“What is Quality?” – The Best Explanation Ever

In ASQ’s January “View from the Q” question, CEO Paul Borawski asks us to share our preferred definitions of quality. I’m so happy to hear this question, because I spent years trying on many definitions of quality for size, and I’ve finally found one (when accompanied by Mitra’s model) that fits. First, my favorite definition.

According to an old ISO definition of quality (originally in ISO 8402:1994) quality is:

“the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs

But hold it… the systems we work with deal with many different kinds of entities. There are products, processes, people, teams, governance structures, standards and regulations… and so on. And there’s also time involved here… a stakeholder’s stated and implied needs now may be totally different two years from now, meaning that we need to be sensitive to requirements for adaptation and innovation. And we also have to think about environment and context… a product is only likely to satisfy needs if it is deployed in the environment for which it was intended (and usually, this is covered by implied needs). A high-powered laptop with 32GB of memory and all the latest bells and whistles is not going to satisfy someone’s data processing needs if he or she is sitting out in the middle of the desert with no battery and no electrical outlet.

However, I found a model developed by a marketing graduate student in 2003 that presents quality as defined by ISO 9000 in a context that satisfies all of these gaps. Here it is, and how it answers Paul’s “Definition of Quality” Challenge Questions.

1. What do you use as the best, most inclusive, and illuminating definition of quality? 

Mitra’s Model (2003), which incorporates the many implied aspects of the ISO 9000 para 3.1.5 definition of quality, was developed by analyzing the definitions of quality in over 300 journal articles (many from the marketing literature). Here’s my personal simplification of his model:


Mitra, D. (2003). An econometric analysis of the carryover effects of quality on perceived quality. PhD dissertation, Stern School of Business, New York University.
Mitra, D. & Golder, P.N. (2006). How does objective quality affect perceived quality: short-term effects, long-term effects, and asymmetries. Marketing Science, 25(May), 230-247.

2. Test your definition against a variety of questions. Does your definition cover the difference between cassette tapes and CDs?

Yes. Cassette tapes and CDs both have unique product quality attributes and the quality perception process will be different depending upon 1) whether you have access to cassette/CD players, 2) whether you have access to the infrastructure to support those devices (e.g. power, batteries), 3) whether you have access to purchase either of them, 4) what all your friends are using, etc.

3. Does it cover an explanation between a low-cost vehicle and a luxury vehicle?

Yes. Contextual factors contribute to setting a price and determining an advertising strategy, which will both impact the quality perception process (and how people respond to how well the low-cost vehicle and the luxury vehicle satisfy their unique product quality attributes).

4. Could you use your definition in explaining quality to the CEO of your company? 

Yes, because it explains the difference between objective quality of products and processes, and can be used to consider perceived quality and value through the lens of each stakeholder and stakeholder group. I can also use it to explain the relationship between quality and innovation: that when you project the environment and the context into a future time, you can envision how all the other blocks must be adjusted to satisfy a new context of use — and that’s innovation.

5. Does your definition embrace what benefit quality brings to humanity if fully realized?

Quality, defined in this way, is the ultimate framework for systems thinking in the context of technological innovation. We’re dealing with man-made systems, manipulations of the physical and natural world, that are intended to help us provide ourselves with the material objects of our civilizations. The totality of characteristics of the entities, including people, processes, products, environments, standards, and learning — are all addressed by this framework. It suggests that when we improve ourselves, we improve our ability to create quality in the world around us, and innovate to ensure quality in the future world. Pretty powerful stuff.


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  • Quality: more than asked for, more than expected, beyond common maximum perceived value, for free.

    A flowchart to define quality is like trying to write a recipe to bake love.

    • Nicole Radziwill

      Ohhhhhh but IMHO you gotta bake love (and gratitude) into ALL the boxes AND arrows here!! 🙂 The utility of the chart is to illustrate that there are many perspectives from which you can, and must, look at both the quality assurance and quality control processes.

      • hahahaha awesome. consider it baked. I’ll throw in gratitude arrows for free 🙂

        What’s gettin’ me is that there is assurance, processes and controls and so on- and then, there is the philosophy, itself.

        Bear with me as I learn. 🙂

        —-> —–> ——> ——-> ——–> ———>
        —-> —–> ——> ——-> ——–> ———>
        There, I promise gratitude arrows; I deliver gratitude arrows. I hope two sets are enough for now. They just came out of the oven.

        Where can I read more about this “dragon in my glass” thing?

      • Nicole Radziwill

        Just click on the link to “dragons in my glass” on the right hand side of the pages here, and you’ll see the pic from whence I received my inspiration! When I first saw it, I didn’t read the text… the voice inside my head said “wow! a dragon! err, no, it’s one of those space invaders from the Atari game ca. 1982!!” — then I read the words.

  • Consider that first smiley face a period. 🙂 Smiley face overload.

  • Nicole, I love your definition of quality as suggested by ISO 9000. But I feel like Sisyphus trying to roll that damned rock up a hill only to find more confusion. Can I please use this column as a guest blogger article giving you full accreditation in an ISO blog I write (poorly). Thank you for considering this.

    • Hi Ann — apologies, I know it’s almost 6 years later, but I just saw your comment today! Sure, feel free to use any post on this site — just let us know where you re-run it so we can link to it as well. Alternatively, happy to write short articles for other pubs.

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  • Quality is “Giving the customer what he wants when he wants it”

    • Nicole Radziwill

      That’s part of the story, but not the whole story: it’s easy to imagine many cases where the customer is happy (you’re delivering products well within the tolerance limits) but where you processes are not in control (there is special cause variation that you haven’t addressed) and so your company is losing time and money, incurring extra effort, etc. — Quality must be examined from the perspective of multiple stakeholders. Beyond just the physical parameters, there are also social context and ethical issues. For example, you might make the customer happy by delivering them an illegal product that is well within tolerance limits, but is that really an example of “quality”? This is an interesting case because I know people who would argue for each side of it.

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  • This article was very helpful for me to infuse the basic quality concepts to my colleagues. Coud use some more examples, a story about a quality manager, or a full-fledged process walk as an improvement point!

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