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Quality: The Basis for a Transcendental Global Culture

Gregory H. Watson
Chairman, Business Excellence Solutions, Ltd.
President, International Academy for Quality, Helsinki, Finland


Quality is a basic concept of mankind. The core of its meaning comes from a Sumerian
word that has the root meaning of “freedom.” Freedom is at the core of the democratic
process through the idea of “equality” – a word whose etymology includes the notion of
quality. Equality focuses on the common rights to a valuable quality of life. Using this
interpretation, we can understand the concept “freedom” from this perspective as being
free of waste, bigotry, abuse – elimination of these negative aspects of life’s experiences
and thereby improve the quality of our life. However, over the years the interpretation
and application of the word quality has come to have more and more diverse meanings.
Quality can be considered a philosophy, methodology, vocation, field of study, movement,
engineering discipline, attribute of a product or service, and outcome of a process. So,
what is quality and how should a modern quality manager seek to apply the term to build
a way of working that seeks to have continuously excellent outcomes? This paper will
develop a “meta-definition” of quality that transcends its applications and serves as a
foundation for a more coherent global human culture based on precepts of this quality


Quality Definition, Philosophy, Leadership, Implementation, and Management

What is the Meaning of Quality?

One problem with our global quality community is that we give the impression that when we
speak of quality we’re talking about differing degrees of “goodness” – as in a high quality
purchased item or a low quality service experience. Everyone then pretends to know what it
means. But, it can’t work that way because a good definition should be reliable – it should
have integrity and be both measurable and auditable. However, we should take comfort in the
fact that even our most revered quality guru’s of the past century couldn’t agree on a common
definition of quality, so each created their own definition and this caused their views on quality
to diverge as they emphasized different aspects of quality instead of understanding how their
views are complementary and part of a holistic model of quality. Here is a collection of these
different definitions that I’ve collected over the years:

• Quality is fitness for use.

• Quality is whatever the customer says it is.
• Quality is a way of managing.
• Quality is continuous improvement.
• Quality is conformance to requirements as measured by the price of nonconformance.
• Quality is an organization-wide process.
• Quality is what the customer says it is.
• Quality and cost are a sum, not a difference.
• Quality requires zealotry in both individuals and teams.
• Quality and innovation are mutually dependent.

• Quality is an ethic.
• Quality is the most cost effective, least capital intensive route to productivity.
• Quality is implemented as a total system connected to customers and suppliers.

One quality writer even simplified his definition of quality by humorously stating: “I’ll know it when
I see it!” But, is quality so subjective that we can never really understand what it is?

Quality is one of those words we have used for our entire life and have assumed that we know its
meaning. In this respect the word “quality” is much like the word ‘love’ – we think we know what it
means, but we only discover the true meaning of love as we are engaged experiencing it. Likewise,
our understanding of quality has evolved over the years from the time of the early Greeks when a
debate occurred between quality as a function (the idea of Plato) and quality as excellence (an idea
that was offered by Aristotle). We should also take comfort in the fact that it seems that throughout
history mankind has never had a clear understanding of what quality means. Thus, the word quality
has often been confusing, and it is seldom used without controversy. Just like love, quality is often
subjectively defined which gives rise to this quixotic definition of quality as “I’ll know it when I see
it!” This subjectivity is not a new phenomenon and it works fine for our everyday life experience;
however, when we become professionally responsible for assuring the quality of a product or service,
then we need a much more substantial operational definition so we can work collectively to assure the
excellence that is required for our situation.

What is quality? It is a contrast – it is what a producer makes as well as what a consumer uses. It is
an attribute as an indicator of goodness and it is a variable as in a measure of performance. Quality is
a noun, an adverb, and an adjective – and all require an active verb to make the ‘resultant’ quality
happen; quality never results from taking a passive approach to anything. So, in order to understand
what quality has become in today’s language, we must first learn about where quality ideas originated,
how they developed into a movement, and how they became a profession as well as a way of life. As
one reality we observe that quality is a word like love or beauty that gains meaning in ‘the eye of the
beholder’ because it is interpreted individually. It seems that this division in the approach to quality
has always existed.

The concept of quality has been influenced by two areas of emphasis: one focused on the process by
which results are developed and the other on the attributes defining acceptable results. These two
concepts cause some people to regard quality by just its processes for delivery (tools and methods),
others focus on the contents or attributes that are delivered as outcomes of work, while still others
focus on combining the methodologies with the attributes in a systemic approach to an operational
definition of quality. This confusion in understanding the meaning of quality provides a challenge for
modern leaders who wish to manage a single organizational culture across divergent national, social,
and cultural boundaries as distinctions in the meaning and interpretations of the concept of quality is
compounded by their need to define an organizational culture that works equally well in all locations
globally. With this challenge comes the requirement to establish a common ground that pulls people
and organizations together around a unifying principle that forges a common bond of shared values.

Many business leaders oversee multinational or global operations and they are rightfully concerned
about how to manage appropriately in the face of cultural diversity. Should they create a
‘transcendent’ culture for their organization that sits above regional or national cultures? How should
an organization develop teams that can function in a ‘high-performing’ manner when the teams come
from different cultural perspectives? Cultural diversity provides an opportunity to understand the
unique perspectives of different markets and customer bases which yields insight into ways to adapt
products or services to meet the unique needs of these markets and enhance local competitiveness.
However, this diversity also has an effect of separating organizations along the lines of sub-cultures
where there are stronger ideological attractions than for the organization as a whole. Thus many
organizations become collections of sub-cultures and do not operate consistently across their cultural

Transcendent Thinking: Linking Humanity through Quality

As a preamble to my definition, I offer the following thesis: quality transcends all boundaries of race,
nations and geography and is part of the core of mankind – what makes us humans is the desire to be
more – to improve our lives and quality of living. No matter what our starting point, the human race
always seems to cry: Excelsior! Ever-higher! Let’s keep improving – excellence in the execution of
our work to achieve excellence in its outcome! Thus, if we appeal to this nature of mankind, it should
be clear that there is something common – a transcendent aspect of quality that we all follow that can
become the core of broadest definition of quality that we can achieve.

In order to establish clearly my perspective in this paper, I’d like to state that this issue of defining the
meaning of quality is not something that can be resolved in a single writing or over time. But, we can
make progress toward developing a comprehensive definition that works universally. Thus, the step
that I propose in this paper is to get the overall framework right – the “transcendental” aspect defining
quality, then to move forward in the future and examine the next sub-level in a definition to discover
what more detailed components of the definition might also belong to the “transcendental” quality
framework and which might be more appropriately defined locally.

Having established this perspective, the purpose of paper will be to establish a meaning for quality
that works for a “global transcendental culture” that applies to all mankind. This paper describes a
socially-defined model for competitive advantage that uses the cultural dimensions of quality to drive
enhanced organizational performance. This model is coordinates the quality approaches of ISO9000,
the European Quality Award criteria, as well as Six Sigma methods for design and problem-solving.
Identifying those business methods or practices that unify organizations in the face of cross-cultural
diversity will be the focus of defining a global quality value proposition for organizations that is
capable of driving sustainable excellence.


Return on 25
(ROI) 20

t il e Q u

10 Superior
en ed

erc iv

(P erce


High Inferior
t iv

Relative M Low

arket Shar

Figure 1: Perceived Quality Drives Market Share and Profitability

Defining the Concept of Quality

Quality is actually a neutral concept – neither positive nor negative in itself. The implications of the
word quality, both good and bad, are derived mainly due to the connection of the concepts of quality

and value. This connection causes particular concern because the concept of value is tightly coupled
to economic worth or the amount of payment made for the perceived level of value that is received.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mid-1980s study that was commissioned by General
Electric and conducted by the Wharton Graduate School of Business, called the Profit Impact of
Market Strategy (PIMS) study. The PIMS study presented the first academically rigorous validation
of the strength of the relationships between perceived quality, market share, and profitability of
products. The findings of the PIMS study of these relationships are summarized in Figure 1 (Gale,
1987). Note that the highest profitability is achieved at the highest level of market share and relative
perceived quality. Since perception is “quality in the eye of the beholder” it seems like we really must
pay attention to the distinction between the objective and subjective aspects of the quality definition!

The Necessity of Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity is not a program designed by human resources. There are real business advantages
to be obtained from creating the diversity in a work force and engaging it as a vehicle for enhancing
organizational effectiveness. The value of diversity can be clearly seen when we recognize that local
cultures are really expressions of how people think, work and act with respect to each other. In other
words, in order to work and live in a local culture there must be knowledge of its diversity. There is
no multi-national culture (with a possible exception of multi-national symbols like the McDonalds
golden arches – but these are symbolic and not pervasive or defining the way that people live). This
observation of local uniqueness has encouraged senior managers to build global awareness upon the
local homogeneity of culture and emphasize a global need for coordination or “think global, but act
local.” To meet the needs of diverse markets there is a need for products to be localized – beyond the
need for the right types of electrical power and the language used to explain performance. The
requirement for localization of products and services must also be culturally adapted – products and
services must also fit the soul and spirit of the culture in which they are sold and used. To accomplish
this all organizations are faced with a challenging staffing imperative: your staff must look, think and
talk like its customers; it must reflect the local diversity. But, in the midst of this need for diversity,
what can be done to assure that the common direction is achieved? How can diverse cultures be
melded together into a global presence that presents a consistent ‘corporate image’ recognizable
everywhere when management also accepts local diversity? This is the dilemma of global culture-
building for multinational organizations.

Quality as an Expression of Transcendent Culture

One answer to the development of a consistent corporate image is to create a ‘transcendent culture’
that integrates many different local cultures in order to facilitate sales and growth in local markets.
How could this structure be developed and what would be the elements included in a ‘transcendent
culture’ as compared to the local culture? This cultural definition creates a two-tier structure – one
that is locally-defined and the other that is globally-defined. The local tier focuses on the things that
people do to deliver the routine work of the organization’s daily management process. This level of a
quality structure focuses on individual and team activities and the attitudes of people toward service
of customers in their markets. These elements must align with the local culture to achieve harmony in
the alignment with the external stakeholders: customers, suppliers, partners, and local governments.
The second tier has dimensions focused on process rather than on content. Aspects of quality that
belong to this category include methods and tools defining an organization’s systematic processes. As
examples of these factors, consider: quality requirements (customer focus, business results, and
continuous improvement), global information and logistics systems, and a universal problem-solving
methodology. These quality elements of the “transcendent culture” share a common characteristic in
that they establish targeting, coordinating, and control mechanisms for local cultures. In short, they
define a common language for quality that can exist within all local cultures of the organization. How
does this process operate in more specific terms? We’ll get to this question in a moment, but first lets
look at how each of these local and global factors contribute different components to define an overall
corporate culture:

Local Culture Quality Elements Transcendent Culture Quality Elements
Attitude toward teamwork Requirement for Customer Focus
Attitude toward personal development Requirement for Business Results
Attitude toward social values Requirement for Continuous Improvement
Attitude toward customer service Product and Service Design Process
Required customer service level Global Information and Logistics Systems
Working rules and quality of working life Problem-Solving Methodology

Table 1: Comparison of Local vs. Transcendent Quality Cultural Elements

What unites these two cultures? The uniting element is a change management process (sometimes
called a policy deployment system) that the organization uses to define its direction and choose its
strategic projects for business improvement. This system coordinates change to the working process
of the organization one project at a time by focusing improvement-directed resources on those areas
that require the greatest improvement and then assigning local teams to apply the methods and
approach of the ‘transcendent culture’ to meet the needs of their local culture.

So, what role does quality have in such a management system and how does it distinguish the role to
be played for local and transcendent concerns? Some observations about quality may be made that
are related to the local culture:

• Quality is an expression of value – meeting expectations of customers and markets

• Quality requires understanding of human concerns and integration of differing perspectives
• Quality serves both sides of the brain – both logical analytical brain and emotional, feeling brain
• Quality operates when there is mutual respect, common understanding and a shared perspective
• Quality requires cross-organizational teamwork to facilitate customer concerns
• Quality is a lateral process that unites employees, customers and other stakeholders

Thus, the customer-facing components of quality have a strong affinity for determination according to
the forces of the local culture; however, the system for delivery of quality is defined as part of the
overall management system that engages this local model for execution of daily management issues.
What is the model for integrating the quality system to form a transcendent organizational culture?

First Modest Proposal: A Definitive Model for Quality

What is quality and how does it work? By asking the question in this way we focus our thinking a bit
more clearly the “what” question deals with the attributes of quality – the content that is separate from
the “how” question or the methodology that delivers the content. By defining quality using this type
of multi-dimensional framework, we can resolve many of the issues that had faced prior definitions.
The “what” part of this quality definition deals with deliverables of the process (whether these are
tangible as in manufacturing or intangible as in service – or a combination of these two concepts as
can be interpreted in healthcare where the process can be assured while the outcome is inevitably the
negative that most would like to avoid). Thus, “how” element of this quality definition specifies a
process by which the deliverables are assured in a manner that is consistently capable of “getting the
customer’s job done” – no matter what it is! As a result, the process of delivering quality can be seen
as a “best practice” and remain the stable from organization to organization, while the content that is
delivered by the process changes to accommodate the uniqueness that all seek in their definition of
quality – the “relative-to-me-ness” – that satisfies our need to understand quality within our own
context for its application.

Isn’t it the same way with subjective human feelings? We are all made from the same flesh and blood
and yet, the uniqueness that defines us is not so much the structure as the content that is added to this

framework we call humanity. My great-grandmother used to say to her eight daughters: “Pretty is as
pretty does!” It is the actions that define a person. Being just defines existence – a process exists.
However, it is in the discipline of executing action (the content) that the excellence of the deliverable
is most dominantly delivered – thus doing quality is just as important as being quality!

So, what does the transcendental model look like through which flows the subjective content that
defines the specific application of quality? This is an idea that has been evolving over time for me. It
was first published a few years ago (Conti, Kondo, and Watson, 2003) and it is shown in Figure 2.

Customer Customer
What Expectation Entitlement
the What
the What
Customer Customer
Customer Customer
Wants isisPromised
Promised Gets

Gap Conformity

Quality in what is delivered Quality in how it is delivered

Figure 2: Model of the Quality Delivery Process

This model presents a three-phased approach for delivering benefits to customers: first, applying an
innovative emphasis to determine what customers want and deciding how to deliver it; second,
making a specific promise to customers (such as a service level agreement, which, together with the
design capability, establishes the expectation for performance of product or services); and third,
delivering on the promise to customers. In this delivery process any gap between the promise and the
delivery represents a promise-keeping problem and the subsequent loss of value from the perspective
of customers. In this model quality is initially designed into the product based on the understanding
of local and global customer needs and then delivered at the local level based on the structure of the
global product or service from a creative approach to the challenge of innovation. Thus, the
perspective of quality blends together local and transcendent components in order to define the
capability of the product or service. This model blends together the quality duality of attributes (the
idea of goodness that is delivered through the process) and systems (the structured approach and set of
tools and methods used to execute the design and delivery processes). Note that there are two major
ways in which this model can fail: the promise made to customers may not fulfill their true needs and
the way the promise is delivered may not fulfill expectations established based on the design.

How is this model integrated into a holistic approach to performance in a business model that is able
to drive competitive advantage and define an explicit ‘transcendent quality culture’ for driving the
results of an organization?

Second Modest Proposal: Global Model for Quality Management

Integration is possible when one knows how the components of a system relate to each other. The

same is true of a quality system. Modern quality systems have three major components (Figure 3):

 Quality standards defining product requirements and the quality system (principles, requirements
for performance, documentation, measurement, audit, etc.);
 Self-assessment analysis methods that challenge management to review internal approaches for
the delivery of quality against consensus sets of good practice (e.g., Malcolm Baldrige National
Quality Award criteria or European Foundation for Quality Management Award criteria (EFQM))
and also against best practices in critical performance areas as defined by external benchmarking;
 Project portfolio management system for identification, selection, review, and implementation of
change management projects to improve the organization.

Strategic linkage Business Excellence

Self-Assessment Benchmarking

Six Sigma Projects

Self-Assessment Benchmarking

Self-Assessment Benchmarking

ISO 9000 Standard Operational linkage

Figure 3: A Systems Approach to Delivering Total Quality

Each of these three components of modern quality systems deserves a few comments to describe why
they are included in a total quality system. Quality standards (the most notable of which is ISO-9000)
were developed to describe the minimum acceptable level of business controls that are required to
assure the quality of goods and services to a customer. The ISO-9000 approach is in stark contrast to
the EFQM business excellence model in that the EFQM model seeks to define an aspiration level of
performance – approaching World Class, rather than the minimum level of performance that is
required to assure a viable quality system.

Another way of looking at these two components of a total quality system is to observe that ISO-9000
is dominantly a corrective action system while the EFQM assessments aim at identifying preventive
actions that can enhance overall competitive advantage of organizations. Thus, these two quality
schemes identify the lower limit and upper target for performance of a business system. The gap
between these two is the ‘improvement space’ of an organization and this is the dimension that can be
spanned by management intervention using Six Sigma methods. Each project is chosen and executed
sequentially to build organizational performance capability and “climb the performance ladder toward
World Class in an organization’s given competitive environment.

The improvement project management system integrates three quality methodologies together with a
policy deployment system: self-assessment, benchmarking, and Six Sigma methods. The first two of
these quality methods help assure that the Six Sigma method’s project-by-project gap-closing process

is realistic. Management self-assessment applying the EFQM (or similar) criteria helps determine the
gap between current practice and the aspiration level quality to identify where to establish focused
improvement projects that will drive performance toward “best in class.” Process benchmarking
identifies specific practices that lead to success (both in a local and transcendent culture) and provides
external reality checks to assure the objectivity of the self-assessment process. When these two
methods are coupled together with policy deployment, then management has created a project
generation system to manage strategic change. The Six Sigma methods are then used to accomplish
each of the projects that are coordinated and encouraged by business leaders through its operational
review process which is an essential ingredient in the organization’s regular management process.

Thus, a system of quality that delivers a transcendent business culture has been constructed. But, we
must ask what specific components that define this transcendent culture? There are two dimensions
that may be defined – one of these is based on the business excellence criteria and the other is based
on the application of the Six Sigma methods.

Elements of a Transcendent Quality Culture – Business Excellence Perspective

A transcendent quality culture serves the operating philosophy of the business excellence model. The
imperatives for a quality culture from a business excellence perspective include:

• Vision-directed – the organization is focused on a shared vision that supersedes local interests
• Values-driven – a common way of working defines project management and problem-solving
methods used by the organization – how the organization thinks, feels and acts or its DNA
• Customer-focused – the organization values customers and seeks their satisfaction as a priority
• Analysis-based – the basis for investigation is the scientific method aided by statistical thinking
• Learning-enabled – the organization learns from external sources and from internal experience
• Team-facilitated – work is coordinated in teams to assure engagement of innovative thoughts
from all perspectives and to assure that everyone affected by the decisions has an opportunity to
provide input to those decisions.
• Process-managed – a process framework is used to flow work from the voice of the customer to
the delivery of goods or services to the customer. All work is interpreted as a process, each
process is analyzed to reduce its variation, and each process is managed to assure that desired
results are consistently achieved.
• Quality-controlled – an appropriate ‘check’ function is incorporated into the work to assure that
the in-process work is capable of delivering the outcomes desired to achieve competitiveness in
the global market-place.
• Results-oriented – the bottom-line is that success is measured from both the customer viewpoint
and the owner’s viewpoint (brand reputation increases for the products and services due to the
sustained delivery of customer-satisfying events while at the same time business value increases
due to the delivery of both short-term profitability and long-term organizational strength).

Applying the management epithet to ‘thing global and act local’ means that these elements of the
business excellence operating philosophy are ‘thinking’ components that form the philosophical core
of a ‘transcendent culture’ but they must be operationally defined within the context of the local
cultural values in order to gain true commercial meaning. Reality is defined by taking a stark look at
the things we are doing through an objective lens that clarifies vision. The business excellence
operating philosophy provides the objective for the ‘transcendent culture’ and the ‘harsh reality’ is
engaged by the self-assessment of the local culture.

Developing a Business Model for Global Competitive Advantage

Competitive quality has been defined as a value entitlement chain that begins with understanding the
‘job that the customer needs to get done’ with your product or service. This input must come from
local cultural knowledge and be integrated across cultures to define the core product or service

offerings. Localization of a global product is facilitated by understanding local expectations at the
beginning of the design phase. The proposed model for competitive quality (see Figure 2) accounts
for the global/local front-end, establishment of a ‘transcendent’ promise to the customer and local
execution at the point of delivery (Conti, Kondo, and Watson, 2003).

Cultural Elements that Transcend these Quality Models

Six Sigma methodologies represent the epitome of a hundred-year quality evolution in its
development of methods and tools. It represents the highest degree of maturity in integration of
quality philosophy, methods, and tools. Doing Six Sigma is certain to create fundamental changes in
how organizations think and work. Some of these expected cultural changes that have been reported
(Watson, 2004) that organizations could experience include:

• Organizations will become intolerant to variation.

• Organization focus will shift to measuring inputs not outputs.
• Organizations will demand both measurement and accountability.
• Business processes will be owned by managers to assure gains.
• Solutions will create sustainable performance gains not short-term band-aids for problems.
• Consistent delivery of customer satisfaction will build brand loyalty.
• Learning will be leveraged to appropriate areas as future strength demands consistency.
• Lateral and vertical collaboration will be standard operating procedure.
• Organizations will learn how to effectively engage the strength of their people.
• People will communicate using data to share profound knowledge about the business.

Six Sigma methods are just as fundamental to the core of the ‘transcendent quality culture’ as are the
business excellence criteria and the ISO-9000 standard as they provide the missing ‘prescriptive’
detail that is avoided by both the EFQM and ISO definitions. Six Sigma methodologies represent the
current best practice in integration of the philosophies, methods, and tools of quality based on both
historical perspective of the past developments and the pragmatic integration of new knowledge that
is gained from the implementation of this method across a wide variety of organizations. Doing Six
Sigma is no more an option than doing ISO-9000 or deciding not to complete in business. It also
deserves a prominent place in the ‘transcendent quality culture.’

Culture as a Competitive Force in Globalization

By definition competitiveness requires management action. Competitiveness is achieved when an

organization’s micro-economic activity performs better than alternative choices that customers can
make for equivalent goods or services. Quality is achieved when the goods or services of a firm are
produced in a process that reliably delivers results that are perceived to be superior to these alternative
choices and there is a sufficient ‘critical customer mass’ who feels strongly that this is true and ‘votes
with their money’ on the superiority of the benefits or features that are offered by that organization. It
is blending both process and outcome-based approaches to defining quality.

A ‘transcendent quality culture’ is formed by defining the components of the global quality system
and implementing this structure in a way that holds local managers accountable for implementing the
strategic direction in the context of their local cultures. This global-local imperative requires an
organization to build a collaborative, supportive working environment that enables trust among the
organization members with accountability for implementing processes that will achieve the desired
performance results.

Thus, quality is the cornerstone for building a transcendent business culture that is able to increase
global competitiveness and assure market acceptance for an organization’s goods and services. There
is much more to be developed on this topic – but I trust that my colleagues in the global quality
community will be up to the task in the years ahead!


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