Definition of Quality – In the Eyes of the Beholder?

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DMWAustin company car
Photo: My iPhone

For almost 15 years, I've been driving the same old Jeep (1996 Jeep Cherokee SE). I'm not a big driver, so it still has less than 80,000 miles. It's paid off, has AC (important in TX when it's 104F), and is reliable, just not pretty. For me, it's a great vehicle, but to many it's not what they consider high quality. After a few recent conversations, I was reminded of an introduction I wrote for a chapter in a quality improvement text about a classic quality discussion.

Expert from: Williams, D. (2004). Quality: art & science. In Swor, R.A. & Pirrallo, R.G. (2005), Improving Quality in EMS (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

One of the greatest discussions of quality in modern literature can be found in one of the most unexpected places.  It’s a book that reached almost cult status in the mid to late 70s that chronicled the cross-country journey of a father and son as they reinterpreted who they were together and as the father searched for truth and enlightenment.  The book is Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; a great read for anyone interested in the philosophical and practical pursuit of the ever elusive quality.

In Zen, among many discussions of quality, there is a great description of an exchange between the narrator and his friend John as they discuss repairing a motorcycle’s handle bars that have come loose.  The narrator identifies the problem and tells his friend that the collar needs to be shimmed out.  Wanting to fix his bike, the John asks where they can buy a shim and is quickly disappointed when the narrator holds up a beer can, proposing to use it as a makeshift shim.   What follows is a brief description of what quality is to each of them.  John sees quality as fixing something so it’s as good as new, but the narrator looks at quality as meeting a desired outcome and the path to getting there as less important.

This book was an introduction for many to quality concepts and really exercised one’s brain as they evaluated what quality meant to them.  It made one realize that quality was not isolated to a single answer and that much of it was very individualized.  How something met an objective could vary depending on the situation and experiences of those involved.  It was this exploration that led some to become interested in the experience side of quality and how individual experience and understanding could be brought together to create a collective approach to meeting the quality pursuit.