Quality is a difficult thing to define. Everyone has their own unique interpretation of what “quality” means. The challenge in defining quality is that there is no single definition. Quite often, what one person believes to be quality may not match someone else’s definition. This doesn’t necessarily mean that either is wrong. Rather, these differences reflect the notion that quality is complex and can be viewed in many ways.

Although the quality gurus—W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran, and Philip B. Crosby—provide us with the foundation of quality, even they have different views of what the term entails. For example, Crosby defines quality as “conformance to requirements,” while Deming lists quality as “meeting customer needs and wants.” Juran had yet another perspective, viewing quality as “fitness for use.” Although all of these definitions are different, they all strive for the same goal: customer satisfaction.

When trying to define what quality is, perhaps it’s best to start by looking at what quality is not. When customer or stakeholder needs are disregarded or not met quality is absent. From this statement, we can gather that quality could be “the capacity of a product or service to satisfy the declared needs of customers and stakeholders.”

Over time, people have articulated “quality” in different ways. Definitions can be as varied as: a degree of excellence, conformance to requirements, totality of characteristics that act to satisfy a need, freedom from defects, and delighting customers. Another interesting perspective is that quality is built on relationships: “Quality is the ongoing process of building and sustaining relationships by assessing, anticipating, and fulfilling stated and implied needs.” All of these are correct.

We established earlier that meeting customers’ expectations is a key element of any definition of quality. Ultimately, the level of customer satisfaction comes down to what the customer expects versus what has been delivered.

Meeting customer expectations is also at the heart of ISO 9000—the most widely recognized series of quality management system standards. The standard defines quality as “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfils a set of requirements.”

The definition of quality can also vary depending on the context. For example, from a technical perspective, quality can refer to the characteristics of a product or service that influence its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs, or a product or service that is free from deficiencies. In the context of an organizational strategy or group of standards, quality can consider the dimensions of reliability, maintainability, and availability.

Again, a key theme is implied: striving for customer satisfaction. Arriving at one single definition for quality is impossible. As long as your definition of quality focuses on an outcome and the customer’s experience, you are headed in the right direction.

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