Keeping an Eye on Quality

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If the key to quality is meeting expectations, you owe your employees a clear explanation of exactly what you expect.

The late quality expert Philip Crosby offered a definition that changed everything for me. “Quality,” he said, “is meeting expectations.”

That hit me like a hydrogen bomb. If quality is simply a matter of meeting expectations, then there is no objective standard of quality for anything. That is not to say that there is no such thing as quality. It simply means that most of us think about quality in the wrong way.

Knowing that quality is a matter of meeting expectations is freeing in many ways. In another way, it binds us more closely than ever to the responsibility to communicate with others in our organizations—and with our customers and clients.

What makes a quality shoe store? Well-made shoes? Good customer service? Low prices? It all depends on the customer’s expectations —expectations that are set in large part by the owner of the store.

Picture this: Bob opens a shoe store in the poor part of town. He calls his store “Bob’s Pretty Good Shoes at an Affordable Price for the Working Class family.” A single mom from the neighborhood drags her three boys through the door of Bob’s Pretty Good Shoes and is greeted by a butler holding a silver tray. He offers her a flute of champagne to enjoy as she browses the hand-tooled Italian shoes (starting at $300) that line the tastefully accoutered walls. Is Bob’s Pretty Good Shoes a quality shoe store? No, because it sets up one set of expectations and delivers on another set of expectations. Bob may be proud of his Italian shoes and his fancy butler, but as long as he’s telegraphing that his store is the place for affordable shoes, he can’t call it a quality store. Another way to say it is that his brand (his promise) is a deception.

Much more damage in the world results from people leaving their expectations unspoken. In many cases, they don’t state their expectations because they assume their expectations are self-evident and don’t require stating. This happens all the time in marriages. Two people get married carrying all these unspoken expectations. Each thinks there’s an objective standard for what anyone should expect from a spouse. Neither states his or her expectations because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Make me happy. Fulfill me. Give me lots of sex. Cook for me. Make me secure. Don’t change. Change completely. When such expectations aren’t met (and how could they be?) it leads to quiet seething, punctuated by the occasional outburst of anger.

If the key to quality is meeting expectations, you owe your employees a clear explanation of exactly what you expect. There is nothing unfair about telling your secretary that you expect all of your letters to be flawless. Griping behind her back about her making you look stupid with those typos and misspellings in your letters—that would be unfair. Your secretary may think she’s a quality secretary because she answers the phone well. She has no idea that you couldn’t care less about how she answers the phone. You’ve had it with her, and she thinks she’s the best secretary ever. That falls on you, not your secretary. It’s your job to state what you expect, not your employees’ job to guess.

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