Richard J. Varey of North West Development Services Ltd.,
provides a personal view of the role of "quality" in achieving competitive advantage.


As we write, industry commentators are once again heralding the progress of a recession in British industry. It seems that high unemployment is again to be accepted as part of our way of life in these isles.

Few can dispute that some UK companies consistently lead the world in their chosen fields. ICI is even now described as "a barometer" of the state of our economy. But (too many) others simply can no longer command the respect of the world's ever more demanding and discerning consumers when in competition with other producers of goods and services. Why are UK firms less competitive and what can be done about it? Is 'Quality Management' the solution for British Industry?

The Importance of Quality

'Quality' is now a familiar word to all, and it is a very simple concept. It is so simple, in fact, that it is actually difficult for many people to understand. Quality is, quite simply, what it takes to satisfy a customer. Quality is an attribute of a product or service which, as perceived by the customer, ensures that the product or service is attractive. Quality is not, as often assumed, an absolute property but rather a relative measure. That is, a given product will be more attractive to the customer if it fulfills their expectations more fully than does any other product under consideration.

To managers of manufacturing and service organisations, Quality is a good competitive tool which can win and keep customers as the life blood of their business. The achievement of a level of quality which matches the expectations of the targeted customer group has a direct effect on long term performance and has a much greater effect upon market share than does price. Most customers will pay to get the quality they desire, and this in turn generates profits.

The Product Package

To achieve the 'right quality' a firm must actually know what the customer really wants and deliver the right product which is fit for the purpose proposed by the customer, at the right price, at the right time and in the right place. But, I hear you say, this all sounds like a lecture on marketing theory. The inescapable fact is that quality management and marketing should be targeting the same fundamental objective. They are both component parts of an organisational philosophy which guides all efforts toward meeting the needs and expectations of customers.

Marketing and promotional messages directed at the customer must convey a consistent product image or personality so that customer expectations are met by what is actually delivered. All elements of the 'product ,p,ackage', i.e. beyond the physical features of the product and including pre-sales and post-sales activity must be delivered to achieve customer satisfaction. The key component in this equation is often forgotten by UK managers and staff the customer.


The historical development of working practices in this country are partly to blame for our predicament. Mass production of cheap consumer products has robbed the individual worker of his or her contact with the customer. Job specialisation has left many shop floor workers isolated from the full impact of their actions, as a sub-assembly or component passes on to another section or department. Craftsmanship, in which the tradesman made a quality product for an individual customer and therefore understood their individual needs and preferences, has given way to automation and an associated erosion of a sense of ownership of, or responsibility for, the finished product. In these circumstances it is easy to see how a work force can become self-centred and feel that any problems lie elsewhere in the production and delivery chain, thus avoiding personal responsibility for poor standards or failures.

There still persists a legacy of conservatism and protectionism in UK industry - both amongst unions and management. The resulting reluctance to change "the way things have always been done" is both selfdefeating and counter-productive. Customer needs clearly change and the actions of competitors who are more receptive to customers desires will continue to erode the competitive position of any enterprise which does not at least match their performance. The blinkers must come off and the simplicity of the quality concept must be recognised and acted upon if the malaise is to be lifted.

Managers have generally kept the special training and knowledge of quality and customer satisfaction issues to themselves. Many managers have failed to generate a workforce understanding of quality and its impact on competitiveness. They have also largely failed to empower their workers to act to produce the constant improvement and constant change now required.

Leadership, motivation and a sense of ownership of the outcome of their labours must be accompanied by support, together with the right tools and the abolition of bureaucratic obstacles.

Investment in training and new machines and techniques is a prerequisite for the maintenance of a highly skilled work force who can generate the crucial incremental improvements in products and services that win and keep satisfied customers. But workers must be free and motivated to make incremental improvements for the benefit of the enterprise as a whole. Contrast this with the paper-laden systems approach to quality which erodes profits further by burdening workers with new obstacles to delivering what the customer wants. Quality is primarily about people and attitudes, rather than simply 'systems'.


Often the desires of the customer may seem perverse, but if UK companies are to be competitive against firms who clearly understand and put customer needs centre stage, then they must at least do the same. And that, in many cases, means a fundamental change in the way business plans are formulated and implemented in this country. WhilSt departmentalism is a tried and trusted administrative convenience for firms, the customer must be satisfied with his or her product or service purchased - and everyone in the firm is to be responsible for that being achieved and will benefit from the improved results. Failure to meet the challenge is a recipe for continued decline in UK industry. The responsibility for Quality management lies unequivocally with managers and employees.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why is "quality" important?

2. How can we motivate people to prove best quality?

3. Why is quality primarily about "people" and "attitudes" rather than systems.

December, 1991