Tag Archives: definitions

Quality of Art & Design in the Digital Age

doug-mirror(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In a December article in Wired, John Maeda talks about how the art community’s sensibilities were recently challenged by a decision made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to include videogames in a new category of art there. Although the examples were acquired on the basis that they demonstrate good interaction design, some art critics claim that videogames are not art – that they do not, as per Jonathon Jones, represent an “act of personal imagination.”

Whereas design is focused on solutions, art (according to Maeda) is focused more on creating questions – “the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way ‘forward’ actually is.So should artifacts like video games be accepted into an art collection? The answer, according to Maeda, comes down to how the institution defines quality:

When I was invited to a MoMA Board meeting a couple of years ago to field questions about the future of art with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, we were asked about how MoMA should make acquisitions in the digital age. Schmidt answered, Graduate-style, with just one word: “quality.”

And that answer has stuck with me even today, because he was absolutely right – quality trumps all, whatever the medium and tools are: paints or pixels, canvas or console.

The problem is that what “quality” represents in the digital age hasn’t been identified much further than heuristic-metrics like company IPOs and the market share of well-designed technology products. It’s even more difficult to describe quality when it comes to something as non-quantitative – and almost entirely qualitative – as art and design.

Last month, I shared what I’ve discovered over the past 7 years, as I’ve aimed to answer the question What is Quality? By applying the ISO 9000/Mitra perspective that I described, the MoMA dilemma (and others like it) may be easier to resolve. My approach centers around the ISO 9000 definition that quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bears upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”

These stated and implied needs translate into quality attributes.

For art, the object of art is the entity. If that art is functional or interactive, then there are stated needs that relate to its ability to function within a given context or towards a given purpose. These may relate to quality attributes like conformance, reliability, or durability. (If the piece is not functional or interactive, then there are quite possibly no stated needs to meet). However, there will always be implied needs which relate to the meaning and purpose of the art; does the object help achieve the goals of art in general, or of the individual interacting with or observing the art?

Similarly, since art is in many ways a personal experience, does the object help the individual by inspiring, connecting, engaging, encouraging, illuminating, clarifying, catalyzing, transforming, encouraging, or revealing aspects of the self and/or the environment? Does the object stimulate an emotional experience? (Any of these aspects might indicate that the object of art is meeting quality attributes that are related to implied needs.)

A subset of Mitra’s model is relevant to examining the quality of art and design. Note that to assess the quality of an example of art, such as a videogame, we might focus more on the objective quality and the consequences of quality, because the antecedents will be more useful if we are attempting to improve quality over time:

Antecedents of Quality (conditions that must be in place to quality to be achieved): contextual factors (e.g. whether the environment/culture – or enough people within it – are ready to recognize the piece as art), quality improvement process (what mechanisms are in place to continually improve the ability of the artist/team to deliver high quality work, e.g. practice or evaluating other artwork), and capabilities (whether the artist has the skill to create and share the art).

Objective/Product Quality: This asks “how well does the entity meet the stated and implied needs?” Does it meet all of them, or just some of them, and to what degree or extent?

Consequences of Quality: This is the combined effect of the quality perception process (whether the piece meets each individual’s standards for value) and the broader impacts that the piece has on individuals and/or society in general. Quality perception is, necessarily, an individual process – whereas broader impacts involves factors such as how many people did this piece impact, and to what extent.

So, are videogames art? First, we have to check to make sure they meet their stated needs – and since they were produced and successfully distributed by companies to people who played and enjoyed those games, we can assume that the stated needs were met. So, what are the implied needs of videogames as art? This depends, like many things, on how you select and define those stated needs. Ultimately, you want to take into account the emotional and transformative impact of the piece on one person, and then across individual and demographic designations to see the impact of the piece within and between social groups.

IMHO, I was personally inspired to learn more about computer programming before I turned 10 by playing lots and lots of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. I was an empowered fighter in a world of power pellets, ghosts, strawberries, and bananas, and so were lots of my friends. We connected with one another, and with the era in history that is the 1980’s, as we do today whenever someone reflects on those games or the arcades in which they were played. Because the games inspired in me an emotional experience, that today is tinged with nostalgia, I’d say that videogames are just as much art as the beautiful cars of the 1950’s that catalyzed the same feelings in people of that generation.

Kudos to MoMA for casting their net wider.

What do you all think? How can we effectively assess the quality of art and design?

“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.

Quality in 3 Words: EXCELLENCE IN BEING

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

I stumbled across a LinkedIn discussion in the “Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma & Lean” group yesterday that, though posted 8 months ago, has just started to get revived traffic. The question was simple: What is Quality? The poster, though, specified that you’d have to answer the question in three words. (Turns out this was a problem for many people who posted paragraph-long descriptions.)

Describing quality in three words (or less) provides a pretty good exercise in critical thinking. After all, Juran did it (explaining that quality is “fitness for use”) and so did Crosby, sort of (“quality is free”).

Here are some of the submissions that actually (or almost) honored the three-word requirement:

  • Customer Satisfaction, Sustainability & Reliability
  • One word: Survival
  • Forever Satisfied Customer
  • Defined by Customer
  • Perceived by Customer
  • Exceeding Customer Expectations
  • Fitness for Use
  • Delivering Customers Expectations
  • Accurate Consistent Results
  • Perception of Value

But I’m not happy with any of these definitions. Just because customers are satisfied doesn’t mean they’re being satisfied by quality (think Wal-mart). “Survival” doesn’t imply quality at all (think of any elderly person you know who can’t walk, communicate or take care of themselves). “Perception of value” is nice, but it doesn’t really compel us to strive for excellence.

I was surprised by how many of the submissions included the word “customer”. But I don’t think you need a customer to define quality. I can easily assess quality without purchasing – or desiring to own – anything at all!

My “Quality in 3 Words” would have to be the EXCELLENCE OF BEING. As I mentioned in “Quality vs. Excellence” a while back, quality can result from adhering to standards or satisfying customers, but the fuel that drives quality is the pursuit of excellence – and this must be a value within each one of us.

Quality Soup: Too Many Quality Improvement Acronyms

Note: This post is NOT about soup.

This post is, in contrast, about something that @ASQ tweeted earlier today: “QP Perspectives Column: Is the quality profession undermining ISO 9000?

In this February 2012 column, author Bob Kennedy examines reflected on a heated discussion at a gathering of senior-level quality practitioners regarding the merit of various tools, methodologies and themes in the context of the quality body of knowledge – what I refer to as “quality soup”. These paragraphs sum up the dilemma captured at that meeting:

Next came the bombshell from a very senior quality consultant: “No one is interested in ISO 9000 anymore; they all want lean.” In hindsight, I think he was speaking from a consultant’s perspective. In other words, there’s no money to be made peddling ISO 9000, but there is with lean and LSS.

I was appalled at this blatant undermining of a fundamental bedrock of quality that is employed by more than 1 million organizations representing nearly every country in the world. The ISO 9000 series is Quality 101, and as quality practitioners, we should never forget it.

If we don’t believe this and promote it, we undermine the impact and importance of ISO 9000. We must ask ourselves, “Am I interested in ISO 9000 anymore?”

When I see articles like this, and other articles or books that question whether a tool or technique is just a passing fad (e.g. there’s a whole history of them presented in Cole’s 1999 book) my visceral reaction is always the same. How can so many quality professionals not see that each of these “things we do” satisfies a well-defined and very distinct purpose? (I quickly and compassionately recall that it only took me 6 years to figure this out, 4 of which were spent in a PhD program focusing on quality systems – so don’t feel bad if I just pointed a finger at you, because I’d actually be pointing it at past-me as well, and I’m still in the process of figuring all of this stuff out.)

In a successful and high-performing organization, I would expect to see SEVERAL of these philosophies, methodologies and techniques applied. For example:

  • The Baldrige Criteria provide a general framework to align an organization’s strategy with its operations in a way that promotes continuous improvement, organizational learning, and social responsibility. (In addition to the Criteria booklet itself, Latham & Vinyard’s users guide is also pretty comprehensive and accessible in case you want to learn more.)
  • ISO 9000 provides eight categories of quality standards to make sure we’re setting up the framework for a process-driven quality management system. (Cianfrani, Tsiakals & West are my two heroes of this system, because it wasn’t until I read their book that I realized what ISO 9001:2000, specifically, was all about.)
  • Thus you could very easily have ISO 9000 compliant processes and operations in an organization whose strategy, structure, and results orientation are guided by the Baldrige Criteria.
  • Six Sigma helps us reduce defects in any of those processes that we may or may not be managing via an ISO 9000 compliant system. (It also provides us with a couple of nifty methodologies, DMAIC and DMADV, that can help us structure improvement projects that might focus on improving another parameter that describes system performance OR design processes that tend not to yield defectives.)
  • The Six Sigma “movement” also provides a management philosophy that centers around the tools and technologies of Six Sigma, but really emphasizes the need for data-driven decision making that stimulates robust conclusions and recommendations.
  • Lean helps us continuously improve processes to obtain greater margins of value. It won’t help you reduce defects like Six Sigma will (unless your waste WAS those defects, or you’re consciously mashing the two up and applying Lean Six Sigma). It won’t help you explore alternative designs or policies like Design of Experiments, part of the Six Sigma DMAIC “Improve” phase, might do. It won’t help you identify which processes are active in your organization, or the interactions and interdependencies between those processes, like an ISO 9000 system will (certified or not).
  • ISO 9000 only guarantees that you know your processes, and you’re reliably doing what you say you’re supposed to be doing. It doesn’t help you do the right thing – you could be doing lots of wrong things VERY reliably and consistently, while keeping perfect records, and still be honorably ISO certified. The Baldrige process is much better for designing the right processes to support your overall strategy.
  • Baldrige, ISO 9000, and lean will not help you do structured problem-solving of the kind that’s needed for continuous improvement to occur. PDSA, and possibly Six Sigma methodologies, will help you accomplish this.

Are you starting to see how they all fit together?

So yeah, let’s GET LEAN and stop wasting our energy on the debate about whether one approach is better than another, or whether one should be put out to pasture. We don’t dry our clothes in the microwave, and we don’t typically take baths in our kitchen sink, but it is very easy to apply one quality philosophy, methodology or set of practices and expect a result that is much better generated by another.

Bob Kennedy comes to the same conclusion at the end of his column, one which I fully support:

All quality approaches have a place in our society. Their place is in the supportive environment of an ISO 9000-based QMS, regardless of whether it’s accredited. Otherwise, these approaches will operate in a vacuum and fail to deliver the improvements they promise.

Pain Based Change Management

Andrew Grove’s political commentary today in the Washington Post (“Mr. President, Time to Rein in the Chaos”) was interesting to me not because of the opinions presented, but because of his unorthodox suggestion: successful change management can emerge when leaders deliberately allow pain, then rescue the masses once the pain has become too unbearable:

I have found that to succeed, an organization must travel through two phases: first, a period of chaotic experimentation in which intense discussion is allowed, even encouraged, by those in charge. In time, when the chaos becomes unbearable, the leadership reins in chaos with a firm hand. The first phase serves to expose the needs and options, the potential and pitfalls. The organization and its leaders learn a lot going through this phase. But frustration also builds, and eventually the cry is heard: Make a decision — any decision — but make it now. The time comes for the leadership to end the chaos and commit to a path.

We have gone through months of chaos experimenting with ways to introduce stability in our financial system. The goals were to allow the financial institutions to do their jobs and to develop confidence in them. I believe by now, the people are eager for the administration to rein in chaos. But this is not happening.

Would you, as a manager, take this kind of approach if you knew it would effect the change you wanted?

The ethical implications of this strategy are remarkable to me. First, put yourself in the frame of mind where you’re thinking about organizational change management – adopting a new software package, or reorganizing the hierarchy. Change like this is tough, and often results in mental and emotional pain as people adjust to the new state of the workplace – not physical pain, but definitely pain in the sense of its official definition. But is it appropriate to allow this pain in order to achieve benefits – both for those who have “suffered” and the organization as a whole?

I have no answers to offer – but think that this dilemma might be illuminated further by understanding the ethical standards for pain management and research that have already been explored by the medical community.

The Genius of Asking Dumb Questions

Two days ago I commented on how technical jargon can either enhance or impede communications. I ran across this quote today from the 1987 book Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters along the same thread, and thought I’d share:

frac11Mostly, it’s the dumb, elementary questions followed up by a dozen even more elementary questions that yield the pay dirt. Experts are those who don’t need to bother with elementary questions anymore – thus they fail to bother with the true sources of bottlenecks buried deep in habitual routines of the firm labeled “We’ve always done it that way.”

We can only uncover changes in our expectations, and changes in our underlying assumptions, by asking simple questions over and over. The “5 Why’s” – that I mention in Real or Not Real – are another way to figure out what rudimentary questions to revisit to unlock insight. Remember that unlocking insight is a critical step for you or your organization to increase innovation.


2010 Update: Speaking of simple questions, a very basic question was the premise for my book Disconnected: Technology Addiction & the Search for Authenticity in Virtual Life – “if I disconnect from my virtual life, will I reconnect with my REAL one?”

Overcoming Jargon

I was talking to a group of professors from James Madison University yesterday, when the topic shifted to “discrete event simulation”. They asked me if I knew anything about it – I said no. I don’t think I had ever heard of those words strung together in the same phrase, and so immediately assumed that this domain was just something I had never been exposed to. They also told me that they were using ProModel to do a lot of their discrete event simulation.

I’m addicted to learning new things, so I checked out to see what ProModel was all about so I would know what “discrete event simulation” was. And guess what! That’s the term for exploring different plant layouts to support manufacturing and assembly processes, for simulating new manufacturing processes, for designing kanban systems, for designing supply chains and other networks, for setting up queueing systems, for doing SPC and for managing your Six Sigma analytics. So I guess I do know something about “discrete event simulation”! I’m also wondering why I’ve never seen this DES product advertised in Quality Progress – it looks like it’s pretty good, and pretty comprehensive.

This reminded me that jargon can impede or enhance communication, depending upon the capabilities and understanding of the communicators. Neil Ward-Dutton, in a December 2006 post, collected some articles on this theme and reflected on them in “On jargon, and creating a common language.” He contrasts a message about the benefits of Web 2.0 presented in two ways: one filled with technical jargon, explaining the way it came to be, and one explaining the same thing but from the perspective of how Web 2.0 influences and affects people.

The use of jargon – or the avoidance of jargon – can communicate competence in a field or alienate people who need to know more.

Awareness of whether a term or a phrase is jargon can help us understand whether we are communicating accurately.

If I was aware of the nature of the term “discrete event simulation” I would have said “Sure! I really like discrete event simulation. In fact, I really enjoy designing plant layouts (which can be useful for designing software systems too), I am insanely enthusiastic about inventory models, and these are the kinds of analytical things that we do in Six Sigma projects all the time.” But no, I missed an opportunity to communicate – and maybe even to learn new things about modeling – because of jargon.

It reminds me of when I was a meteorology student several years ago. In one of our dynamics classes, I was dumbfounded by the number of times the professor referred to “zonal” and “meridional”. I had no idea what these two words meant – I could guess, but I might be wrong – so I searched all through our textbooks to find anything that would tell me about these two words. They were NOWHERE. And the dictionary was no help either. So one day I asked the professor, in class, what “zonal” and “meridional” meant. Her response is etched in my psyche forever: “If you don’t know what those words mean, then you shouldn’t be in this class.” Now this was in the days before Google, so I couldn’t just go look it up. What do you think I did? I felt totally embarrassed, crushed because I didn’t know something that was apparently so easy, decided to hide my lack of knowledge, and struggled through the class. I was even too embarrassed to ask my classmates. Years later, when I figured out the answer to my simple question, everything fell in place and I understood what went on!

The far more constructive answer from my professor would have been: “Zonal refers to the east-west direction and meridional refers to the north-south direction. So if we have zonal flow, it’s oriented predominantly east to west, and if we have meridional flow, it’s oriented primarily north to south.” My response would have been “Excellent! That’s simple! Now I understand what the equations are trying to say!”

The lesson here: no questions are stupid. Sometimes, a stupid question just reflects that someone’s trying to break through the barrier of jargon. This is a positive thing – it means they’re trying to figure stuff out! After this experience with my dynamics professor, I vowed that I would never think someone was totally stupid if they were asking (what I thought was) a simple question. I hope my coworkers and staff members feel that I’ve followed through on this.

(It reminds me of another time in that same course. We did a lot of multivariate calculus and differential equations, and the professor kept referring to “zed,” but for the life of me I couldn’t find the “zed symbol” in any of the equations. And none of my books would tell me what the “zed symbol” looked like. I’ll leave this joke as an exercise for the reader.)

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