What is quality? One question, many answers

Quality – a big word with many meanings. Whether Garvin, Grönroos or Donabedian: many clever people have already dealt with the questions of what quality actually is and what approaches there are to define it. In the process, various models have come to light that are probably also thrown up against the wall in one lecture hall or another. In practice, however, it is mainly normative requirements that define quality.

A Short Excursion into the Lecture Hall

One man who has dealt with various approaches to quality as early as 1984 is the U.S. economist David A. Garvin. Working at Harvard Business School in Boston, he published his article “What Does ‘Product Quality’ Really Mean?”. He concludes that product quality can be considered using five different approaches:

  1. The transcendent approach:
    The quality of a product resembles an intrinsic goodness that can be recognized but not precisely defined.
  2. The product-based approach:
    The different quality of products is shown by the different characteristics of certain attributes.
  3. The user-based approach:
    The quality of a product is defined by the various customer requirements and is therefore subjective.
  4. The manufacturing-based approach:
    The quality of a product is defined by the fulfillment of certain requirements or the deviations from the specification.
  5. The value-based approach:
    The quality of a product is defined in mutual dependence on the costs on the manufacturer side and the price on the customer side.

But what can we learn from such theoretical approaches in our practice today? They offer us a kind of roadmap with the help of which we can put ourselves in different perspectives and derive measures for quality management and assurance.

Quality – a Question of Perspective

It is common for people to view the issues and questions that surround them from their own unique perspective. The same is true for scientists and their models. While Garvin focuses on the quality of products, the American professor of medicine and quality researcher Avedis Donabedian refers to medical and nursing services in his model of quality. Christian Grönroos, professor at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland, on the other hand, focuses on the quality of services.

This diversity of perspectives and thus also of approaches to the topic of quality is necessary with regard to the various types of products and services, because high-quality products are not the only things we want: we expect good – and thus high-quality – care from our doctors, from the caregivers in our parents’ or grandparents’ residential home, and also from the educators in daycare centers.

In the course of this, normative requirements for the classification of quality are of great interest, in addition to theoretical models. According to Garvin’s considerations, these probably correspond to the manufacturing-based approach to quality. ISO 9001 as a valid standard for quality management understands quality as the degree of fulfillment of given requirements. Thus, quality indicates the extent to which a product or service meets defined requirements. The other standards, some of which are industry-specific, provide the necessary guidelines for the quality of products and services – and thus also an orientation aid for manufacturers and buyers.

An Important Witness: the Eye of the Beholder

When it comes to the question of quality, the eye of the beholder is very decisive – in line with Garvin’s user-based approach. Even though each approach raises a relevant perspective, it is ultimately the subjective perception of the buyer that has a decisive influence on success on the market. If the quality of a product is not convincing, it will not be bought a second time and will not be recommended to others.

So it makes sense to consider customer requirements as an important benchmark against which the attributes mentioned in the product-based approach are oriented. Theoretical models thus provide us with the approaches to consider quality of products and services from different perspectives. With the help of laws and standards, specific minimum requirements are defined from these considerations. These can be met or even exceeded. And it is precisely at this point that competitive advantages can be created relatively easily, because most companies already set themselves the goal of meeting the requirements. Exceeding them, however, brings the advantage. LED lights are a typical example from the Christmas season: most of them have a CE seal – what differentiates them is their service life. Whether a product or service is of high quality is thus ultimately always determined by meeting customer needs.

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