Essay by: Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director

In this article, we continue our journey of understanding the business as a system and the ways in which we go about applying such thinking. In the last article, we discussed the knowledge that comes through the International Standards Organization (ISO), and why it is voluntary consensus standards establish the frameworks, or principles, through which systems thinking can be applied to the business or any organization. Because they emerge from a broad canvas of volunteer contributors – folks motivated, not by material gain, but by a sheer desire to advance the art and science of a thing – voluntary consensus standards represent knowledge and understanding in its near purist form.

The ISO publishes a vast array of standards, and for most of us, they can seem overwhelming. The truth is that the standards are well organized, and with a little work, and some guidance, the knowledge they contain can be easily tapped and applied. In this case, we’re interested in management systems and the ways in which the business can be organized for continual improvement; this leads us to the ISO9000 family of management standards, and in particular, the ISO9001 quality management systems requirements.

Before we dig further into the ISO9001 standard, and its application to the business, we need to operationally define a seemingly abstract, but very important term: quality. What do we mean by quality?

Some perceive quality as meaning that which is superior to something else. Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “degree of excellence”, hints at this notion. The idea here has to do with things and their attributes, or characteristics. In other words, when like things are compared to each other, some are seemingly better. While this is certainly a valid perspective, it does not get at what is truly meant by quality. For example, let’s compare two things that serve the same purpose: automotive transportation. On the one hand, we have a new Cadillac XT6 400 and on the other, a slightly rusted 2003 Trailblazer. The Cadillac is certainly a luxurious, high-performance SUV, whereas the 2003 Trailblazer, although well maintained, does not represent the state of automotive art and science.

Does this mean the Cadillac is of superior or better quality? According to the “degree of excellence” definition it does; however, this does not take into account the customer’s expectations. If the customer – the person purchasing the vehicle – has expectations that require things such as 310 hp, near sportscar like handling, and a steering wheel warmer, then the Cadillac, not the Trailblazer, would be considered for purchase. If, on the other hand, the customer only requires a vehicle that starts in cold weather, but may show signs of rust, then the 2003 Trailblazer would fit the bill. Quality, in this sense, is not necessarily defined by what is superior, because, by most measures, the Cadillac is superior. In this case, quality is defined by the customer’s expectations.

The foregoing explanation is somewhat limited in that it emphasizes the customer’s expectations, and does not take into account other factors, such as what is required to meet those expectations and the extent to which the customer understands this. This is of particular importance when it comes to the implications of sustainable, triple bottom line business leadership. Simply relying on customer expectations as the means to defining quality falls far short of what is necessary for sustainable business (i.e., taking into account the health of the community, environmental impacts, and the just distribution of profits).

In his book, ISO9000 Quality Systems Handbook(i), author David Hoyle gets at a definition of quality that takes into account what ought to be important to the sustainable business leader:

“…when we talk of anything using the word quality it simply implies that we are referring to the extent or degree to which a need or expectation is met. It also means that all the principles, methodologies, tools, and techniques in the field of quality management serve one purpose, that of enabling organizations to close the gap between the standard required and the standard reached… In this context, performance, environmental, safety, security, and health problems are in fact quality problems because an expectation or a requirement has not been met. If the expectation had been met, there would be no problem.”

Hoyle, while not being explicit, indicates expectations must take into account more than what the customer desires, because not meeting requirements such as those demanded of a healthy environment, the security of the worker, and so forth constitute quality problems. In this sense, standards (i.e., what constitutes the expectation) are things that come, not necessarily from the customer, but from various sources (e.g., the public at large, workers, etc.).  How the sustainable business leader comes to understand these standards, what they require, and where this knowledge is found are the topics of later articles.

  • Hoyle, D. (2013). Defining and Characterizing Quality. In 1095899678 830310420 D. Hoyle (Author), ISO9000 Quality Systems Handbook (p. 28). New York, New York: Routledge.

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