Product quality is one of the leading positioning tools used by marketers for the promotion of their product. Constantly improving the quality of your product and services is essential to remain competitive. While the level of competition in the US, as well as the global industry, has increased a lot, companies have also renewed their focus on quality to maintain the demand for their products and services.
Japanese companies have been practicing TQM (Total Quality Management) for a long time and it is an important factor that turned Japan into an economic powerhouse. However, managing quality is not as simple and requires dedication and continued focus on quality improvement.
David A Garvin, a Harvard Business School Professor and a thought leader in the area of organizational learning, emphasized the importance of understanding quality and its various dimensions for business managers in his 1987 research article published in HBR titled, Competing on The Eight Dimensions of Quality.
Garvin noted that it was not until competition from the Japanese and European firms intensified that the US-based companies started focusing on quality seriously.
According to him, the business managers needed to adopt a new way of thinking for Strategic Quality management which was to understand how customers looked at things or a conceptual bridge to the consumers’ vantage point. Managers also needed to see quality as a business strategy and break it into understandable and manageable parts. Only then could they define the quality niches in which to compete.
Garvin proposed eight critical dimensions of quality, some of which were mutually reinforcing and some not. A product or service could rank high on one dimension of quality and low on the other. Some dimensions were not mutually reinforcing meant that improvement in one dimension could be experienced only at the expense of another.
However, this interplay of dimensions made strategic quality management possible and the only challenge before the managers was to select the dimensions on which they wanted their product or service to compete.
Garvin’s Eight Quality Dimensions:
Performance is one of the leading dimensions of quality and most customers judge the product’s quality based upon performance. For example, if you want a television set, you will be looking for factors like sound, picture clarity, colors, etc. This is what performance means in the case of a television set.
However, in the case of an automobile, there are other factors that help you measure performance. Acceleration, mileage, handling, convenience, etc mean performance for an automobile. Nobody likes to buy a noisy car and so low noise is also a sign of quality for an automobile.
In the services industry, for example, the hospitality industry, performance often means prompt and courteous service. Since the performance dimension of quality mainly involved measurable attributes, ranking brands based on these attributes is not very difficult. Developing overall performance rankings is difficult because a product may involve benefits that matter for one segment of consumers but not for the other. Moreover, each benefit does not weigh equally for all groups of consumers.
Features are the second dimension of quality and often regarded as the second aspect of performance. Features are the characteristics supporting the basic performance of a product or service. For example, by adding free drinks flight services providers improve the appeal of their services.
Automatic updates or automatic light adjustment in a smartphone improves its appeal to users. Separating ‘features’ from ‘performance’ is difficult because drawing a clear line between the two is generally not possible.
The crucial thing is that features involve objective and measurable attributes. For many customers, superior quality means that they have a larger number of options. Furniture stores often offer several varieties in terms of color and fabric quality.
This dimension of quality is also related to the functioning of the product and how likely it is to fail or malfunction during a specific time period. Garvin has highlighted three measures of reliability which are:
- The mean time to the first failure
- The mean time between failures
- The failure rate per unit time
Now, these measures of reliability require a product to stay functional for a given time period and therefore they apply mainly to durable goods instead of the products that are consumed instantly.
If downtime and maintenance are expensive, reliability becomes even important for the customers. For example, hosting services for websites and blogs. The hosts with the least downtime are considered the most reliable and apart from it the ones which provide free CDN services like Kinsta are rated higher in terms of reliability.
Computers, printers and copiers also compete on this basis as well as farm equipment. Even in the case of automobiles, reliability has become an important product attribute making products more or less attractive in the eyes of the buyer.
Conformance means the ability to meet established standards. The degree to which the design and operating characteristics of a product meet the established quality standards is called conformance.
This dimension of quality owes the most to the traditional approaches to quality that the experts like Professor Joseph M Juran pioneered. Juran’s Quality Management Trilogy has become the basis for most of the quality management best practices used globally.
There are specifications of some kind related to all products and services. When new designs or models are developed, standards are set for the purity of the raw material and dimensions are set for the parts used. These specifications can be understood as the target standards or centers and deviance from the target or the center is permitted within a specified range only.
Since this approach to conformance implies that good quality means operating within the tolerance range, there is not much interest in whether targets or specifications are exactly met.
However, there is also one drawback of this approach which is the tolerance stack up. If there are two or more parts to be fit together, it is the size of their tolerance that determines how well they will match. In case one of the parts falls within the lower limit of its specifications and the other in the higher limit, the chances of a tight fit are lower. However, Japanese Statistician, Genichi Taguchi has offered an approach to solve this problem.
Durability, another dimension of product quality is a measure of product life. It has both economic and technical dimensions. Technically, you can define durability as the amount of use you get from a product before it deteriorates. Take a bulb for example. After prolonged use, the filament of a bulb burns and fails. It is now time to replace it.
Repairing the bulb is not possible. In other cases, the customers need to weigh the expected cost of future repairs, in terms of dollars and personal inconvenience against the price and operating costs of a newer more reliable model. In that case, Durability can be defined as the amount of use you get from a product before it breaks and replacement is better than continued repair.
There are two important implications of this approach to durability. The first important implication is that it suggests that there is a close link between durability and reliability.
A product that fails more often is more likely to be trashed earlier than the one that is less likely to fail or one which is more reliable. A product that often fails will increase your repair costs and there the purchase of a competitive brand is more desirable in such a situation.
Due to this link between reliability and durability companies sometimes also often lifetime guarantee on their products. Here are some great examples of products carrying a lifetime warranty. Second, this approach also implies that the durability figures need to be studied and interpreted with care.
However, an increase in product life is not always a result of technical improvements or the use of raw materials with longer lives but rather there may be a change in the economic conditions behind this improvement. For example, an increase in gasoline prices leads to an increase in the product life of automobiles since a weak economy and high gasoline prices can lead to a fall in the number of miles driven per year.
Durability varies from brand to brand also. Products of one brand are considered more durable than others. Duracell is considered a more durable product due to higher life than normal batteries. This applies to home appliances also and the wide dispersion in product life or durability suggests that there is a higher scope for product differentiation in this area.
The sixth dimension of quality is serviceability which simply implies the ease of service or repair. However, apart from the ease of repair, speed, courtesy, and competence also matter. The consumer’s concern is what if the product breaks and how much time will it take to restore the services.
Other concerns of the consumer include the timeliness of the service appointments and if the service personnel will keep the appointment and do the servicing in a timely manner as well as the frequency with which repairs fail to correct the problem. If the company fails to provide repair and maintenance services in a timely manner, this will also affect the customer’s perception of the product or services.
Even if a repair restores the service, it is not a guarantee of complete satisfaction. How the company handles complaints is important for its reputation. The approaches used by companies with regard to handling this element of quality vary widely. While some companies do their best to handle complaints, the others try various methods to rebuff the customers.
However, leading companies have recognized that their ability to handle complaints can have a significant impact on their reputation and therefore they offer various channels from which customers can register complaints and get their problems resolved. Leading technology and FMCG companies use email, social media channels, websites as well as toll-free numbers to address consumer complaints.
The last two dimensions of quality are the most subjective. Aesthetics are a matter of personal judgment and individual preference. How much a customer likes the look, feel, sound, taste or smell of a product is all a matter of individual preference.
Someone likes a small and quiet car, and another one wants a big car with a loud engine. Since not all people prefer the same flavor or color, companies need to search for a niche. It is impossible to please everyone on this dimension of quality.
Consumers do not always have complete information regarding a product or service’s attributes. Therefore, they use indirect measures to make a comparison. One cannot directly observe durability but can infer it from the various tangible or intangible aspects of the product.
In such a situation, brand name, advertising, and images are critical to building the customers’ perception of quality. Reputation is the main basis for perceived quality. It affects people’s perception of a product deeply.
For example, if Sony makes great televisions and walkmans, it makes good smartphones also. If Honda makes great cars, its bikes are also good. It is a kind of unstated analogy where customers compare a new line of products by a company with its existing line of products.