Monday, June 15, 2009

Too Much Quality?

Quality is one of those concepts like money, enlightenment or status that everybody wants but never can quite get enough of. What is insidiously dangerous about organization’s and people’s desire for quality is that they usually do not realize that it is simply a metric or measure of the customer’s expectation and must be delivered at that level: no more and no less.

Does that mean providing a lower level of quality because the customer wants it even if the organization is capable of producing a higher level? Yes! That is exactly what I am asserting. To make sense of this seemingly contradictory statement, let us first understand quality and its implied characteristics.

The definition of quality as per ISO is "the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs." This includes the characteristics of availability, reliability, maintainability, serviceability, performance and security as defined by the customer in their requirements.

Availability may be thought of as the ability of the product or service to perform its agreed function when required and is usually expressed as a percentage.

Reliability is the measure of how long a product or service can perform its agreed function before interruption. It is usually expressed in units of time.

Maintainability is a measure of how quickly and effectively a product or service can be restored to normal working after a failure. It is usually expressed in units of time.

Serviceability is the degree to which the servicing of an item can be accomplished with the given resources and timeframes. This is usually performed by a third party supplier and is measured in units of time.

Performance and security are specific to the customer requirements of what task the product or service should perform and what levels of security are necessary. These characteristics vary widely from product to product.

So it may be stated that the sum total of these characteristics at levels specified by the customer make up the overall characteristic of quality which then must be delivered to the customer by IT. But the question under discussion is should an organization provide a higher than requested level of service to the customer if it is capable of doing so? While this was an accepted practice in the past, in today’s environment, it is not a recommended practice. But why is it not recommended? Let us consider an example.

An internet service provider delivers two levels of internet service. One level is at 250 Kbps and the other is at 500 Kbps speed. The price is $30 per month for the 250 Kbps and $40 per month for the 500 Kbps service. Now it might be logistically attractive for the company to provide 500 Kbps to everybody and simply charge $30 to those who signed up for the 250 Kbps service. However, once the $30 per month paying customers get used to the higher level of service, they will complain of service degradation if the service falls below 500 Kbps which is what they are now used to. Even though the company is technically not failing to provide the agreed level of service, as the speed is still above 250 Kbps, the customers will in all likelihood switch to the competitor even if the competitor was providing 250 Kbps speeds. Furthermore, the company will be shortchanging itself because they could enjoy lower operating costs (and therefore higher profits) if they provided 250 Kbps service to the $30 customers and held them at that level.

Organizations with high impact of failure such as hospitals, military, NASA etc. may choose to pursue higher than promised quality levels simply as a buffer to shield themselves against the catastrophic cost of failure. But this is a pre-planned, thought out action and not simply a blind surge towards more quality whether the customer wants it and is willing to pay for it or not.

By and large though, quality is not a holy grail that should be pursued blindly to perfection but in reality simply a metric that should be analyzed for customer demands, cost-effectiveness and return on investment and set to levels that make sense. Then the quality levels should be achieved and delivered to the customer at exactly the stated amounts. Any other path of action will lead to a reduction in competitiveness for that organization.


  1. Hi Vivek,

    I really dont understand how higher quality than is expected can be deliverd....

    I speak from the view point of a product having a particular quality level at a price point.

    In my opinion the product specifications and the price point are connected....

    The quality is the totality of customer experience and not only connected to product specifications.... so your question really seems to be whether an organisation can provide higer specs for a give price point rather than higher quality for a price point.

    Your case about the Internet provider really illustrates this.....

  2. I'll requote, ISO says Quality is 'the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs'.... underline stated or implied needs

    Note: 'High quality' should not be confused with 'High Features' or 'requirements', Because products are designed to the requirements. So provided more features are not providing more quality.

    Stated quality! If the stated quality is above the organizations calibration (set of predictable outcomes), then there is a cost/effort to achieve it. But, if the customer is OK to let some minor defects into production, based on some priorities. It should be acted accordingly. This is true from Software industry standpoint.

    Also true is that many world-class organization have calibrated its offerings to provide high quality outcomes by adopting industry best practices. In such cases High quality is the natural outcome, or flip it and you will see that for these organizations producing lower quality would be an effort to deviate from the normal... and would eventually be costly.

    Implied needs! For industry like production, pharma and aerospace etc, there can be industry defined quality parameters. If a customer demands products with quality below the industry parameters to lower its cost or to provide cheaper variants, it should not be provided because it will have a huge cost of failure.

  3. Out of all the definitions for quality that are out there, the only one I come back to time and again is "fitness for purpose".

    I have worked for many companies who have at times been guilty of delivering something that is above and beyond what the customer wants and/or can fully utilize.

    Absolutely pointless, and in some instances has a negative impact on costs, timescales and customer confidence.

    Even if a customer ends up with something that has more 'bells and whistles' than they originally asked for they may be left wondering why they didn't get exactly what they specified (and could they have spent less).

    There are some occasions where a customer hasn't correctly specified what they want and the supplier has a better idea of what is required above and beyond that specified - however, this still falls within the "fitness for purpose" definition which takes into account actual usage as well as a customers expectations.

    Kevin Gilmour MCQI, CQP

  4. I have found that the quality of a product is dictated by more than just customer requirements. If more than one company is making a product, the competition may define the quality standard.

    Take the auto industry, for example. It used to be that the warranty period for a new car was 12 months/12,000 miles. Then some auto manufacturers began offering longer duration warranties. This became a "delighter" in the customer's eyes and attracted more customers to the manufacturer with the longer warranty. Eventually, the delighter became the standard, and other car companies had to follow suit, improving their quality so the warranty costs would not be excessive. Now, some car manufacturers are offering 6 year/60,000 mile warranties as standard.

    Thus, the overall product quality improved without an explicit requirement from the customer. Rather, there was an implicit requirement determined by competitive market forces.

    Brian Hathaway, MBA, SSBB