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  • Alex Mathers

What is Quality When Quality is Undefined?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

“Sell me this pen”


In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort asks a salesman this question. In Jordan’s own words, "It's sort of a trick question". When you say to a salesman, 'Sell me this pen,' you might find some will say to you, 'This is a great pen, this pen writes upside down. It defies gravity, this pen is the cheapest pen on earth, this pen will never run out.' They'll say all the reasons the pen is good, they'll start telling you the features [qualities], and the better ones will give you the benefits too. But that's not what the real answer is.”


The physical and utility qualities of objects make them desirable as people tend to get attracted to these qualities. A product is said to be of good quality if it satisfies the customer requirements in terms of performance, grade, durability, appearance and intended use/purpose, among other things. That is, if the customer’s expectations of qualities are met. If a pen is sold with the stated characteristic of being able to write upside down, and it does not, it would not be considered quality.


Quality in Construction


Quality is an important factor in the construction industry because it affects the performance, safety, functionality, and longevity of the systems being built. Construction projects require careful planning, design, and execution to ensure quality. Building construction and operation is unlike any other industry. Each project, and resulting product, is different. As a result, these unique buildings are hard to plan, complex to design and expensive to build.

This uniqueness of each project makes quality comparisons and control difficult because the final product being evaluated has distinctive features and characteristics that are not present in other buildings. This can make it challenging to identify a clear and objective set of criteria for evaluating its quality. For example, if a lab space has a unique design that sets it apart from its competitors, it may be challenging to determine whether that design feature makes it a higher quality product overall. Unique features are more difficult to measure objectively without standardized metrics used for other products or services. As a result, more subjective measures may be used to evaluate the quality.


In this blog, we will explore the concept of quality and its importance in ensuring successful and sustainable building projects.


As someone who has worked in various quality roles for most of my professional career, I can tell you that quality is easy to understand, but hard to define. If I say something is high quality, you intrinsically know what I mean. But if I ask you to define quality in 10 words or less, would you be able to?


Fit for its Purpose


Sometimes quality can be as easy as 'it works' or ‘free for defects’. One popular definition for quality is ‘fit for a purpose’. However, ‘fitness for purpose’ is deceivingly simple as it raises the question of whose purpose and how is fitness assessed? Take for example of a $1000 Montblanc pen and a 10¢ Bic pen. Which one is of higher quality?


Montblanc pens are luxury writing instruments that are handcrafted in Germany and are known for their precision, durability, and design. They are often made with high-quality materials such as precious metals, fine woods, and premium-grade leather. Montblanc pens also tend to have a smoother writing experience due to the high-quality ink and the design of the pen nib.


On the other hand, Bic pens are more affordable and are mass-produced for everyday use. Bic pens are known for their reliability and durability, but they are not designed to be luxury writing instruments. They are made with plastic components and have a simple design that is focused on functionality rather than style.


Based on price alone it would be easy to dismiss the Bic pen as being lower quality. Sure, the Mont Blanc pen is made out of gold, has just right amount of springiness and is very comfortable to write with. But is it 10,000X better than a Bic pen? Is it fit for its purpose? That depends if its purpose to write, to impress, or to inspire.


What if you needed to write a note and the Montblanc failed to leave a mark? Inconceivable? Due to the thicker ink inside the Montblanc cartridge, ink cannot flow as freely. If you fail to clean it to preserve the pen’s pristine condition the ink may dry up, the feeder system may block, and the ink flow may become irregular or stop.


Bic pens on the other hand don’t require regular maintenance and millions are manufactured and used every day without failure. Owners expect performance no matter the price point.


Quality Defined


This brings me to my definition of quality. Quality is meeting or exceeding customer expectations. Customer expectations are a pre-conceived set of ideas about a product, service or a brand that a customer holds in their mind. We are not mind readers so how does someone in the business of quality assurance quantify quality without knowing expectations?


In the absence of knowing exactly what customer wants, here are some safe assumptions of what people expect:


· Quality is reliability

· Quality is repeatability

· Quality is predictability

· Quality is dependability

· Quality is durability

· Quality is persistence

· Quality is consistency

· Quality is efficiency


Quality is Reliability, Repeatability, Predictability, Consistency


Quality is reliability because a high level of quality ensures that a product or service is built to perform its intended function consistently and dependably, without fail or error. When a system or equipment is reliable, it builds trust and confidence among users, leading to increased satisfaction and faithfulness. In this way, quality and reliability are intertwined and crucial for delivering a superior product or service to customers.


Quality is consistency which is easy to measure in high volume manufacturing. In college I interned as a quality engineer for a manufacturing company specializing in impact extrusion of aluminum. The impact extrusion process is one of the fastest ways to get to near-net shape for many parts and components. The process begins with a lubricated metal slug—also called a blank or a puck—that is placed in a die cavity. The metal puck is struck with a punch powered by a mechanical or hydraulic press. This forces the metal to flow into the die shape almost instantly.


In the manufacturing world, thousands if not millions of identical parts are produced. Quality is defined by the exacting demands of the client industries. It is all about conformity to the specifications. Quality Assurance requirements (acceptance criteria) include basic dimensions, length, width, height, wall thickness, diameter as well as material alloy, surface finish. Allowable tolerances and deviations are pre-defined so that defects are easy to identify. High accuracy and precision are desirable in scientific research, manufacturing, and quality control because they ensure that measurements are reliable and consistent.


Accuracy and precision are two essential concepts in manufacturing. Accuracy refers to the closeness of a measured value to its true or expected value, while precision refers to the consistency and reproducibility of a series of measurements. For example, if a target's true value is 10 and a series of measurements give values of 9.8, 10.2, and 9.9, then the measurements are precise but not accurate because they are clustered around the target but do not hit it precisely. On the other hand, if a series of measurements give values of 9.9, 10.0, and 10.1, then the measurements are accurate but not precise because they hit the target but are not consistent with each other.


Manufacturing companies can be certified to the International Quality Standard ISO 9001. ISO 9001 is the international standard that specifies requirements for a quality management system (QMS). Organizations use the standard to demonstrate the ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements. In manufacturing, quality can be quantified using statistical quality control methods such as Six Sigma, which involves measuring the number of defects per million products.


Quality in Pharmaceutical manufacturing is similarly about repeatability.


If quality assurance is not up to par, the medication that should be saving someone’s life can end up threatening it or causing irreversible harm. The ultimate objective of any pharmaceutical manufacturer is to create a product that will keep the public safe. A properly manufactured medication has the potential to greatly improve someone’s life. Creating a quality product has a profound impact on the overall health and well-being of society.

Drugs are critical to human health and well-being, so their quality is critical. When dealing with consumable products that people rely on, poor quality control measures can lead to devastating consequences.


One of the most notable examples is the 2008 Chinese melamine milk scandal, in which many infants were hospitalized due to kidney damage after consuming infant formula that had been adulterated with melamine.


In the pharmaceutical world, current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) is a system for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards. It is designed to minimize the risks involved in any pharmaceutical production that cannot be eliminated through testing the final product. Product safety is derived from the predictability and consistency of the process used to create the product.


cGMP compliance alone as with an ISO 9001 certification does not indicate whether a manufacturer is creating something safe. It is a defined process, not a required result.


Quality is Dependability, Durability, Persistence


Data centers are critical facilities that house the technology infrastructure that powers modern businesses and organizations. They are responsible for storing, managing, and processing vast amounts of data, which is why dependability is essential for these facilities. Quality assurance ensures that data centers are designed, built, and maintained to the highest standards, minimizing the risk of downtime, data loss, or security breaches. Quality also ensures that the data center's infrastructure is efficient and reliable, helping to reduce operational costs, improve performance, and meet the evolving needs of businesses and organizations.

Without quality, data centers may experience frequent downtime, reduced performance, and increased risk of data loss or security breaches, which can have significant consequences for businesses and organizations that rely on them.

Uptime in data centers refers to the amount of time that a data center's systems, servers, and applications are available and functioning correctly. It is a measure of the reliability and availability of a data center and is typically expressed as a percentage of the total time in a given period. For example, a data center with 99.9% uptime would be expected to have less than 9 hours of downtime per year, while a data center with 99.99% uptime would have less than an hour of downtime per year.


Uptime is critical for data centers because any interruption in service can result in lost productivity, revenue, and damage to reputation. To ensure high uptime, data centers employ redundant systems, backup power supplies, and failover mechanisms that can quickly switch to alternate systems in the event of a failure.


Data centers, as with many other purpose-built facilities must be durable because they are built to last and perform its intended function over an extended period, even during unplanned events. Durability is an essential aspect of quality because it ensures that systems and equipment will perform dependably over time and in the time of need. Durability is the ability of systems and equipment to withstand wear, damage, excessive use even deferred maintenance in the face of moisture, heat, cold, sunlight, corrosion, dust, and dirt without degrading or breaking down.


Quality is Efficiency


Efficiency is essential for achieving operational excellence in any business or organization. Quality is efficiency because a high level of quality ensures that a product or service is built to perform its intended function (fit for its purpose) with minimal waste.

The purpose of systems and equipment in buildings and facilities is to operate as intended without using more energy than is required to serve its function. This efficiency reduces the need to generate new or additional energy. Energy efficiency in buildings helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By using energy-efficient building design, insulation, lighting, heating, and cooling systems, buildings can significantly reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint, helping to protect the environment and preserve natural resources. Additionally, efficient buildings can save significant amounts of money on utility bills and maintenance costs, making them more economically viable in the long term.


This results in increased productivity, reduced costs, and faster delivery times. Additionally, high-quality products or services are more reliable, which reduces the risk of downtime or product failures, further improving efficiency. By focusing on quality, businesses can optimize their processes, identify and eliminate waste, and improve their overall efficiency, leading to better customer satisfaction and increased profitability. In this way, quality and efficiency are intertwined and critical for achieving success in today's competitive business landscape.


So, what is the right answer to “Sell me the pen”?


According to Jordan: "The real answer is, before I'm even going to sell a pen to anybody, I need to know about the person, I want to know what their needs are, what kind of pens do they use, do they use a pen? How often do they use a pen? Do they like to use a pen formally, to sign things, or use it in their everyday life?


Quality is meeting or exceeding customer expectations. Whether you are a pen salesman or a commissioning agent it is imperative to know what the client’s needs are and understand their expectations. In the absence of owner direction (which is usually the case) at a minimum you should fall back on Reliability, Repeatability, Predictability, Consistency, Dependability, Durability, Persistence and Efficiency.


Facilities are forever defined by the relatively transient project which created them. It is therefore critical to have quality assurance processes in place during planning, design, construction to ensure expectations and mitigate risk during operation.

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