, or air or water, quality of work. Finally, quality always comes with a modifier: high quality or satisfactory quality or low quality are concepts relating to the expectation surrounding what is offered. What is unsatisfactory for me may be good for someone else, it depends on what our expectations are. Take the example when we buy a product off the shelf in the supermarket: those who like the product tend to believe it to be superior in quality, while others may feel that the same product does not meet their standards of taste and classify it as being poor in quality. We could go as far as to say that there are no rules for perceiving quality, we almost instinctively identify the quality of something (at least most of the time), even if often this criterion is very subjective and not transferable to others.

It is worth underlining that quality is a concept that needs to be developed together with the product or service we intend to provide, being as clear as possible about its purpose. This is the reason why “good quality” always starts from the development process, where together with its design, an object’s quality must also be planned. There are many standardised techniques and procedures for doing this. It is important to understand that an error or a failure in this initial strategic phase causes a disruptive cascade effect in the subsequent phases. We will examine this important topic in detail separately.
Here on the other hand we’ll look at another concept, one that is intimately linked to quality: standardisation.  We all know how to get the information needed to go from one place to another. We open an app on our smartphone, we put in the points of departure and arrival and perhaps even the time of day we plan to travel, and the app shows us a map with the best route. Together with this, however, the map also shows other options. The route can be travelled in different ways and by different means (by train, by car, by public transport, on foot, ...).  Despite this complexity, we usually almost intuitively understand which route is the best and the most suitable means of transport. This is part of our personal approach, related to our interpretation of “common sense”. And, if we cannot decide, we use codified common sense: standards, specifications, operating instructions, norms and anything else that represent what experts in the field have defined, for us and many others, as being the best way to proceed. Quality is this codified common sense that leads us to fulfil our purpose.
But is there any correct limit to “making quality”?  In other words: when is the quality of a product or service suitable for the purpose? The answer could be: when it satisfies the customer. Correct! It is precisely for this reason there are certain specifications to be complied with. However, this is still the minimum threshold. Can this threshold be increased? Surely, a satisfied customer is a good thing, but a “delighted” customer is even better. We could say, to paraphrase a well-known American writer, Robert Pirsig, that quality is achieved when the supplier’s objectivity meets the client’s subjectivity. Once again, this meeting point determines success and what could be called optimal quality. This implies a commitment in terms of competence and awareness that is not always easily attainable, yet that creates maximum productivity and satisfaction in what we do.

It would be worth analysing, after having clarified the intrinsic concept of quality and that quality is our universal heritage, how to make quality. And even further, to examine why it is necessary to think in terms of processes and, above all, systems, a word that is too often seen as being an unnecessary burden rather than the foundation of the organisational “house”. Without neglecting the concepts of striving for overall compliance of the organisation and anticipation through careful and correct management of risks, so as to reduce them and increase the opportunities offered.
However we will look at these topics in future posts.
Until next time, good quality to you all!


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