To start, let’s ask ourselves why we might prefer to use the term performance when talking about quality. One reason is that many people, perhaps most, equate the term quality with product quality. If the topic at hand is the quality of the products we ship, using the term quality makes perfect sense. However, if we are referring to the quality of our business activities in general, the term quality can be, at best, limiting, and at worst, misleading. In this case, using the term performance instead of quality conveys a concern for the performance level of all the business activities in the value chain, not just the quality level of the final product.
Another reason we might prefer the term performance is that the word quality typically implies the systems and processes administered by an organization’s quality department. Regulations reinforce this notion by requiring that the quality function remain distinctly separate and independent from the rest of the organization. In the modern enterprise, however, instilling quality into a company’s business activities is the responsibility of every person, in every department. Luckily, business performance is not seen as solely the responsibility of the quality department. It is seen as the responsibility of the entire organization, even if it is ultimately reviewed by the quality department.
In the broader sense, quality is often regarded as the enemy of business performance. Traditionally, if we were to ask ourselves, “Should we always strive for higher quality? ” the pat answer would be, “Yes, of course!” But the more sensible answer would be, “No.” We live in a world of limited resources. Consequently, we must consider how our finite resources should be applied to achieve the best possible quality results. Even regulators recommend that we take a risk-based approach to quality. In other words, they are encouraging us to allocate our limited resources to those activities that improve quality and reduce risk, giving us the most bang for our buck.
Fortunately, the term performance excellence does not refer only to high quality, but also, more broadly, to great outcomes. In the worst case scenario, great outcomes are achieved when we use our limited resources to maximize quality. In the best case scenario, great outcomes result from actually leveraging improvements in quality, as advocated by quality pioneer Philip Crosby, to drive a reduction in the “costs of nonconformance” while increasing the speed and responsiveness of our business activities.
Now, we must ask ourselves why we might prefer the term excellence when talking about quality. But first we must ask, “What is quality?”
In the early days of quality management, quality was often defined as conformance to design specifications. This is still the operational definition of quality in many manufacturing departments, where measurable product specifications stand in for abstract customer requirements. Under this definition, perfect quality can be attained since there are only a finite number of specifications for a product.
However, the meaning of quality has changed. Contemporary definitions of quality now emphasize the notion of conformance to customer requirements, of both the stated and unstated varieties. Operating under this new definition, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as perfect quality. The set of customer expectations is ever-growing and, in theory, infinite. (Even something as simple as a bottle opener can always be made cheaper, longer-lasting, easier to use and more portable.) Therefore, we might conclude that the goal of quality management is to seek acceptable quality. In other words, since we cannot reach the ideal, we will specify a bar which, when met, is acceptable, and call it a day. But this notion of acceptable quality seems intuitively wrong to us because it ignores two vital precepts of modern quality: control of variance and continuous improvement.
As we’ve learned from the Taguchi Method and Six Sigma, it is simply not good enough to stay within a specification range. We must strive to hit the range right on target as often as possible. Therefore, quality cannot imply merely acceptable quality; it often involves the quest for higher and higher levels of capability.
Another modern quality concept that clashes with the notion of acceptable quality is continuous improvement. As the name implies, there is no endpoint for continuous improvement; it is a continuous journey—an ongoing pursuit. What might be acceptable today might be unacceptable tomorrow.
Taking both concepts into consideration, we can conclude that the goal of modern quality is not perfect quality on one end or acceptable quality at the other. Instead, the goal of quality today is high quality, which lies somewhere between, and is always a receding target. This is why the word excellence, er, excels at describing the goal of quality better than the word quality itself. In fact, Webster’s Dictionary defines excellence as “extremely high quality.” So the term excellence is useful when we want to emphasize that the goal of quality management is high quality.
Why Performance Excellence?
In conclusion, the term performance excellence is useful when we want to shift the focus from simply satisfying product specifications to achieving great outcomes throughout the value chain to meet our customer’s expectations. It shifts the focus from the business of quality to the quality of our business.
And although the term performance excellence may seem novel to us, it is not really all that unconventional. For example, the seminal text in quality management, “Juran’s Quality Handbook,” first published in 1951, is now subtitled, “The Complete Guide to Performance Excellence.” Moreover, the nation’s pre-eminent quality award, the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award, is now awarded for “achievements in performance excellence.” Maybe it’s just time for us to catch up with the powerful emerging notion of performance excellence.
Mickey Garcia is a quality systems expert with more than twenty years of experience in the life science and software industries. Garcia began his career working in manufacturing operations and systems engineering at Johnson & Johnson, where he was responsible for designing and validating automated production systems and leading Six Sigma Black Belt quality improvement projects. More recently, he led the product strategy efforts for a range of QMS, ECM, MES and PLM software companies serving the life sciences. Since joining MasterControl in 2014, Garcia’s focus has been to develop solutions that offer medical device customers the fastest path to success. Garcia has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida and an MBA from Stanford University.