Has it occurred to you to look at today’s digitally connected world as a living organism? Internet links can be viewed as synapses connecting this global nervous system, where each person plugged into it behaves like a sensory or a neuron cell. Internet storage then acts as memory.

What does this mean in the context of consumer experience? When someone gets “burnt” by a bad product or lousy service, the pain cascades through the system and ends up stored in its memory. Once this happens, the rest of the organism will avoid the cause of the injury. Then, even when the pain abates, the scar remains.

Put plainly, the above tells us that quality in business has never mattered more. Human experiences no longer stay localised, blunted by geography and the passage of time. The global digital nervous system makes spreading the message about bad service or a flawed product effortless – sometimes resulting in an avalanche effect and massive customer backlash.

Yet, the word “quality” still means something different to virtually every person and every organisation. In our modern world such fuzzy understanding can be really costly – how can something be effectively managed without fully understanding it? Therefore, if we want to control quality, we have to define it first.

It took me almost 5-years to arrive at an operational definition that helps identify what needs to be done to boost the quality of products and services. Below I share with you what it took to get there.

Exploring the enigma

We all know the sensation of quality. Mercedes Benz cars, Patek Phillipe watches, Miele kitchen and laundry appliances, Bang & Olufsen sound systems – just the mere product names imply high quality. Such products make us feel good just by handling them, or even by looking at them.

How did these companies manage to achieve this? And, did it make commercial sense?

The last question appears the simplest to answer. Those who provide high quality enjoy a two-fold benefit – they can charge premium prices yet their costs of production stay the same. Contrary to popular belief, it takes the same amount of material and effort to deliver a poor quality product as it does to deliver a high quality product.

Furthermore, a shoddy product actually costs extra throughout its lifecycle as it needs service and repairs – not to mention the exorbitant price businesses pay with their reputation when they “burn” customers. True, it takes longer to design high quality products but design represents only a small proportion of overall product costs – typically less than 20 per cent.

Coming back to the first question, in trying to figure out how the purveyors of high quality products did it, I started by consulting the dictionary, but I didn’t find much help there. The Collins dictionary defines quality as “degree or standard of excellence, especially a high standard”. Hardly useful as an operational definition; it doesn’t tell us what to do.

The popular “you know when you see it” might have been short and snappy but it had little practical value in my investigation as well. A good operational definition must tell you what to do more of (or less of) in order to enhance the object of the definition.

The expert literature didn’t shed much light on the matter either. JM Juran, in his book “Juran on Quality by Design”, wrote that “it would be convenient to have a short simple phrase to describe (quality)”. He then admitted that “to date there has been no consensus of adoption of such a phrase”.

Phillip Crosby described quality as being “conformance to requirements”. JM Juran noted that “fitness for use” seemed to be a popular definition but he didn’t necessarily agree with it 100 per cent.

Writing in BRW many years ago, David James cited Dr W Edward Deming’s definition “uniformity about a correct target”. But even Dr Deming, in his fundamental book “Out Of The Crisis”, talked about “problems inherent in attempts to define the quality of a product.”

In the end, both the dictionary and the experts failed to provide a useful definition for quality.

The quest for an operational definition

Realising that I was on my own in my efforts to develop an operational definition of quality, I first had to identify factors common to all quality products. Surprisingly, I found this relatively easy.

All quality products share the characteristic of being built with meticulous attention to detail. Quality services also require precise delivery.

However, on its own, meticulous attention to detail does not guarantee high quality; something I became acutely aware of when during my quality research someone handed me an impressively formatted technical document. But, once I started to read it, the lack of logic and confused contents became apparent. This incident helped me understand the second essential element of quality: the product or service in question must also add value.

This lead me to the operational definition that “Quality means added value combined with meticulous attention to detail.

Using this formula, the core difference in quality between a Mercedes Benz and an average family saloon becomes immediately clear. They both add value by moving people from place to place, but the latter lacks meticulous attention to detail: perhaps a poorly fitted dashboard, a rattle in the front suspension, electric windows failing every few months, doors not closing properly, etc. While there may be nothing wrong with the engine and the power train, the small annoyances spoil the pleasure of owning such a car.

Using the above definition of quality, we can also better understand the differences between economic cultures globally.

Thanks to their discipline and structure, countries such as Germany and Japan continue to dominate the modern economic world – producing products with meticulous attention to detail that also add value.

On the other hand, the United States has been an ever-fertile source of innovation – adding immense value to our lives – but often failing when it comes to the finer details which results in inferior output.

Further still, other nations have a reputation for producing goods with little to no attention to detail and which add virtually no value. Many years ago, communist Poland reached excellence in manufacturing black and white TV sets, but no one wanted to buy them anymore. Everyone wanted colour.

How to take on Germany and Japan

To compete with the global elite in terms of quality, your product or service must add value recognised by customers (reflected in your level of sales). Just as importantly, this value has to be ever-increasing.

But as outlined above, value alone will not suffice. In a world where ideas flow so freely, winning over the customer requires value delivered with meticulous precision. As an enterprising nation we need to muster this second ingredient.

Paradoxically, an important step in this journey must be taken not as a producer but as a consumer. All of us must raise our expectations.

Poor quality products and services only endure because consumers continue to buy them and, when disillusioned, they fail to complain and fight for their rights. Let’s put an end to this by demanding good quality.

If we manage to become increasing quality-conscious and demanding, a gradual shift towards a higher quality economy and society will take place.

In parallel, we need to embrace a more disciplined approach to business and life so that we can foster the attention to detail required to deliver well.

I doubt that you would be surprised to learn that a builder once turned up to tile my roof before the insulation had been installed. We laugh at these kinds of stories, accepting this low level of quality as a part of Australian life – highlighting the apathy that holds us back.

Australians have notable creative skills. If we can learn how to deliver this creativity to world markets with meticulous attention to detail, I have no doubt that we will ultimately excel as a trading nation.

But, such a journey will take years, so the sooner we start on this path the better.

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Andrew Gorecki, MD of Retail Directions, has worked with the retail industry since 1985. Industry insiders appreciate his strategic advice and insights, as he lives and breathes for the industry. Andrew received a nomination for the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2010.
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