Quality vs. Excellence

I was reading through a company’s strategic plan over the weekend and noticed that they had made the decision to shift from a “quality focus” to an “excellence focus”. This made me wonder what the difference is, and why a company might want to make such a change in its strategy.

According to ISO 8402, quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.” In a quality-driven environment, an organization will improve the characteristics of its processes, products, and people — to eventually satisfy the stated and implied needs of its stakeholders (presumably customer, the workforce, and even society if social responsibility is a priority.)

When I searched for the phrase “what is excellence” one of the search results presented this story (the post is copied in full here):

A German once visited a temple under construction where he saw a sculptor making an idol of God. Suddenly he noticed a similar idol lying nearby. Surprised, he asked the sculptor, “Do you need two statues of the same idol?” “No,” said the sculptor without looking up, “We need only one, but the first one got damaged at the last stage.” The gentleman examined the idol and found no apparent damage. “Where is the damage?” he asked. “There is a scratch on the nose of the idol.” said the sculptor, still busy with his work. “Where are you going to install the idol?”

The sculptor replied that it would be installed on a pillar twenty feet high. “If the idol is that far, who is going to know that there is a scratch on the nose?” the gentleman asked. The sculptor stopped his work, looked up at the gentleman, smiled and said, “I will know it.”

The desire to excel is exclusive of the fact whether someone else appreciates it or not. “Excellence” is a drive from inside, not outside. Excellence is not for someone else to notice but for your own satisfaction and efficiency…

(I note that these ideas are reiterated by other bloggers as well, e.g. in http://how2bgenius.blogspot.com/2007/12/what-is-excellence.html.)

What I take away from this is that quality is driven from the outside (fueled by the needs of customers and other stakeholders) whereas excellence is holistic, pervasive, and emerges from within. A company that changes its strategy from a quality focus to an excellence focus must, as a result, have mastered the dynamics of being driven externally – and recognizes that additional process improvement requires turning inward.

With that said, why can’t we just craft organizational strategies that focus on both quality and excellence? I think many organizations actually do take this approach. My point here is that quality and excellence are different, and should not be treated as one and the same, but as a dynamic duo that can catalyze an organization to quality consciousness.


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