Quality Creation vs Quality Assurance

Kano model

Quality practitioners now-a-days tend to treat the term quality assurance as being too narrow for purpose. They prefer instead to talk about quality management or quality systems. History shows that over-emphasis on the term ‘assurance’ can drive a limited kind of quality, which would not necessarily guarantee satisfaction.

Quality Assurance: Prevention of wrong-doing, by managing activities to known standards.

Quality Creation: Doing right, in establishing new standards.

The left-hand half of the diagram above is a model developed by Noriaki Kano. It classifies customer needs into three categories, each of which influences satisfaction in a different way. Importantly, the Kano model tells that the prevention of wrong-doing is not the same as doing right.

A strategy based solely on removing dissatisfaction can over time never result in satisfied customers.

The Kano model thereby highlights a dilemma with traditional quality assurance, seeking to control everything to predefined standards. Yesterday’s standard will always lag behind today’s capability and customer needs. Sustained success therefore depends on continually exceeding and evolving the standards and expectations.

Kano defines the following terms in his model:

Indifferent quality: Neutral value level, where the customer is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

Basic needs: Product attributes that are taken for granted when present – meaning they are not necessarily asked for and they do not add to satisfaction. However, their omission will result in dissatisfaction. They can also be referred to as threshold needs or must-be requirements, because the customer might reject the product or service if they are not met. The fulfilment of basic needs is therefore a prerequisite for the performance and excitement needs being accepted. A customer’s affordability threshold can be thought of as a basic need and the customer usually has to accept a trade-off between cost and fulfilment.

Performance needs: Attributes or features that customers ask for and against which they measure their buying decision. The more that a product or service promises to fulfil this need the more the customer is satisfied with making the buying/using choice.

Excitement needs: Emotional engagement or reaction. Something that makes a pleasant surprise when encountered, but would not be missed if omitted – because customers had not yet realised that they want it. However, omission is a lost opportunity for higher satisfaction and for gaining new customers.

Time: Any excitement effect is only temporary. The novelty-value eventually wears off and the feature becomes considered as the norm. Over time it turns into a performance need, and can eventually become basic.

Defining quality is a whole different matter, because the term means so many different things to many different people. When wanting to address quality, then I find it helpful to simplify the job by instead thinking in terms of the 3 universal drivers for quality. They relate to the Kano needs classifiers and tend to hold true whatever the individual customers’ own definition of quality is:

Innovation: Adds novelty excitement and stimulates an impulsive emotional desire. It feeds the customer’s self-esteem and desire to be recognised as trendy. It can also be something that increases performance and/or reduces costs to new levels.

Relationships: Emotional engagement, which adds strength of personal attachment or a kind of shared ownership bond, making the customer’s view more favourable towards the product experience.

Process management: Ensures that pre-existing requirements are identified and that things are done correctly. Provides a stable platform to improve and innovate from.

Innovation and customer relationships are the primary drivers for quality creation. Fortunately, they happen to thrive well within systematic processes. The most successful innovators are in fact process-driven. Process management does not in itself excite customers, not strongly, but it assures that the basic foundation requirements are met. Customers  will of course appreciate and take a degree of satisfaction from the experience of  an effective process – although this tends not to be the same higher degree that innovation and relationships can achieve.

Process management must not hinder the freedom to be innovative and to attach a ‘personal touch’ in building emotionally engaging customer relationships. Process management effectively provides the essential prerequisite stable platform, from which to deliver and improve customer satisfaction. The current ISO 9001 quality management standard represents such a process management platform. The standard includes the risk and opportunity elements that enable managed innovation.

I can hear someone saying: “What about when a purely utility view of quality (fitness for purpose, at best price) applies, when we would ever only consider the basic needs – i.e. quality assurance”?  Customers for commodity products, such as electricity and gas supply services, for example, are hardly influenced by excitement needs. Saying that, however, innovation and relationships still matter. Most people switch utility service provider not because of the price or a bad product, but only when something goes wrong in their personal relationship with the provider’s customer services.

I could talk at length about by former telephone company here, but don’t feel that I need to. I am sure you will have your own examples of providers that have unforgivably messed up their relationship with you. My theory is not universally true, but a company with a commodity type product or service, which primarily addresses Kano’s basic needs attributes, can naturally become drawn to focus too much on quality assurance. They consequently control their systems around the core product so tightly that its customer services can feel like an engineered robotic script interface. This leaves no space for flexible individualistic customer experiences. In an attempt to prevent doing wrong, they can seriously fail to do right.