Essence and Character of Quality

In conducting a seminar on strategy recently, I grew impatient with the use of the word “quality” in discussions where it was applied as a blanket descriptor.

“What is quality” I shouted. “And why,” I asked, not waiting for an answer, “does every mission statement in the world preach ‘quality’?”

“Doesn’t it seem odd to you that everyone talks about quality, but when we look around, we see mediocrity?”

“Is quality that hard to attain?”

“Or, are people just kidding when they talk about it?”

Since this was a seminar on strategy, these questions remained safety rhetorical, but my frustration continued unresolved, until now. Time to bring this very basic issue out in the open…

The dictionary’s first definition for quality is the “peculiar and essential character” of something. The second definition talks about “superiority in kind.”

The second definition is what we normally refer to, but I suspect many people mean the “essential character” more often when talking about their product or service. Why?

It appears quality doesn’t necessarily mean absolute, discrete superiority over allproducts/services in a category. What is intended (I believe), is the best you can get for the money spent, for the standards you will measure it by, or compared to similar products. In other words, “quality” is relative. But relative to what?

Without defining the relevance, quality generalism makes developing strategy, adopting a position, constructing competitive advantage and evaluating tactical plans very difficult. A clear sense of the organization’s quality is an integral part of the marketing audit, and when described properly, (i.e., the essential character and objective superiority) tells a great deal about the company.

Let’s solve this by sorting out quality in discrete terms. My definition of quality is very simple:

“Quality is measurable adherence to a set of standards.”

The operative words in this definition are “measurable” and “standards.”

What standards? How measurable?

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There is support among some in the QC arena for a set of standards around which quality may be measured. There are eight components to this set:

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The variables of design, beauty or artistic components of a products of a product/service. Measured through preference scoring, attitude measurement, and other methodologies, attributes like taste, feel, texture, appearance, (“this uniform is warm and friendly looking, but authoritative”) may be clearly measured and standardized.


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Everything needs service/maintenance. The portion of service which may be contributed the user level, MTBF (mean time between failures), degree and cost of support provided by the manufacturer, may be quantified. Ideals and competitive advantage may be obtained through cost-analysis and customer research for optimization.


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The issue of reliability is related to consistent results. Synonymous with consistency, establishing a standard, and upper and lower control limits for results enables customers to “know” they will always receive the same reliability component of their food.


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Not surpassingly, the performance of the product or service (0-60 in 5.0 seconds) is key. This is, however, a tricky area because, unlike the Army, where we used the MIB (more is better) theory for mostly things (i.e., plastic explosives), too much performance may be both unnecessary and unusable. Tying performance to relevant needs and interests of the category users are an important part of the quantification.


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“The bells and whistles” are both quantifiable and may add significant competitive advantage. Major category entrants such as the Japanese in the areas of computers and automobiles made American counterparts appear stingy and money-grubbing by charging extra for those same features.


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Compatibility is only a part of conformance, a frequently underdeveloped attribute. Significant competitive advantage may be obtained by developing unique conformance in a critical performance area. One of the best examples is the military: The M-16 assault rifle utilizes a 5.56mm cartridge, as does the AK-47 can fire M-16 ammunition, but the M-16 cannot fire AK-47 rounds. In a combat situation with captured supplies on both sides, which weapon is your preference?


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Durability encompasses not only longevity, but also ability to perform under difficult operating conditions. In our society fragility or “temperamental” equipment is not tolerated. The product/service that comes through in the clutch gets “attaboys” and loyalty which extend far beyond the realistic value or need of most crisis performances. Recognize it.



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Perceived Quality

Just as in positioning, what is in the customer’s mind is critical. Assessing customer perceptions may demonstrate that minor adjustments in some of these standards may reap substantialrewards in this all-important area. This area is so important I would challenge that any deficit between perceived quality and the actual built-in quality comprises a waste of money and places the company at a competitive disadvantage.



All of these parameters may be objectively measured. However, not all parameters are equally important/applicable to all products/services.

These components and their objective standards of measurement in the aggregate construct a mosaic called quality.

Developing measurable standards against the above attributes to clearly define the essential nature and character or quality of our products will enable us to truly know our products/services. We will then be prepared to meet the challenges presented be strategy development and, importantly, successfully meeting the competition.