There is No Such Thing as “Quality”

photo by Ed Petkus, Jr.

Please, stop using the word “quality” — it is meaningless, and it is useless.

The “quality” of anything is subjective — it depends on the individual. For any given hot dog, you, and I, and anyone else might have very different opinions as to its quality.

And…even for a given individual, quality depends on the context. Your opinion about the quality of a given hot dog on a summer afternoon at the ball park might be quite different from your opinion of that same exact hot dog at, say, a wedding. This means that quality depends on…pretty much everything. Seven billion different interpretations multiplied by an infinite number of contextual nuances equals…meaninglessness.

The philosopher Robert Pirsig explored the question, “What is quality?” He made a very impressive effort, and in the process he developed some very provocative and potentially important ideas about life. But I’m afraid he was trying to define something that does not exist.

Attempts to resolve this issue often discuss “dimensions” of quality. Detailed in an academic article by David Garvin in 2012, these include: performance, features, reliability, durability, conformance to standards, and serviceability. OK, those can be important. But each of those dimensions is exactly what it is. There is no logical reason to lump them under the term “quality.” To do so is to take a lazy shortcut. When you say “quality,” you always mean something more specific. (Indeed, there are sixty-three different combinations of one or more of those six dimensions.)

Garvin’s list also includes “aesthetics” — described as “the subjective dimension representing the response of the user.” Well, yes. And that can be further divided into the experiences associated with the five senses, and all the combinations thereof. Subjective, still — but more meaningful than just calling it all “quality.”

And, oddly: Garvin includes “perceived quality” as a dimension of quality. How can perceived quality be a dimension of quality? There’s nothing about it that isn’t perceived.

“Qualities,” as in “characteristics,” or “traits,” is a different consideration. As in, “The qualities of this toaster-oven are _____.” But that’s different from saying, “This is a quality toaster-oven.” Who says? And if you say “This toaster-oven has many fine qualities,” you’re treading very close to “This is a quality toaster-oven.” It is appropriate, and useful, to describe the toaster-oven in terms of its features, its record of durability and reliability, its performance, its aesthetics, etc.

One way around the issue is to always include, “In my opinion…” As in, “In my opinion, the knobs on this toaster-oven are easier to turn than other models that I’ve tried.” Nothing wrong with that — the subjectivity is acknowledged. This is what Consumer Reports and other consumer-review services try to provide — information that reflects the opinions of their review panels, and any other objective measures of performance that they can uncover (e.g., reliability data for toaster-ovens). Perfect? No, there’s still some subjectivity lurking there. But at least they make an attempt to be as specific, and as objective, as possible.

Alas, for the rest of your life, you will see signs or ads that say “Quality Service” or “Quality Parts” or “Quality Meats” (I saw one recently for “Quality Veal” — think about what that might mean) or “Quality Furniture or Carpets or Laptops or Eyewear or…” Or anything, and everything. And you will hear it in ads, and in conversations.

I hope that, from now on, seeing or hearing the Q-word will bother you.

And, if you find yourself about to say it, I hope you will stop and think: what do I really mean?

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