Quality is one of those tricky, slippery words that changes definition depending on its context. You’ll hear very different answers if you ask, “What is quality?” in a group of engineers vs a group of regular folks.

The ASQ defines it like this:

A subjective term for which each person or sector has its own definition. In technical usage, quality can have two meanings: 1) the characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs; 2) a product or service free of deficiencies. According to Joseph Juran, quality means “fitness for use”; according to Philip Crosby, it means “conformance to requirements.”

ASQ Quality Glossary

So let’s unpack this definition.

The subjective term

In everyday usage, ‘quality’ is a nebulous word. It denotes something that a person likes and considers that they can use with minimal disruptions. Typically, it meets their needs and some of their wants. It can be aspirational – something we can’t afford must be better quality than what we can. Why is it important to pay attention to this subjective and everyday definition, when we’re approaching ‘quality’ from a professional and more objective viewpoint? Because this is the understanding of ‘quality’ that a lot of your end customers may have. Therefore, you need to keep it mind.

Quality is when the customer returns and the product does not.

Tim Robertson

Meeting requirements

Being able to meet requirements is a much more objective definition than the previous one. Right? Yes – and no. The vagueness in ‘meeting requirements’ comes from two main issues:

  • What are the requirements?
  • How do we measure ‘meeting’ those requirements?

These might seem nitpicky points, however, a lack of understanding here can negatively affect a business. Anyone who’s worked in customer-facing roles can tell you that customers often have unstated and unexpected requirements for the most mundane of items. A person who orders a sandwich will complain that it wasn’t toasted – when they didn’t specifically ask for it. A person who buys the cheapest available computer will complain that it performs badly at running a resource-intensive game – when they didn’t specify that’s what they wanted the computer for.

Here’s the key point: requirements can be nebulous or concrete, and the terms for meeting them can be measurable or not.

Free from deficiencies

The ASQ presumably uses ‘deficiencies’ here as a catch-all to cover defects, defective units, and unfinished units. But let’s focus on defects, because this is one of the primary points of a Six Sigma project – eliminating defects in the end product improves its quality. In this sense, ‘quality’ can be measured and tracked.

What is Quality? Videos

Juran Global on the question: What is Quality?
Matts Rehnstrom answers the question: What is Quality?


Reliability. Photo by

As a consumer, how would you feel if a favorite product changed completely and without warning, but when you complained, the manufacturer simply told you that the product description was still accurate, so it was fine?

For example, say you enjoy a certain brand’s cheese-flavored potato chip. One day, you open a packet and bite into one, and the flavor has changed from cheddar to Stilton. Everything else about the chip is still exactly the same – size, crunch, saltiness, fattiness. The quality of the chip is still, technically, high. But there’s a good chance you’re going to be annoyed and feel let down if you weren’t warned about this change in advance. This is part of the reliability factor.

The other part of the reliability factor is that a product continue to exhibit a quality performance for a set period of time. The ASQ defines reliability as:

The probability of a product performing its intended function under stated conditions without failure for a given period of time.

ASQ Quality Glossary: Reliability

Quality & Reliability

Quality and reliability are intertwined concepts. You can also look at reliability as the effect of quality over time.

Let’s look at a real-life example.

You buy a new car from a dealer. It comes with a 7-year warranty and free servicing during the warranty period. The manufacturer is essentially promising you this: This is a quality product with no defects, and it will continue to work as promised for seven years without developing defects. If it does develop any defects, we’ll fix them for you.

The word Reliability is surrounded by five inward-pointing arrows, labeled Quality over time, Availability, Probability, Durability, and Dependability.

A reasonable expectation on the part of the customer would be that quality in the car will not degrade significantly in seven years.

Quality and Design

These two factors are strongly connected. Good design leads to better quality – and reliability. Conversely, bad design leads to faulty and unreliable items.

Use Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) to improve and develop your product designs.

Defects vs Defectives

Photo by Ramona Klee
Photo by Ramona Klee

A defect is an imperfection – a flaw or departure from the ideal. A defect can be large or small; it can render a product unusable or only outside of specifications.

A defective item, on the other hand, doesn’t function as required. For this to happen, the item will have one or more defects. But an item with a defect isn’t defective if it still functions as required.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Defect: One page of a book contains a typo.
Defective: A book falls apart when it’s picked up.

Defect: A customer ordered a burger with tomato, but the burger delivered to them does not contain tomato.
Defective: A burger patty is undercooked and represents a health risk; the customer cannot safely eat it.

Products with defects can still be used for their original purpose, although the customer experience may be sub-optimal. Defective products cannot be used for their original purpose without danger or severe inconvenience to the customer.

Problem Identification

Use these tools in problem identification:

  • Check Sheets: Identify where and how often problems appear in a product or service.
  • Pareto Charts: Pinpoint the most frequently occurring problems or defect.
  • Project Charters: Clearly document the scope and business impact of the problem the Six Sigma team is attempting to solve.

Life Cycle Cost & Quality

Life cycle cost is the total amount you end up paying for a product over its lifetime. It includes factors like:

  • Purchase price
  • Value depreciation
  • Operating costs
  • Maintenance expenses
  • Repair costs
  • Disposal costs at end of life

High quality products tend to have lower life cycle costs, despite often having an initial higher purchase price, because they:

  • Don’t break down as often, requiring fewer repairs.
  • Are built to minimize wear and tear, cutting down on required maintenance.
  • Will often be more efficient in their use of resources like electricity and water.
  • Hold their value better over time, because people are more willing to buy them secondhand.

Reliability Measures

Two common reliability measures are mean time to failure (MTTF) and mean time between failures (MTBF).

Mean time to failure

The average time that an unrepairable product will take to fail. This metric is for products that either can’t or shouldn’t be repaired, like light bulbs or fan belts. The reason for not repairing might be safety (a patched tire is more likely to blow out than a new tire) or cost-effectiveness (a faulty flash drive might be repairable, but the repair would cost a lot more than the replacement).

Mean time between failures

The average amount of time that a repairable system will run without a breakdown. For this metric, it’s important to understand what constitutes a failure. A failure:

  • Is unscheduled
  • Stops the system from functioning, and;
  • Requires a repair to be made.

Scheduled maintenance periods, even if they involve shutting down the system, do not count as failures. Issues that arise and require repair, but don’t shut down the system, also don’t count as failures.


All this talk of quality and reliability brings us to one of the key methods for finding and fixing problems in the design and production of items. The Failure Reporting, Analysis and Corrective Action System (FRACAS) originally came from military and defense industries in the 1970s. As you can probably imagine, the need for high-quality and reliable systems is absolutely paramount in these industries.

What is a FRACAS?

A FRACAS is a process we can use to solve issues at every stage of producing a new product: from design through to deployment. It involves:

  • Recording information about existing issues.
  • Prioritizing the list from most to least urgent or important.
  • Finding and implementing solutions so that the issues don’t happen again.
  • Documenting data from the recording and fixing stages to provide reliability reports.

How to create a FRACAS

Step 1: Report the failure

Develop a report template that includes:

  • The name of the person writing the report.
  • When: the time and date of the failure.
  • Who: the person responsible for noticing or witnessing the failure.
  • Where: the machine or location of the failure.
  • How: the steps that led to the failure.
  • What: anything that was done to attempt to correct the failure.
  • Next: options for changing a process or situation to ensure that the failure doesn’t reoccur.

Step 2: Analyze the failure

Designate a person in charge of delegating the analysis. Because there can be more than one type of failure, it’s typically self-defeating to have a single team always assigned to analyze a failure. You might need engineers to analyze a stress tolerance issue, or a Six Sigma specialist to analyze a process issue. Once they’ve found the root issue, they need to develop a solution.

The responsible person needs to look at each issue, identify the best people to deal with it, delegate to them, and then chase up the analysis as required.

Step 3: Correct the failure

Once the analysis team has come up with a solution, someone needs to put it in place. Again, who this will be can depend a lot on the actual issue being fixed. Your main mission at this point is to ensure that someone is responsible for taking the solution and getting it turned into reality. In smaller organizations, this might well be the same person who’s overseeing the analysis stage. They don’t have to be an expert in specific implementation; they do need to be good at finding the right person and motivating them to implement.

Example FRACAS scenario

Let’s look at a simplified example scenario and then walk through the FRACAS cycle for it.


A nozzle jams on a cookie extrusion machine. This causes a backflow of cookie dough onto the floor of the factory.

Failure report

Person reportingDanni Lewis
Date/time20:43, 03/31/2020
WitnessSpike Smith
LocationMachine 74W
FailureJammed nozzle caused dough backflow from top of machine.
Steps leading to failure1. Added dough mix 41.
2. Added wet ingredients.
3. Turned machine on.
Corrective actionTried turning machine off and on again. Did not help.
SuggestionsThis isn’t the first time this has happened since we changed the mix.


A manager gets the report and assigns the issue to the factory’s lead engineer. The team look at the machine in question. They find that the nozzle is blocked, as expected. But why? A comment on the report gives them a key clue. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, and it seems more frequent since a recipe change. Did anyone recalculate the machine requirements after changing it? It turns out this step was missed. No one noticed that the new mix is a bit thicker and needs a wider nozzle. They run a few simulations. Sure enough, a wider extrusion nozzle should fix the issue.

Corrective action

The manager gets the analysis back from the team. OK, they’ve found the cause and suggested a fix. The next task is to put that fix in place. She assigns the fix to the mechanic team. They take the engineers’ recommendations and order a couple of new, wider nozzles. They test these new nozzles for two weeks. In that time, one of the non-fixed machines backflows. The fixed ones don’t. So they expand the test to all extruders. Once they’ve had a two month period with no backflow incidents, they close the issue.

What is Quality? Additional Articles


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