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Sunday, December 14, 2008

What is "Quality"?

Originally published on12/14/08 as
December Software QA Tech-Tip: What is "Quality"?

This month's Tech-Tip is a conversation-starter – What IS "Quality"?

To be honest, this Tech-Tip was inspired by a copy of Fortune magazine with a ‘50's Chevy on the front cover and the legend "GM – Death of an American Dream" describing the abysmal state that American automakers have fallen into.

I have heard a number of different definitions for "Quality" – and they all center on the concept of giving the customer a product (or service) that works as expected.

I am going to respectfully disagree – and I will say that Quality is not only giving a customer a product or service that works as expected, but goes beyond expectations in thoughtful ways that indicate you had the customer's best interests in mind when the product or service was designed.

Many years ago, I purchased a brand-new 1990 Hyundai Excel. This was back when everyone was "talkin' trash" about Hyundai and the "crummy" cars they created. This car not only did what I expected a car to do – get me where I wanted to go without a lot of maintenance and without consuming gallons of gasoline – but as I got to know the car, I noticed a whole host of thoughtful touches:

Two examples:

  1. The fuse-panel used the, (then new and unfamiliar), "blade" type fuses.  Not only did they provide a plastic coated PRINTED fuse-map, securely glued to the inside of the fuse-panel door; right next to it was a blade-type fuse puller – and a molded-in clip to hold it ready for use!  In addition, right there at the bottom of the fuse panel, were four extra fuses – one spare for every value used – just in case you blew a fuse in the middle of nowhere.  Not to mention that the fuse panel was located where it was easily reached – and only a slight push would cause the press-lock catch to release, opening up the entire panel for you.

    By comparison, most other cars – even those costing much more than the $7k I spent – if they had a fuse-map at all, it was molded into the plastic somewhere and was almost impossible to read.

    Fuse puller?  Yea, right! You'd get one at the local Auto-Parts-Extravaganza!  Spares? Who are YOU kidding?!!

    Location, location, location . . .  The fuse panel was invariably tucked up somewhere – BEHIND the dashboard – where even Houdini would have trouble reaching it. And even using a flashlight, (assuming you even HAD one with you!), was little help as the fuses were not only hidden somewhere up behind the dashboard, but tucked away behind something else, making them almost impossible to see.
  2. This car – unlike most other cars I had owned up to that point in time – was primarily electronic. Everything, from the dashboard clock to the fuel-injection system was run by computer. Every system, every subsystem had its own electronic module or controller to run it.

    One night, I helped a friend determine that her battery had died by swapping my battery into her car, and using it to start it. It was dark – dimly lit – and when I placed the battery back into my car, I attached the "minus" lead, tightened it down, and then the "plus" lead . . . .  To the accompaniment of a loud flash and BANG!!  Ohmygosh!  I'd installed the battery BACKWARDS and had blown the 50 amp fusible link that was built into the battery cable…  My heart sank – fifty amps of twelve-volt power, applied BACKWARDS to THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS of expensive car electronics and computers.  Not only was my car fried – it was EXPENSIVELY fried! It would probably cost more to fix than to replace – and I wasn't even finished paying it off yet!!

    Fearing the worst, I disconnected the battery, swapped it around, connected the battery terminals and, (to jumper out the now-blown 50 amp fuse), I swapped the charging lead from one fuse terminal to the other.  All the time fearing the smell of char-broiled electronics when I re-applied power.

    Once I made contact . . .  Lights came on, the heater fan started and (joy!) I heard not only the radio start playing, but the familiar clicking sound of the engine's computer starting up!  The car – much to my surprise! – was absolutely unscathed.

    Once home, (after singing Holy Hymns the entire way!), I dug out the copy of the service manual I bought when I purchased the car and found out what had happened.

    The engineers in Korea, realizing that car electronics are not cheap and that some clever idiot like myself would – inevitably – reverse-connect the battery, designed a special part into the electrical system – a part that did absolutely nothing so long as everything was connected correctly.  However, it would short-circuit the entire electrical system – not only blowing the master fuse, but also protecting the car's electronics – if the battery was accidentally installed backwards.  Total cost for my mistake: $4 for a new 50 amp fuse at the local auto-parts store. Not counting the thirty-or-so extra grey hairs!

In both cases, the engineers saw an opportunity to add value to the car owner's experience:  First, by providing a very inexpensive tool that would make changing fuses much simpler – AND spares, "just in case".  Second, by the inclusion of two extra components: the special part and extra "Master" fuse, the car was protected from a potentially devastating and expensive mishap.

The usual practice would have been to omit these touches – to save money.  And I am sure it would have. Thousands, maybe even millions per year while these cars were being made.  And since the Hyundai Excel was such an inexpensive car, no one would have missed them.  But, by the inclusion of a few extra dollars in parts and effort, they made a loyal customer who referred dozens of friends to that brand.  At seven thou, plus, per car – the few extra dollars spent proved a worthwhile investment.

Nowadays, Hyundai has glass cases filled with J. D. Powers Awards and legions of thrilled customers.  Toyota can't make cars fast enough to meet demand.  Lexus dealerships (a division of Toyota), are springing up like dandelions and "Honda" is the new Japanese word for "making tons of money", while "The Big Three" automakers pray for another miracle to prevent them from disappearing into oblivion.

Obviously, "Quality" is not just about giving the customer what he expects. It's about giving the customer MORE than he expects; looking for ways to meet needs the customer did not even realize he had.

What say ye?


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