What is quality? Quality is easier said than defined. In various presentations I’ve made, I have asked the audience to write down their definition of service quality in six words or less, in two minutes or less. Most audiences struggle with this exercise. What is quality — in six words? What is a practical understanding of quality?

Let’s examine results from the audiences. The top 10 definitions, in order of frequency, were:

  1. Meets or exceeds customer needs or expectations
  2. Reliable
  3. Dependable
  4. Consistent
  5. Prompt
  6. Effective
  7. Value
  8. Worth the money paid
  9. As promised
  10. Guaranteed

Although there were additional words submitted, “meets or exceeds customer needs or expectations” was the top response. It also is a relatively common definition of quality. A few additional perspectives from three experts are:

  • “The first erroneous assumption is that quality means goodness.... ‘Quality of life’ is a cliché because each listener assumes that the speaker means exactly what he or she, the listener, means by the phrase. That is precisely the reason we must define quality as ‘conformance to requirements’ if we are to manage it.” — Philip B. Crosby
  • “The difficulty in defining quality is to translate future needs of the user into measurable characteristics.... Quality must be defined in terms of customer satisfaction and is multidimensional with different degrees.” — W. Edwards Deming
  • “Quality is a customer determination, not an engineer’s determination, not a marketing determination, nor a general management determination. It is based upon the customer’s actual experience with the product or service, measured against his or her requirements — stated or unstated, conscious or merely sensed, technically operational or entirely subjective — and always representing a moving target in a competitive market.”— Armand V. Feigenbaum

In attempting to define quality, one approach is to think in two levels, making it and using it:

  • Making it. Level one is making products or services whose measurable characteristics, and/or attributes, satisfy a fixed set of requirements and/or standards and are usually numerically defined.
  • Using it. Level two is the use of products or services that satisfy customer expectations.

"Requirements" consist of multiple facets (such as specifications, standards, protocols, etc.) that are fairly objective. Considerations should be given to the product or service provider’s requirements and regulatory and/or third-party agency specifics. These conditions should be measurable, manageable, and clearly understood to better define conformance.

"Expectations” are based on customer satisfaction and are more subjective. Examples were plentiful in the survey (e.g. reliable, dependable, consistent). Other subjective words include ethical, reputable, proactive, and clean. The meeting of expectations, or not, reaches further into quality, and should be measured continuously by managing customer satisfaction.

Sometimes overlooked are the listening skills that help to make a good communicator. Even more overlooked is the importance of documentation skills, including legibility and detail. The documentation from a product or service provider to a customer is a striking representation of that individual’s or company’s commitment to quality. What does your customer communication look and sound like?

The list would be long and diverse if one asked every person in the world for a few words to define quality as there is extensive variation in people’s views. So, it is important to understand the subjectivity of customer expectations, and that it is “in the eyes of the beholder.” That beholder is the customer. Not to make things more difficult; but the “the eyes of the beholder” also change over time. Therefore, effective ongoing communication is critical to continuously meet or exceed customer expectations.

So what is quality, in six words? There is one definition that works almost anytime, anywhere for anything. Quality: meets requirements and exceeds customer expectations. There are two words in this definition critical for quality to be produced, delivered, and serviced: requirements and expectations. TQM, SQC, ISO, Six Sigma, etc.generally are a means to this end.

Wisdom is the ability to determine what is significant, and discipline is the ability to do what needs to be done. Quality is sustainable when one uses wisdom and discipline to meet requirements and exceed customer expectations. That is when one has a practical understanding of quality for future use anytime.