How Do You Deliver Quality?
The concepts around Quality are central to a lot in engineering. We think about quality control in terms of delivering product that meets customer expectations. In some industries that’s considered in measurables like reaching certain size or tolerance targets. When all the parts are “within” the dimensional specifications, we say deliver Quality product. Indeed there is a whole industry around quality initiatives including ISO 9000 and their derivatives.
While the manufacturing world has learned a ton about holding tolerances for a Quality part, there are so many more aspects to consider. While it works with physical “things”, it’s a little different in other industries like soft goods (clothing, furniture, home goods) and for virtual industries (like software). It’s harder to put calipers on a teddy bear or a new phone app to determine if it meets quality requirements.
Quality As A Mindset
I’ll be first to admit that I’m not the Quality Control guru. While it seems pretty clear that meeting tolerances makes a big difference in “Quality” products, that is just one small piece as we deliver a Quality process. Even if parts are all to spec, who says they are “quality parts”? What if the spec is wrong?
Secondly, quality in a kids toy is on a much different level than quality expected for the airliner taking you on vacation.
My father was a quality control guru — did it for a living and wrote an amazing book on it. He pointed out that “Quality” is really a nebulous term with meaning derived from the consumer. His famous quote which is very insightful “Quality is what the customer says it is.” That puts things in a very different perspective than measurements from a micrometer. Truly, we may deliver quality with micrometer measurements, but that is not and does not make quality.
At Synthesis, we believe quality is much more than a measurement at the part or dimension level. It’s the whole product. I suppose when the product is one piece, that puts a kink in the concept, but most things are an array of parts that make up the whole product — and that’s where the customer interacts. We deal with the topic straight on from the start by evaluating The Triangle of Achievable Engineering.
Automotive Quality Example:
While working in the Automotive industry, one of my jobs was evaluating competitive products. When a new product from a competitor would come out, we would get one and do all sorts of testing. It’s important to know where your completion is.
This will date me, but years ago when the NorthStar Engine first came out in the Cadillac Allante, it was touted as a showcase vehicle. Certainly, it had amazing specs — like the NorthStar Engine, a new amazing suspension and more.
I loved the car spec, and was quite excited to drive it.
Near the same time period, another important car was launched. The Dodge Neon first came out in 1994 as an ultra cheap Japanese small car killer. It had an underpowered iron block motor and a 3-Speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission. (I can’t find documentation, but my memory says the first engine was an old dog that Chrysler resurrected and modified from past years. Later variations of the 1.8L and 2.0L I4 motors perform better.)
I remember these 2 vehicles because of the stark differences. The Neon I tested was super early, maybe even before full launch. The specs were not impressive, and it seemed somewhat cobbled together, to be as inexpensive as possible, from the odd parts of past vehicles. (It wasn’t, of course, but that’s sort of the impression.)
Did They Deliver Quality?
So, which of these cars delivered quality? Remember the definition: “Quality is what the customer says it is.”
When I got my hands on a new Cadillac Allante, I was excited to drive it. The motor was amazing and the new flagship transmission as well. The brakes and chassis seemed so awesome too. After a few laps around the test track, I decided to push it a little. Then, in a broad sweeping corner, the rear broke loose and tried to pass the front. I don’t remember the speed I was going, but suddenly all attention was on keeping the car sunny-side-up. I did manage to regain control and keep it on the track, but it was a frightening ride.
Armed with the knowledge that the car can get squirrely, I pushed it again, and in other ways too. Crazy. While it looks great on paper, all I can say: “that car is scary”. For the ways I drive, I could never own one.
What about the Neon? There was not much impressive with the Neon. Yet, out on the track it behaved very well. Nothing to get excited about, and nothing to condemn it for either. The car hit the mark. Of course we can’t expect million dollar performance from a cheap economy car, but it did better than I expected, and it performed well for the category.
I mention these 2 cars to illustrate a point. Quality is what the customer says it is — and the customer willing to shell out $50+K in 1993 wants a lot more than the customer paying $9+K for a Neon. Which car was able to deliver quality?
The Customer Voice
If you’re interested in following this up, look at how long each of these models lasted. Both had revisions, but even with that . . . .
We live in such a disposable world — no thanks to giants like Walmart that push price to the point where as a society we’ve become consummate consumptionists. That fact alone has driven how companies deliver quality in their products (or not). If we now consider most things as disposable, then where is quality? Where is the need to deliver quality? Or more accurately, what does the customer say it is?
Things have also changed quite significantly in other industries. In a previous article on Where the Customer fits in QC, we discussed how the trend in software has made the customer the Guinea pig at the whim of the software producer. We love the idea of always being up to date, but that perceived customer desire has driven software vendors to quickly deliver without proper quality assessment. Indeed, the customer is now the test station.
Both of these trends have their up sides and downs. More trash for landfills, more demand for resources. Quicker access to new features, and greater frustration when the bugs foil our progress.
My questions: Are you happy with the Walmart paradigm of consume and dispose? Do you like the customer Guinea pig model?
How Do You Deliver Quality?
The concepts of how various industries deliver quality is intriguing. While trends come and go, ebb and flow, one thing is pretty constant. People choose what they accept as quality, and companies need to listen.
Innovation is a powerful tool in business, and customers love new and creative things. The trick is finding the balance of quick delivery with the intelligence of establishing quality. Prototypes can help, but it’s the mindset that matters most.
How many of your decisions are driven by perceptions of quality? Do you read reviews before purchasing something? Do you read reviews as you choose a restaurant? Those reviews are actually statements of customer on perceived quality. Unfortunately, bias is prevalent, but it’s a statement nonetheless.
Some deliver quality with service, some in product. Still others deliver with electrons. While all of these come together for the customer in the end, it’s so rarely just one thing that defines or defies quality.
How do you deliver quality? I’d love to hear your comments.