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Andrey Solin

Quality Insider

Searching for the Definition of Perceived Quality

Can we develop a unified definition of this nebulous term?

Published: Wednesday, June 15, 2022 - 12:03

In late 1999, Scott Paton, then editor-in-chief and publisher of Quality Digest, asked his readers to provide him with their definitions of quality. The feedback was impressive: More than 80 responses were received, ranging “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” in Napoleon's words.

In his editorial column, Paton shared some of the proposed definitions. The editor’s picks consisted of two categories: the “more light-hearted definitions” and “the more serious definitions.” It is within the latter category that an interesting twofold definition of quality by Karl Albrecht of Karl Albrecht International appeared:
1. Objective quality is the degree of compliance of a process or its outcome with a predetermined set of criteria that are presumed essential to the ultimate value it provides. Example: the proper formulation of medicine.
2. Subjective quality is the level of perceived value reported by the person who benefits from a process or its outcome. It may subsume various intermediate quality measures, both objective and subjective. Example: the pain relief provided by medication (Paton, 2000).

Albrecht’s definition actually embraced two types of standards against which quality can be assessed. To understand this, one must accept that quality is a relational attribute, as was explained by Gerald F. Smith.1 Relational attributes “apply to an entity but characterize it only in relationship to something else.” For example, length is an inherent property of an object, whereas proximity is a relational attribute that indicates how close an object is to a reference point.

In a similar fashion, quality is only knowable by comparing quality characteristics to an evaluative standard or criterion. Now, according to Smith, such standards are of two types: 1) the “more or less objective standard,” like the Baldrige Award guidelines or ISO 9000 standards; and 2) an evaluative standard that represents “the interests, needs, preferences, or values of an individual or group.”

Albrecht’s objective quality can be assessed against the “more or less objective standard.” It can be argued that the proper formulation of medicine is about adherence to specification, or, in the words of Philip Crosby, “conformity to requirements.”2

According to Paton, the very discussion of the meaning of quality got Crosby quite crossed (pun intended): “Can you imagine Accounting Digest asking for a definition of accounting?” he wrote.3 Crosby famously decried lofty definitions of quality, such as “goodness” or “excellence,” on the basis of the fact that excellence or goodness couldn’t be measured. Yet Smith astutely observed that “Here, Crosby is making the mistake of equating a concept’s meaning with its operationalization or method of measurement.”

In other words, just because conformity to requirements is easy to measure, we shouldn’t define quality so narrowly. As Smith put it: “When specifications are developed without knowledge of user needs and only achieve bare-boned product functionality, they are an inadequate quality standard.”

Conversely, subjective quality, in Albrecht’s definition, needs the evaluative standard that is based on user needs. Because the outcome of the process of drug administration, e.g., pain relief, is directly perceived by the consumer, and results in the consumer’s perceived value judgement, we are here dealing with perceived quality. “Intermediate quality measures” may include the ease of administration (e.g., swallowing) or rapid absorption.

As far back as 1991, Geoff Hutt, director of corporate quality at AT&T Istel, observed in his contribution to The TQM Magazine: “Quality is like a rainbow—it’s nothing more than a perception. Quality, like a rainbow, looks colourful and tangible from a distance. When you approach it, and try and grasp it, you realise the illusion. Both are merely perceptions, but both are capable of rational explanation—the perception of a rainbow is caused by the refraction of light in water droplets; the perception of quality is caused by the practice of good management.”4

During the past decade, scholars began to speak of the “increasing of subjectively perceived over objectively measured quality,” and even saw it as a current paradigm shift in quality management.5 However, perceived quality remains a vague and elusive concept, one that various scholars define differently. Unfortunately, many researchers don’t bother to provide even an operational definition of perceived quality (PQ) in their papers, as if there were a general agreement in literature on the meaning of the term, which clearly isn’t the case.

So what is this PQ stuff, anyhow? Well, it depends on whom you ask. If you were to ask the scholars of the American school of service marketing—A. Parasuraman, Valarie Zeithaml, and Leonard Berry (collectively known as PZB), who introduced the SERVQUAL instrument complete with the Gaps model, they would likely respond that PQ is the fundamental Gap 5 between the expected service and the perceived service. In other words, it’s the degree to which consumer perceptions of the service exceed or fall short of their expectations of the service. Across the Atlantic, Christian Grönroos and Evert Gummesson of the Nordic School of marketing thought, hold a similar view, as demonstrated by their model of service quality.

Things are quite different in the domain of physical products or goods. Here, PQ is often likened to craftsmanship, or it’s believed to be concerned with the aesthetical aspects of physical products. Craftsmanship is associated with the choice of fine materials, impeccable execution, and attention to detail. Aesthetical aspects involve the five senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste; in other words, the way a physical product looks and feels to a particular person. For example, Marcus Roffey of Craftsmanship & Design Execution at Tesla believes that “Perceived Quality is the impression of excellence that a customer experiences about a product, brand, or business, derived through sight, sound, touch, and scent.”6

Harvard professor David A. Garvin preferred to view PQ through a lens of incomplete product information, possessed by consumers,7 a phenomenon that came to be known as information asymmetry. Garvin believed that without full knowledge of the product’s objective characteristics, consumers would resort to indirect measures, such as brand name, image, or advertising, to make their choice. Under conditions of damaging, opportunistic seller behavior, information asymmetry gives rise to counterfeiting—a pernicious crime that often uses the consumer’s limited product knowledge to pass off a fake as the product of original quality. It’s not uncommon for counterfeiters, especially in the market of luxury goods, to leverage superficial attractiveness and false labels to offer the consumer a surrogate of perceived quality—appealing yet illusive.

All of this signals much confusion surrounding the concept of perceived quality. Could we find a meaningful way to define PQ? Jointly with my co-author Adrienne Curry, a retired senior lecturer at the University of Stirling, Scotland, we have recently made a contribution to The TQM Journal titled “Perceived quality: in search of a definition.” This is our attempt to offer a new definition of perceived quality that will hopefully align the various perspectives of the term taken by different groups of researchers and practitioners. It can be found on the publisher’s website under the EarlyCite tab.

References
1. Smith, Gerald F. “The meaning of quality.” Total Quality Management, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1993, p. 235–244. 
2. Crosby, Philip B. Quality Is Free. McGraw-Hill, 1979.
3. Paton, Scott. “How Do You Define Quality?” Quality Digest, March 2000.
4. Hutt, Geoff. “Understanding the perception.” The TQM Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1999. 
5. Weckenmann, Albert; Akkasoglu, Goekhan; and Werner, Teresa. “Quality management—history and trends.” The TQM Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2015.
6. Roffey, Marcus. “Perceived quality.”
7. Garvin, David A. “What Does ‘Product Quality’ Really Mean?” Sloan Management Review, Fall 1984.

Discuss

About The Author

Andrey Solin’s picture

Andrey Solin

Andrey Solin is a management systems consultant and educator. He holds a master’s degree in TQM and business excellence from the University of Stirling, Scotland. Andrey is a recipient of the British Chevening Scholarship for postgraduate study in the United Kingdom (academic year 2003-2004). He is also a Six Sigma Green Belt. Andrey is based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and shares his house with two rescue dogs and three cats. He is obsessive-compulsive about the clarity of language and terminology that quality professionals use for their concepts and ideas. Andrey can be reached via LinkedIn.

Comments

Reply to a comment by VICTOR E. SOWER

Dear Mr. Sower,

 

Thank you for your reply.

 

I am delighted to see that the paper generated a discussion among its readers. After you had joined in, I read your 2005 joint publication with Mr. Fair.  Your article is obviously very profound, yet practical, with extensive references to Plato and other ancient Greeks. I must admit you went one step further in your research of the definition of quality: you tapped into the transcendent or metaphysical (according to Steenkamp, J.B.E.M., 1989) approach to defining quality.

I saw a pattern in one of your assertions, that is very similar to what Garvin had written two decades prior. On page 12 in your article you explain how various phases of product R&D are carried out, involving customers, marketing and quality professionals, engineers and scientists, and how each phase relates to its respective form of awareness in Plato’s hierarchy. Crème de la crème in this hierarchy are the scientists and engineers in the research department who attained the insight level through their “creativity combined with detailed knowledge of the science involved and the fundamental needs of the customer”. Now Garvin, in a similar fashion, argued the need to shift approaches to quality as products move from design to market. According to him, the user-based approach to quality (fitness for use) was best suited for market research; the translation of quality characteristics into product attributes (read: QFD) could be done using product-based approach to quality, and the manufacturing-based approach (conformity to specifications) could be applied to the manufacturing process (Garvin in SMR, 1984). Notably, nowhere in his description did Garvin apply the transcendent approach to product development and launch! In other words, he did not consider radical improvements, such as a breakthrough type of improvement, or an innovation.

 

With regards,

 

Andrey

The Definition of Quality

For many years I have been interested in the definition of quality--particularly Garvin's "transcendant quality" which is related to your "perceived quality."  I co-authored a paper discussing the definition of quality which was published in Quality Management Journal in 2005 (Sower & Fair, "There is More to Quality than Continuous Improvement:  Listening to Plato." QMJ vol 12, no. 1, pp. 8-20).  Your article contributes to this discussion--the subject of which is far from resolved.

Not available...

Victor,

I no longer have my hard copies, and thought that most of them were now online. I probably read it years ago (it actually sounds familiar), and tried to look it up in the ASQ archives, but the only issue they have online from Vol 12 is issue 3. 

Best regards,

Rip

P.S. Disregard...I found it! 

Your article on transcendent Quality

Victor,

I just read (and re-read) your article. I do remember seeing it when I originally read that issue; at the time, I was neck-deep in developing QFD/DFSS training, and I remember it influencing the research I was conducting pursuant to the courseware development. 

I'm not sure I completely agree with everything in the article or the definition of transcendent quality as "innate excellence." However, the material on Plato and the forms and objects of awareness really resonated with me. When I first became aware of the Deming Philosophy, I read Plato and several others, becoming more interested in epistemology than metaphysics. Deming used to sum his pragmaticism up with "Experience teaches nothing without theory," a sentiment which I think probably aligns well with those four levels of awareness. I believe that you need experience informed by theory to reach insight...

I'm not sure I understood the analogy of DOS/Keyboard and Mouse/GUI as two different levels of awareness, or that Mouse/GUI represents a "higher" level, but that may be due to a misreading on my part. I think the Mouse/GUI level of Quality (in Shewhart's type 3--that which makes a thing wantable) is probably seen by more people as a higher level of quality (in fact, probably a Kano "must-be" these days--although I don't know to what extend touch-screens have replaced mice as a "must-be"). There are not many people outside of coders who prefer the DOS/GUI interface, although people in that world usually access the DOS/Keyboard functionality via a Mouse/GUI setup. 

I do encourage all those interested in this article and discussion to read Victor's article. You can access it via ASQ if you're a member, or plug the title into a Google Scholar search. This link to a hosted .pdf might work, as well: http://www.shsu.edu/~mgt_ves/Plato.pdf

Thanks for adding this important article to the discussion, Victor! 

Best regards,

Rip

Great Article

I hope this article generates some discussion. My personal view is that developing a true operational definition of perceived quality is difficult, if not impossible, because an operational definition makes something testable and provides a path to agreement about the value observed from a measurement. However, operationally defining some aspects of a given thing in terms of wantability might be possible, if we recognize that wantability varies from person to person, time to time and environment to environment (among others). I have found a couple of ideas useful when I think about defining quality.

Walter Shewhart, in a 1934 paper, set out to "make clear what is meant by quality in a practical and objective way that is subject to experimental verification and to consider some aspects of the problemof control." In this paper, he defined three types of quality, and also discussed the need for operational definitions to be able to measure the various quale involved.

The three types of quality:

1. Quality of type 1 - "that which characterizes a thing itself independent of all other things and of human volition and interest." This is a "quality characteristic that can be measured again and again under presumably the same conditions" and the value recorded from each measurment will be consistent to some predetermined level of precision. 

2. Quality of type 2 - "that which characterizes a thing A in its relation to another thing B as a part of a whole and independent of human volition and interest." Shewhart made the assumption, in talking about quality of type 2 that the "whole" also had some other quality characteristics that could be operationally defined and measured, and that in addition to the quality of type 1 inherent in each component of the whole, there are quality characteristics that define each component's contribution to the quality of the whole. The engineer concerned with quality, then, has to control quality of the whole by controlling the type 1 and type 2 quality of the parts.

3. Quality of type 3 - "that which makes a thing wantable by one or more persons." For the purposes of this paper, Shewhart did not delve into what makes a person or persons want a thing. For his argument about quality control, he assumed that some set of desired aspects of a product could be determined by producers, who could then translate those into specifications (measurements of types 1 and 2 quality). 

So I always start with that definition, because I have found it to be a practical and useful starting point. I think Kano has to play a role in any discussion of perceived quality, though, because what he found makes me mindful that today's delighters are tomorrow's must-bes. I was at an ASQ conference shortly after the turn of the millenium, and was with a number of other speakers. Most of us were staying at the hotel, paying the conference rate for rooms. One of the speakers told us that he hadn't been able to get that rate, so he was staying at a different hotel. 

"Guess what they have there?" He was very animated, and went on to answer his own quesiton, "They have internet right in your room! You can check out a kit from the front desk, and hook up to their ethernet at the desk in your room!" Two of the speakers actually left the table, called that hotel and reserved a room there for the remainder of the conference. 

So, at that time, the idea of internet in a hotel room was something new; an innovation that contained enough perceived quality that those two speakers took a financial hit to get it (not to mention re-packing and moving to that other hotel). The rest of us wished we could afford to make that leap as well (at least, those of us who had laptops at the time - they were not universal then). The Kano model would call that a delighter...we all know well that it quickly became a must-be. Some hotels still get away with charging a premium for higher-speed WiFi, but they almost always provide WiFi. It's expected, you probably would demand compensation if it were not there. 

So, I don't know how well this comment fits in with your ideas, but I'd love to learn more. 

 

Reply to a comment by RIP STAUFFER

Dear Mr. Stauffer,

Thank you for your comment.

Some serious food for thought for me here.

Let me reply to your comments.

Re: Noraki Kano. I really loved your story about the two hotels and the internet access. I totally agree: Noriaki Kano’s attractive quality is a concept akin to perceived quality. That is why me and my co-author cited Roest and Verhallen who posited that the technical quality of the product and the production process were dissatisfiers and prerequisites for perceived quality (Roest, H.C.A. and Verhallen, T.M.M., “Quality marks: prospective tools in managing service quality perceptions”, in P. Kunst, & J. Lemmink (Eds.), Managing service quality, 1995).

Re: Shewhart: I must be honest with you, I never got my hands on this 1934 paper by Shewhart; I would be delighted if you could give me the paper’s details, so I could find it! Shewhart’s “triad” of types of quality certainly expands his previously held views of the subject he first shared in his 1931 book on the Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product.

If you permit, I would like to use the analogy of a lake for Shewhart’s “triad”. Let us agree on that quality can be assessed not only in products, but also in such things as natural wonders. Then we can argue that the lake water salinity is quality of type 1, and can be measured again and again. Quality of type 2 may involve attributes such as the lake’s depth, width and length, allowing for comparisons with other reservoirs in terms of the body of water. Now quality of type 3, “that which makes a thing wantable by one or more persons” for our lake example, is best described by Dr. Gerald F. Smith: “The quality of a mountain lake can be assessed in terms of the respective interests of swimmers, fishers and boaters, each of whom will use the lake for their special purposes” (Gerald F. Smith, The meaning of quality, Total Quality Management, 1993).

And here is where your observation on how wantability varies from person to person, time to time and environment to environment is fully reflected:

“We arrive at the turnoff to Crater Lake and go up a neat road into the National Park...clean, tidy and preserved. It really shouldn't be any other way, but this doesn't win any prizes for Quality either. It turns it into a museum. … At the lake we stop and stretch and mingle affably with the small crowd of tourists holding cameras and children yelling, ``Don't go too close!'' and see cars and campers with all different license plates, and see the Crater Lake with a feeling of ``Well, there it is,'' just as the pictures show. I watch the other tourists, all of whom seem to have out-of-place looks too. I have no resentment at all this, just a feeling that it's all unreal and that the quality of the lake is smothered by the fact that it's so pointed to. You point to something as having Quality and the Quality tends to go away. Quality is what you see out of the corner of your eye…” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, 1974).

So, Yes, I am bound to agree with you that perhaps a true operational definition of perceived quality may not exist. Yet me and my co-author made an attempt to offer the quality community a common ground for discussions of this nebulous term.

 

Please tell me what you think.

 

Yours,

 

Andrey

Citation

Andrey, thank you for taking the time to reply. I love the quote from Persig. In my mind, Persig's writings on Quality--in both Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila--should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a Quality professional. I have always thought that he addresses the concept of perceived quality in more depth than anyone else I've read. 

I hope others will take up this discussion and study as well. Discussions around these finer points of the philosophy of Quality are few and far between these days. 

An APA citation for the article (use the link for a .pdf):

Shewhart, W. A. (1934). Some aspects of quality control. Mechanical Engineering 16(12), 725-730. http://library.isical.ac.in:8080/jspui/bitstream/10263/6610/1/Some%20aspects%20of%20quality%20control.pdf

Best regards,

Rip

Reply to a comment by Rip Stauffer

Dear Rip,

Many thanks for your response.

First of all, thank you for the details of and the link to Shewhart’s 1934 paper. Those early contributions to the body of knowledge of quality are such gems of wisdom!

Believe it or not, I am currently in the process of reading Lila! What strikes me most, is that, as Pirsig himself conceded, in his days there was no dedicated discipline for quality, nothing like the “[Total] Quality Management”: “It was apparent that the term ``Quality'' was not within any one discipline unless that discipline was philosophy” (Pirsig, ZAMM, p. 344).

With best regards,

Andrey