Engineers speak a different language. My fellow engineers will label me “traitor” for confessing it, but it’s true. Of course, the language-of-engineers uses the same regional language as everyone else, but the words themselves have specific meaning to engineers that are different than everyone else’s.
In particular, there is one word that seems to cause more trouble and misunderstanding than almost any other. That word is, “quality.” Coincidentally, the meaning of the word for process improvement experts is very similar to the engineers’ meaning, but different from others’.
To an engineer the word quality means building or producing an item according to its documented design. If the item meets the specifications and is built according to the documented design and tolerances, then the Quality organization approves it for shipment and the business quality metrics are good.
The process improvement expert understands that quality means producing something correctly (according to how it was designed) the first time, without any rework. Process improvement seeks to eliminate waste and variation that allows defects to appear. Defects are of course anything that is not according to design or production intent.
Unfortunately, how customers perceive quality is much less bounded and not as simple to define. There is a big gap between building something to print and building something that meets a customer’s expectations. Of course, there is the element of retrieving a purchased item free of apparent defects and in working order. This perception aligns very well with the engineering and process improvement definitions.
Then there is the appearance and feel of the item. If it appears and feels like it is well made, it apparently is a quality item. Taken further, there is an aspect of price. If an item costs 99 cents and seems cheaply made, that’s to be expected. If it is 99 dollars and appears to be cheaply made, that might not be OK. There is an aspect of value associated with a customer’s perspective of quality.
Finally, there is what the automotive industry terms, “initial quality,” which basically describes the perceptions discussed, and there is the perception of product quality well into its functional life. If the product begins to wear or break down or otherwise under-satisfy before a customer expects, then its quality is questioned. Engineers refer to this specific aspect of product performance as “reliability.” Customers use qualitative words such as “junk” and a great many words I will not repeat.
The bottom line is, there is much more to the term quality, than we engineers and process improvement experts define as a standard. Now, to be fair, any process improvement methodology and expert or consultant worth its investment and paycheck understands that idea and clearly and actively communicates it, and strives for the greater perception of quality.
It is the difference between the process improvement use of the word, “defect,” and the word, “defective.” Defect is a failure to meet the design intent. Defective is a failure to meet a customer intent or expectation. Something can be defect free and still be defective. Likewise, something can satisfy a customer and possess numerous defects of which the customer is unaware.
The point of this discussion of various definitions, perceptions, and understanding is that product quality is not necessarily guaranteed by a process improvement methodology. While exercising process improvement will almost certainly address the elimination of production defects, taking the focus on quality to also include customer perceptions and reliability requires an active pursuit on the part of the business, its leadership, and personnel in concert with the focus on defect-free quality inherent to the habits of a process improvement program.
In other words, eliminating defects does not necessarily improve reliability unless reliability is a purposeful and important focus of the product definition. Likewise, customer satisfaction or value perception is not cured by defect elimination unless those elements are correctly understood and built into the product definition and design.
Therefore, we cannot assume that because we are instituting and practicing Lean or Six Sigma methodologies, to name two, that our customers will decide to buy our products and be happier about that decision. To achieve the latter, we must also establish methods and values surrounding the understanding of customer needs and expectations, and also establishing the appropriate reliability for our products.
Perhaps, to write it as I have, and to read it as you have, sounds obvious. I have had numerous discussions with others over the years concerning perceptions of quality and actual process improvement achievements. People do assume that defect elimination automatically drives customer perception. It is not automatic. However, it is true if, and only if, our definition of “defect” is determined by an accurate understanding of customer perceptions and is built into our designs.
Take a look at your own process improvement methodology and habits. How well do your practices envelope understanding customer expectations and defining them as part of your product specifications? Get the most out of your process improvement by ensuring that relationship. Don’t assume that engineers’ and process improvement experts’ definitions of quality are the same as your customers’.
Stay wise, friends.
If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com