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The Qualitative Nature of Quality

The purpose of a quality program is fundamentally to improve the quality of something. However, with today's focus on quality systems and conformance to standards, this is often overlooked and why we need to revisit what quality is and how it can be improved. Companies that only implement quality systems will at best improve the quantity of things and risk not making a qualitative difference in outcomes.

Quality by its very definition requires making distinctions between qualitative differences of products and services in ways that improve the suitability for its intended use. However, perhaps more importantly, "does this characteristic also qualitatively improve customer satisfaction?" Both of these questions extend beyond numerical to value-based comparisons for their answers.

Over the last decade there has been significant attention given to the quantitative aspect of quality with Six Sigma and LEAN leading the way. In fact, even when considering qualitative characteristics they are often mapped to quantitative measures to serve as a "proxy", although not always a good one.

Quantitative measurements are considered by many as better than qualitative measurements. One of the reasons given for this is that the former are objective whereas qualitative measurements are subjective and therefore prone to biases. However, they serve different purposes and you cannot replace one for the other. You need both if you want to improve quality, otherwise you risk only improving quantifiable aspects of a product or service at the risk of actually improving quality.

This focus on quantitative measures has also been applied to quality management systems where key performance indicators are measured and monitored. Management systems are regulated, as their production counterparts are, to maintain a consistent output using: standard operating procedures, measurements and monitoring, inspections and audits, and so on. You could say that systems manage the quantitative aspect of quality.

What is missing is the management of the qualitative aspect of quality and this is where quality programs come in. Quality programs are focused on qualitatively improving an attribute or outcome. Programs manage the gap between the quantitative world based on facts and the qualitative world based on values.

One way to understand this is by considering the following scenario involving regulating the temperature of a house.

Program Under Regulation
Program under Qualitative Regulation

Houses typically have a heating and cooling system (HVAC) to regulate temperature. The objective of the HVAC system is to maintain the internal temperature of the house at the parameter set by a thermostat. This parameter is called the, set point, and represents a numerical value for temperature. The HVAC system is always answering the question, "is the temperature in the house equal to the set point?" The answer is given as an offset (positive or negative) used to determine whether to heat or cool the house.

However, what the HVAC system cannot do is answer the question, "is the room comfortable?" That is a qualitative measure which requires a value judgment. If you have more than one person who live in your house you know that each person will have a different idea of what is "comfortable." This value decision is made by a person who then adjusts the thermostat (i.e. set point) accordingly.

This is precisely what quality programs do, they facilitate making value decisions connected with customer satisfaction which are then used to adjust set points to underlying systems (management and production) to achieve the desired outcome. This is in some fashion a form of regulation based on a qualitative assessment instead of a quantitative measure.

While qualitative regulation is an important capability missing from many organizations, it perhaps is not the most important function of a quality program. There is still another question that quality programs answer that can significantly influence customer satisfaction and it is this, "are our systems capable of achieving customer satisfaction?"

In the case of the heating and cooling scenario, "is the HVAC system capable of keeping the room comfortable?" an HVAC system may not:

  • be fast enough to heat or the cool the room in response to external changes in temperature,

  • adequately address humidity

  • control the temperature evenly across the entire house

Addressing these may require a different HVAC system that is more capable, or at a minimum, require improvements to the performance of the system. These are changes that the owner of the house may choose to do to be more comfortable.

In the same way, quality program owners decide on changes to underlying systems to improve customer satisfaction. It is by making these decisions that the gap between quantitative and qualitative or output and outcomes is managed. Without a quality program to determine these changes companies are at risk of only improving the quantity of things without making a qualitative difference in outcomes.



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