Defining Quality And Excellence: The Holy Grail
Notions like excellence or quality are widely discussed, yet remain somewhat elusive when it comes to agreeing an accepted definition. Many authors have struggled to capture the essence of quality to the extent that Robert Pirsig in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” concluded that quality cannot be defined. If we do define it, Pirsig argued, we are describing something less than quality itself.
Quality has indeed eluded precise definition because it tends to depend on the context, especially in business (product vs service quality), and can often be subjective. The work of Crosby, Deming and Juran did provide a solid foundation for defining relevant criteria, although attempting to untangle all that may take several future posts.
If quality proved elusive, so did the notion of excellence, especially in the context of corporate excellence: that is, trying to explain what makes some companies successful over time, for periods that defy easy explanations or are not attributable to randomness and luck. As with quality, the dependence on context proved equally challenging.
The subject gained sudden popularity in the 1980s when Tom Peters in “In Search of Excellence” identified a number of companies which were held up as enduring examples of high performing companies – yet several of them were not in business a decade or more later (Atari, Wang). Worthwhile effort, but did not prove to be very predictive as it turned out.
A more recent attempt at operationalisation involved Accenture (and reported in the Harvard Business Review in the August 2005 issue). They acknowledged that whilst there is no one consistent applicable formula to determine best practice, they point to evidence that suggests that high performance results from balancing, aligning and renewing three key business building blocks:
Market focus and position – resulting in better decisions
Distinctive capabilities – resulting in better practices
High performance anatomy – resulting in a better corporate mindset
More recent yet, is an attempt at distilling the principles of excellence by Michael Cusumano, an MIT professor. In his book Staying Power, he identifies six critical principles that have driven the success of today’s leading companies, including Google, Intel, Apple, JVC, Toyota, and Microsoft. He argues that companies today:
must develop distinctive organizational capabilities, not just business strategies;
focus on platforms and services, not just products;
pull information from the market, responding to real-time changes in demand and competitive conditions, and not just push products out;
achieve economies of scope, not just scale, by creating efficiencies across all a firm’s activities; and
acquire flexibility, in addition to efficiency, to quickly adapt to a volatile marketplace.
Very useful principles on a topic which is of interest to all. Meanwhile we can follow the simple axiom on quality coined by Professor Kotler:
“Quality is when our customers come back and our products don’t.”