A definition of quality for total customer satisfaction: the bridge between manufacturer and customer.
A definition of quality that emphasizes a process perspective is proposed. In order to meet the challenges of an increasingly customer-driven marketplace, manufacturers must shift their focus from an engineering approach to quality to one that stresses customer satisfaction. A practical definition is outlined using a flow chart that describes the stages that products undergo and the corresponding quality concerns managers have to target in each. These stages include design, production, sale, delivery and after-sales service. In the first stage, performance, durability, aesthetics and features determine quality standards. Conformance to these standards are essential in quality production. Subsequently, marketing and transaction facilities; time, quantity and area factors in delivery; and supporting services are important quality considerations. The proposed definition is notable in that it evolves with the product, ensuring a continuous process of quality improvement.

Consumer confidence (Methods)
Total quality management (Analysis)
Manufacturing industry (Public relations)
Sparks, Richard E.
Legault, Richard D.
Pub Date:
Name: SAM Advanced Management Journal Publisher: Society for the Advancement of Management Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, general Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Management ISSN: 0036-0805
Date: Wntr, 1993 Source Volume: v58 Source Issue: n1
SIC Code: 3999 Manufacturing industries, not elsewhere classified
Accession Number:
Full Text:
As the worldwide quality revolution enters its fifth decade, demand by customers for products of progressively higher quality continues to accelerate (Desatnick, 1989, p. 24-26). The response by a growing number of business firms worldwide in implementing quality improvement has reinforced such expectations. However, while increasing numbers of companies know that quality is important, Tom Peters reports that CEOs seldom do anything about it (Peters, 1987). In a discussion on customer satisfaction by a group of CEOs reported in Chief Executive (Sept.-Oct., 1989, p. 78), one of the problems mentioned by the CEO of Square D Corporation was the need to change from a product or engineering focus to a focus on customer-driven quality.

This paper provides a definition of quality for total customer satisfaction that serves as a bridge between manufacturer and customer. Through the use of a simple process flow chart that identifies the critical elements of quality for manufactured products and the characteristics that closely define those elements, the definition of quality developed by Garvin (1987) is both enhanced and made practical. Our expanded definition provides a format for seeking information from customers about those elements and characteristics that are specific to the producer and for organizing them after they are received. It addresses the second of Deming's fourteen points (1986, p. 58), which calls for the adoption of the new philosophy of continuous improvement, and provides a means to overcome his complaint that "businesses seldom learn of their customer's dissatisfaction." It does not address the means by which such information is gathered, nor does it offer a theoretical basis for applying such inputs in the workplace. This is left for later research. As a matter of interest a brief description is included toward the end of the definition's origin.

The definition, which recognizes that characteristics differ in importance among producers, is consistent with the continuous improvement philosophy in that it evolves and reinforces the need for manufacturers to look beyond the production process for new strategic opportunities. The definition is limited to products, because of the apparent difference in definition required for services (see Parasuraman, et al, 1985, or Zeithaml, et al, 1990, for one approach to service quality).

It is now commonly accepted that quality should apply company-wide. However, neither researchers nor practitioners in quality have yet supplied a definition that is easily operationalized. For example, Deming (1986, p. 168-170) suggests that quality is defined by the customer and has many measurement scales, one for each of the characteristics the customer considers important. On the other hand, Juran (1989, p. 15-19) defines quality as "fitness for use," with each product having multiple quality characteristics of two kinds: customer-desired product features and freedom from deficiencies. While both Deming's and Juran's definitions are customer-oriented, they are not easily used in gaining customer input to the quality improvement process. Crosby (1979, p. 14) comes closer to an operational definition when he defines quality as "conformance to requirements," because a set of specifications can often be created that define the product from the viewpoint of the customer, serving as a de facto means of feedback. If the product meets those specifications, it conforms to requirements; hence, for Crosby, the ideal is "zero defects" or meeting the specifications 100% of the time.

Present practices such as materials control, batch inspections, stress tests, and the like reach their culmination in "traditional quality control's most extreme form, a program called 'Zero Defects'" (Garvin, 1987, p. 103). To Garvin who wants a more "aggressive strategy to gain and hold markets with high quality as a competitive linchpin" (1987, p. 101), "Quality means pleasing customers, not just protecting them from annoyances" (1987, p. 104). He wants to replace what he considers defensive quality practiced by U.S. companies with a strategic approach based on eight customer-related dimensions of quality. A company's strategic choice is the combination of the dimensions it will emphasize in defining quality for its products, which include, according to Garvin:

1) performance, a product's primary operating characteristics;

2) features, the "bells and whistles" that supplement basic functioning;

3) reliability, the probability of a product malfunctioning within a specified time period (reliability may perhaps better be defined as the probability of a product not malfunctioning);

4) conformity, the degree to which a product's design and operating characteristics meet established standards;

5) durability, a measure of product life which also has an economic component;

6) serviceability, the speed, courtesy, competence, and ease of repair of the product;

7) aesthetics, how a product looks, feels, tastes, sounds or smells; and

8) perceived quality, the image or reputation of a product.

A Practical Definition

Garvin treats his quality characteristics or dimensions as "a clear vocabulary with which to discuss quality as a strategy". We propose to build on this with a process flow chart that classifies these dimensions and follows the product from conception to customer. In doing so, we include his dimensions and add several to make the definition more complete. The process flow chart is the basis for both a classification system for these quality dimensions and for a customer-focused definition of quality that the manufacturer can operationalize.

The chart, shown in Figure 1, identifies and organizes for the manufacturer the dimensions of quality most important to the customer's satisfaction and to his own success. It includes elements of the quality process seen by the customer in his or her experience with the product, as well as those that the customer never sees but that define quality from the manufacturer's viewpoint. Note that not every dimension applies to the same degree to every product. For example, durability has less importance for nondurable products. However, rather than assume which dimensions apply to which products, the manufacturer should seek such information from customers.

The flow chart makes clear that the product is designed to fulfill some customer need, is produced using some set of tools, techniques, machinery, etc., is sold in a manner reflecting (and reflecting on) the quality of the product, is delivered to the customer, and may require service after the sale. Safety becomes a necessary part of each element of the process relating to sale, delivery, and service, as well as the more traditional functions of design and production. Customer perceptions of quality are important at every stage of the flow chart, but often relate to reputation when the physical quality of the materials from which the final product is made is not well understood. Finally, while the flow chart shows the stages in a conventional order, it loses none of its relevance if that order is changed, such as if the sale of a product occurs prior to its production.

Using the concept of the internal customer, the continuous improvement philosophy assumes that each stage in the flow chart provides feedback to all the preceding stages. That feedback becomes a catalyst for change and establishes a framework for communicating with the customer on the characteristics of quality thus far identified.

Quality in production historically has been the most important focus of the manufacturer, with increasing attention being paid to design. Adding the stages of sale, delivery, and postsale service, and recognizing perceived quality and safety as important to all stages force the manufacturer to think beyond those traditional concerns to what happens to the product during and after its sale. If the manufacturer wants to ensure total customer satisfaction, doing everything right until the product leaves the factory is not enough. Failure to perform to expectations on any one element will reflect on the manufacturer, even when the company does not control all of the stages of the flow chart.

With Garvin, we see the choice of where to place the emphasis among quality dimensions as strategic. However, the philosophy of continuous improvement teaches us that improvement of process quality for any dimension at any stage of the flow chart increases both product quality and customer assessment of that quality. What remains is for top management to choose the dimensions of quality to emphasize for their company.


"After relegating design to the back seat in the 1970s, U.S. manufacturers are once again discovering that it is the key to industrial competitiveness. Design, they are relearning, is more than skin deep. It is at the very heart of a product!" (Nussbaum and Port, 1988, p. 102).

Our definitions for performance, reliability, durability, features, and aesthetics in the design stage are in general agreement with Garvin's. However, when taken together these dimensions are seen not as independent quality characteristics but as interrelated dimensions of quality.


"You don't market quality into a product. The true quality of a product is judged by its user, not announced by its manufacturer. All the commercials in the world won't do any good if the product isn't built right" (Krumm, 1988, p. 14).

Production makes use of the outputs of the design stage and includes all steps from raw materials choice up to leaving the factory. We define the dimension of conformity in the production stage similarly to Garvin. However, while he reminds us that conforming to specifications measures the extent to which a product meets a standard as determined by the customer, he does not mention that specifications must be derived from the knowledge of how the product is to be used if they are to be made a part of the product. This definition is intended to facilitate such inquiry. "For example, a specification for sheet metal of a certain composition and thickness is not sufficient for the inside door panel of an automobile. The inside panel must undergo a considerable amount of stretching and warping. If the supplier knows that the steel will be used for the inside panel, he may be able to supply steel that will do the job. Steel that merely meets the specifications can cause a lot of trouble" (Deming, 1986, p. 139-140).


It makes little difference if the customer is pleased with the other four stages if he or she is not satisfied with the sale process. The sale is often the point of initial customer contact with the product and the stage in the flow chart where the "distance" between customer and manufacturer is smallest. As we enter an era when products of superior design and production quality are taken for granted, the sale process becomes increasingly important to the success of manufacturing firms. We suggest three dimensions that effect the customer's perception of the sale: the sales facility, the communication process, and the transaction system.

The sales facility, what Parasuraman et al (1985, p. 47) call "tangibles" and Lehtinen (1986, p. 56) refers to as "physical quality," are the physical surroundings (the environment) in which the sale occurs. This includes location, access, parking, layout, decorating scheme, cleanliness, and lighting. To the extent the manufacturer is perceived to control the sales facility, it will reflect on the product and the company. For example, a man's suit from Hart, Schaffner, & Marx may be perceived as of lesser quality if the ambiance of the retail store is not luxurious enough.

The dimension of communication process describes the manner in which the customer is dealt with by the people who operate the system. It includes the availability and appearance of sales personnel, their courtesy and knowledge of the product, communication skills, attitude toward the customer, willingness to recognize the customer's specific needs, and the ability to solve problems if they arise. These characteristics may be of even greater consequence if the product is sold prior to its manufacture, as is often the case with a new automobile, since the sale may depend on the customer's reaction to the sales person.

The transaction system encompasses the clerical and administrative routines established by management, and describes the procedures of the sale, particularly those involving the customer. It may include paperwork, exchange of money, recording of the sale in a cash register or point-of-sale system, verification of credit, and arrangement for delivery. It is critical to the success of the sale, since it is a part of the process the customer often finds burdensome and intimidating.


"What we all want is a vendor that will produce all of the parts defect-free and deliver them just in time" (Stoner, 1984, p. 38).

After the product is sold, it must be delivered to the customer. The delivery dimensions of quantity, on-time, and place are becoming increasingly important to customers. Delivery innovations such as just-in-time inventory systems are evidence that the manufacturer as customer wants the exact number of parts, delivered at the right time, and to the precise location on the assembly line. It is assumed that they conformed to specifications when they left the factory but must also be in good condition when they arrive. Similarly, when building a new home, a contractor wants the exact number of windows delivered to the building site when it is time to enclose the structure. Too many or too few windows delivered early or late or to the wrong site will not serve the contractor's schedule. Requiring their suppliers to respond to the delivery element of the definition allows the manufacturer or contractor to be more responsive to delivery requirements from their customers. While it is sometimes possible to convince the customer that a product of high quality in design and production is worth waiting for, such an approach illustrates the failure of the manufacturer to control the delivery quality, resulting in the loss of goodwill and sometimes even the sale.


"A company with the best distribution system and the best service will win all the marbles, because you can't keep an advantage in other areas for long" (Iacocca, 1988, p. 7).

The quality of service to the customer after the sale is often as important as the quality of the good itself (Takeuchi and Quelch, 1983, p. 142). One group "gave poor after-sales support as their primary reason for switching away from a brand when the time came to replace equipment" (Lele and Sheth, 1987, p. 179). Also, as Desatnick (1989, p. 24) suggests, "To attempt to compete solely on the basis of product or price is insufficient. You must compete on service." To put it another way, if a company is going to have repeat business and be recommended by one customer to others, it is after the sale that the real sale is made.

There are two types of services after the sale for manufactured products: anticipated services and unanticipated services. Anticipated services are those that the customer plans for, such as installation, training, written instructions, maintenance, and upgrading. As products become more complex, manufacturers are under increasing pressure to provide the services necessary to their functioning. As with the sale stage, the customer will not absolve the manufacturer of responsibility for what happens to the product after its design and production, and so the manufacturer must extend control of the process beyond the point of sale by making certain that needed services are provided. When the customer bought a record player years ago, she or he took it home, plugged it in, and played a record on it. With today's highly complex stereo systems the seller often must deliver the system to the customer's home, set it up, and spend time explaining the proper use of its many features to the customer. If that kind of service does not occur, customers are apt to be as critical of the product, and indirectly the manufacturer, as of the recalcitrant retailer.

Unanticipated services are those services that the customer does not plan for (which is the same as Garvin's dimension of serviceability), such as repairs, returns, replacements, and questions that need to be answered. Even the most reliable computer system will malfunction occasionally and need quick and competent service. This may range from getting a question answered about an unexpected problem to the repair of a breakdown. The expensive nature of such equipment or of computer downtime makes that imperative. It is in the manufacturer's best interests to make certain that unanticipated service needs are met satisfactorily by either the company or the seller, or the manufacturer may be held accountable.

Safety and Security

Safety is becoming increasingly important in these litigious times. As an example, if safety is not made an integral part of product design, what will result may be a well made but potentially unsafe product, even if it conforms to exacting specifications. Witness the thousands of lawnmowers that took a terrible toll on their human operators before the addition of a control bar that shuts off the mower when released.

Problems of customer safety resulting from the production process may occur when products do not meet specifications. This is demonstrated by the recent court case over bogus bolts which occurred primarily because the bolts did not conform to specifications and were not discovered during inspection.

Safety during the sale requires, for example, attention to the secure location and hazard-free condition of the sales facility. Sale delivery means, among other things, that the bottom does not fall out of the box, allowing the TV set to fall to the ground, and also that you trust the delivery person in your home. Finally, after the sale the customer wants safe repair, such as automobile brakes that continue to function after the pads are replaced. Like perceived quality, safety as a dimension is unique in its relevance to all five stages of the definition.

Perceived Quality

Our definition of perceived quality is the same as Garvin's with this addition: the customer's perceptions of quality for the final product depend upon, among other things, the quality of the manufacturer's choice of inputs in all five stages of the quality definition. For instance, for a new car the perceived quality of the car dealer reflects on the manufacturer. Such perceptions often lag behind actual input quality and are confirmed or denied by the customer's experience with the product.

The Definition in Evolution

The definition of quality here is not static but evolves over the life of the product. First, each dimension of the definition changes as a result of continuous improvement efforts by the manufacturer which are carried out in response to the demands of customers and the actions of competitors. Also, the pace of evolution is increasing as demand from customers for improvements gives the entire process, from design through post-sale service, the appearance of being in motion. Finally, the emphasis among dimensions is changing, with stages or dimensions, once ignored, becoming prominent, because a competitor takes a new strategic approach.

Developing the Definition

In our consulting, we applied an earlier version of the definition to a manufacturer of nonferrous metal fasteners. In implementing the process of continuous improvement in quality over a period of three years, a TQC process was employed relying on the teachings of Deming, Ishikawa, Shingo, Nakajima and others with a view to making the company the highest-quality, lowest-cost producer in the industry. Training in continuous improvement philosophies and methods, including the definition of quality, helped the transformation process to occur. This earlier version contained only 11 of the 16 dimensions and four of the five stages, leaving out the three dimensions of the sale stage, perceived quality, and not differentiating between anticipated and unanticipated service.

Historically, this product was sold primarily through distributors as a commodity. The controversy over bogus bolts led this company to make their bolts with the company logo and with a batch number for traceability. Today they sell much of their output directly to manufacturers at a premium. The customer base was expanded to include many smaller firms who ordered in smaller lots. This meant that the temporary loss of one large customer, the U.S. government, to the distractions of the Persian Gulf War did not cause severe dislocation. Neither did the presence of a recession that affected greatly the New England area where the manufacturer is located. Although in every earlier recession a layoff was a standard response, this time the broader customer base and the emphasis on reduction of setup time allowed the company to make smaller orders profitably.

For this company, the most important pieces of the earlier version of the definition of quality included on-time delivery through reduction of set-up time, conformity in production which required a new emphasis on raw materials specifications, and traceability as part of after-the-sale service. In addition, a surprising emphasis on aesthetics by the work force was discovered. The machine operators wanted to produce a fastener that looked good, one they could be proud of, reinforcing Deming's emphasis on "pride of workmanship."

Principals in the firm offered the opinion that the definition would apply differently to producers depending on the product and the process. No attempt has been made to date to quantify precisely the financial implications for any aspect of the firm's activities of the application of the definition.

Summary and Conclusions

It has been clear, at least since Feigenbaum wrote his 1951 version of Total Quality Control, that quality is critical to every phase of every operation in an organization. Prior to this, Deming had demonstrated how input quality was reflected in the quality of the final product. In the coming years, American manufacturing firms increasingly will turn to quality as a strategy out of competitive necessity. This article describes a definition of quality that follows the natural progression of the product from manufacturer to customer. The definition provides a context for evaluating and reacting to the responses of customers and requires managers to expand their thinking about quality. It identifies for both manufacturer and customer the critical stages and dimensions of quality and reminds us, once again, that the manufacturer must perform well continuously in every one of those stages to assure a favorable assessment of quality by the customer. It points to strategic opportunities after the product leaves the organization and proceeds to the intermediate stages of dealers and distributors, where customer satisfaction can be further enhanced. Rather than a necessary evil, these intermediate stages become ways to differentiate the organization from its competitors.

At the same time, our definition encourages customer contact and makes clear how both customer and manufacturer can benefit from it. The definition must be recognized as evolving, as something constantly in motion and being driven by the demands of customers. Where manufacturers recognize the need to change to remain ahead of their customers on the five elements of the definition, they will be more successful than their competitors. As the manufacturer's role in the commercial process expands to include all five elements of the quality definition, the distance to the customer is decreased, shortening the total process time and making it necessary to determine precise customer needs and to react to them quickly.

Our list of the elements of the definition of quality and their dimensions is not meant to be exhaustive. As manufacturers seek new avenues of competitive advantage, they will identify additional elements and dimensions of quality, and increasingly sophisticated customers will either validate or reject them.

This process will be abetted by research into how the definition for products offered here might be extended to services, with an examination of their differences and similarities. A clearer picture is needed also of how to make operational the definition for services, how the elements and dimensions interact, and whether any dimension confers a competitive advantage on the manufacturer prior to the recognition of its importance by the customer. Finally, new concepts such as time as a strategy and the strategic nature of the definition itself must be better understood.


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17. Takeuchi, Hirotaka and John A. Quelch. "Quality is More Than Making a Good Product." Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1983, 139-145.

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19. ----- "Can't Get No (Customer) Satisfaction." Chief of Executive. Sept.-Oct., 1989, 72-82.

Dr. Sparks has taught and researched the concept of continuous quality improvement in academic life and in his own consulting firm; Dr. Legault teaches operations management, management science, quality and productivity improvement, consults for private industry, and previously held management positions with several manufacturing firms.
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