How a little word can mean a lot (the story of quality)

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The words we use matter; really understanding what they mean for your organisation matters even more. Consider the story of quality…

Honesty, integrity, quality, fun, teamwork, customer satisfaction… any of this sounding familiar? These words form part of the all-star list, and it is almost certain that at least one or two will be found somewhere on every corporate values, vision or mission statement. But what do these words actually mean (and I am not talking about the dictionary definition)?


Let’s take one of the all-time best sellers – quality – as a case study. Now we all “think” we know what quality means. While you were sitting around the meeting room, it was the only word that fitted the bill, and communicated that you didn’t stand for shoddy, or haphazard work.


And so it became codified as part of the statement “ we will provide quality products/services for our customers ”. Maybe you weren’t happy with just mere quality and so it become “best quality”, but beyond that it was time to move on to the next line of the statement. You had the right word.


But finding the right word is just the beginning, because in reality each person defines it a little differently, – which isn’t so much a problem in the general population, but in the confines of an organisation, can be a recipe for disaster. While the fact that the organisation stands for quality can become well understood, what that means for a particular group of people, for that company specifically, rarely is.


Does it mean zero defects in our products; to meet customer expectations; finishing a project on time and on budget? What are the particulars, the details? The answers can matter a great deal.


Take the case of US apparel maker Patagonia, which has taken the definition of the term quality to a whole new level. You see Patagonia promises to make the “ best quality products ” – and so it decided if that was the promise, then it better create an objective definition for it. And so every product at Patagonia must answer the following questions in order to be considered “ best quality. ” Only then can it find its way into their customer’s hands…


Is it functional? Is it multifunctional? Is it durable? Does it fit our customer? Is it as simple as possible? Is it an innovation or an invention? Is it a global design? Is it easy to care for and clean? Does it have any added value? Is it authentic? Is it art? Are we just chasing fashion? Are we designing for our core customer? Have we done our homework? Is it timely? Does it cause any unnecessary harm?


Phew – quite the list and I won’t go into detail about each one of them. But I can tell you that pretty much anyone who has bought a piece of Patagonia apparel can vouch for the “best quality” status of its products (my Patagonia fleece vest still looks and feels great five years after I bought it!).


So next time you are wrangling over which word to use, go that step further and apply some Patagonia-like rigour to defining them as well. The results are sure to surprise you.


To learn more about Patagonia’s journey I highly recommend Patagonia CEO, Yvon Choinard’s book – Let my people go surfing. Or, check out Yvon on YouTube – speaking at Google in October 2007 about his business and philosophy (or see below).



See you next week.



Alignment is Michel’s passion. Through her work with Brandology here in Australia, and Brand Alignment Group in the United States, she helps organisations align who they are, with what they do and say to build more authentic and sustainable brands.



To read more Michel Hogan blogs, click here.



SmartCompany is the leading online publication in Australia for free news, information and resources catering to Australia’s entrepreneurs, small and medium business owners and business managers.

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