Tools: What is quality?

“The quality that can be defined is not the Absolute Quality;
the names that can be given it are not Absolute names.”

[Robert M. Pirsig, paraphrasing Lao Tsu’s ‘Tao Te Ching‘ in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘]

One of the most serious, yet most common, commercial mistakes is to try to define quality.

Yet everyone knows exactly what quality is.

Well, sort of, anyway…

Therein lies an interesting paradox… especially for business, where quality is essential to success.

Everyone wants quality. Everyone demands quality. And they know quality when they see it, or feel it. But they don’t know it until they see it, or feel it. Which poses a problem for those who have to create that sense of quality.

Quality costs; but lack of quality often costs a lot more. A perceived lack of quality – a lack of value, a lack of trust – in a company’s products can kill that company very quickly indeed.

So there are very good reasons to want to define quality. But quality can’t be defined.

We can usually define some of the qualities of something – colour, shape, size, weight, texture – but that doesn’t define the overall quality of that thing, or define quality itself. The qualities are part of the whole which we identify as so easily as ‘quality’; but quality itself includes not only those qualities, but the relationships between each of those qualities, their total synergy, and much else besides.

We might try to put a price on quality, and call it ‘value’. But that doesn’t define quality, or value: all it defines is price. An old proverb warns that “a fool knows only the price of everything, and the value of nothing”: which suggests that there’s a certain foolishness in basing so much of the world’s economy on the notion that price is value.

We might try to measure quality – that’s one of the key ideas behind ISO-9000, the international Standard on quality. But metrics and the ISO-9000 paper-trail really only tell us about lack of quality, or conditions which are likely to create lack of quality: they can’t tell us what quality is, or how to create quality itself.

Even ISO-9000 doesn’t define quality: there’s no entry for the term ‘quality’ in its Definitions section. It does describe what it calls the ‘four facets’ of quality – quality due to definition of needs for the product, quality due to product design, quality due to conformance to product design, and quality due to product support – but admits that these only contribute to quality: they don’t define it.

Quality can’t be defined.

Quality is… quality.

Quality is.

Yet even if we can’t define quality, there is enough information around to show us how to create it. The catch is that that information isn’t to be found in the usual places – analysis, metrics and the like – because those usual places only show us how to define quality, which doesn’t work. Some examples of ideas that do work include:

  • the perception of quality is personal, subjective, based on intuition and feeling – which is why metrics about quality itself are so unreliable
  • perception of quality is wholistic, hence quality has to be in the whole – a faked-up surface veneer of ‘quality’ will always be recognised, if only intuitively, as a sham
  • because quality can’t be defined, it can’t be taught – hence creating quality depends not on training but on education, the literal ‘out-leading’ of skill and individual awareness
  • the maintenance of quality depends on that individual awareness or, as Robert Pirsig suggests, ‘gumption‘ – “if you’re going to repair a motorcycle, an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool; the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption”
  • quality arises from and is inherent in everything – hence, as ISO-9000 and TQM also insist, quality can’t be managed solely as an ‘add-on’ or through a last-minute check, but has to be monitored and maintained in every part of every process
  • quality is the concern and responsibility of everyone – again, a key principle of ISO-9000 and TQM, but less commonly understood wherever the ‘org-chart’ assigns arbitrary boundaries to individual responsibility
  • everyone is involved in the creation and maintenance of quality – as ISO-9000 indicates, the whole society is a ‘stakeholder’ in every company’s quality
  • since ‘markets are conversations‘, it is both wise and advantageous to involve others – our customers, our suppliers and other stakeholders – in helping us to create, maintain and improve quality
  • quality arises from the awareness and interest of individuals – hence rigid procedures and harsh enforcement tends more often to reduce quality than to improve it
  • individual involvement and interest in quality arises from individual empowerment – hence quality, in the workplace and elsewhere, ultimately depends on a different understanding of power

What really makes quality so hard to manage at work is that it’s part of everything, and hence can’t be separated from anything else. Improving quality of products and services depends in turn on improving involvement and interest in quality, for staff and employees and suppliers and customers and other stakeholders and everyone else – not just at work, but at home, and in society in general, as issues from those ‘other’ realms inevitably filter through into work-performance as well. In that sense, quality really is impossible to control: or, more accurately, ‘control’ in the usual sense isn’t a means by which quality can be managed – which is why an understanding of power as something other than ‘control’ becomes essential.

So what is quality? The short answer is ‘quality is … quality’ – which isn’t very helpful. But the long answer – the real answer – is that quality is part of life itself, that quality of products and services is an expression of every part of a company, and of every member of that company, and of everything that company represents, and of everything which the underlying society represents.

By its nature, quality is a part of everything, and in a sense is everything: quality of work can’t be separated from quality of life. So to improve quality in a company, we ultimately need to become interested and involved in the quality of everything. Which is a big ask for any company, of course: yet it’s been shown, again and again, that it’s the only way that actually works!

Robert Pirsig’s classic ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance‘ is one of the few books which delves deeply into the weird world underlying the concept of Quality: it’s a strange book in many ways, but for anyone concerned with quality-management, it’s well worth the effort!

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