What is Quality?
This concept is the premise of Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is introduced in the book as one of his fellow professors encourages him, innocently, to “teach quality”.
First off, ff you haven’t read it, stop right now. Stop everything you are doing and put your life and career on hold. You must read this book to continue your life. It is also highly recommended that you read this book every 5-7 years. Don’t panic, it’s not really about Zen, or motorcycles, but it is everything about “maintenance”.
We speak constantly of quality:
But what does it all mean?
In reality, those little phrases be exactly the “right” and “wrong”, even if they’re for the same things. The phrases mean different things to different people, and it comes down to the perception and understanding of the word quality.
- Quality, for too many, means done; good enough, usable, interpretable. In a word, functional. (Those people didn’t read the book.)
- To a select few Quality is short for QA, which is testing. Again, function focused. (Those people read manuals, not books.)
- Some take Quality to mean it’s useable, worthy of praise and excitement, generating emotion and reactions. Basically form. (Those people probably didn’t read the book.)
- For others it means valuable, applicable and useable for the situation at hand, again, also functional. (Those people read it once.)
- For still others it means … useable and igniting the need to do better, to strive for more understanding. Combining form and function. (Those people read the book several too many times and are likely in a 12-step program or two.)
“We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
In our world of marketing, and in fact in the world around us, the focus is on growth, getting bigger, better, faster, cheaper … it is inherently against the concept of quality. We look outside to find what to do next to extend whatever success we had. We look at the “grand scheme of things” to see how we can take over the world with our ideas. We convince ourselves that this is quality, that quality is synonymous with success.
“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
We’ve begun to merge the words qualitative with quantitative. It’s true, I’ve worked with folks who are younger who honestly do not know the difference, and use the words interchangeably. Maybe I’m getting old and not up on the “changing landscape of youth”, but they are not the same. Quantity and Quality should not be related, in theory. (Meaning you shouldn’t have to have one or the other.)
I have found clients, colleagues and friends who find themselves struggling at points with what to do, take the wrong approach. When they find themselves stuck they inevitably they go big and don’t know where to start. They become overwhelmed with the possibilities, like a child saying they don’t know what to do when they have a closet full of toys. There is simply too much to choose from that they get stuck.
I always find myself referring back to a snippet in the book to help them through. The scene is when the narrator tells his students to write about something they know, and they freeze up. Instead of writing about Montana, he keeps bringing them closer, smaller in their focus. Write about the town, write about the main street, write about the building, write about the facade, write about the one brick.
By focusing smaller, not bigger, we can begin to create from inside us, to include the detail, attention, and express the quality that we seek. From there we can always expand out, but we grow from a foundation of strength.
In marketing we start with the goals. Let me repeat that, we start with the goals, not with the tactics. We don’t say, or rather we shouldn’t say, hmmm, what will I focus this week’s email on. No, we begin with the goals of what we want our emails to accomplish overall, and plan out the types of communications to reach those audiences from there. We start at the brick.
It is always important to note that Quality is subjective. Goals are not. We have to meet the goals.
If we focus only on the tactics, we may end up with good results. If approach the goals strategically, we not only can guarantee successful outcomes by meeting the goals, we can identify new ways to approach the goals to exceed them through value innovation.
Robert Pirsig felt that his book about the metaphysics of Quality was worthwhile. Proving the subjectivity of this notion, 121 publishers disagreed and rejected his book. The 122nd publisher thought otherwise, and it became a bestseller, which is as relevant today, if not more so, than it was when it was first published in 1974. He met his goals, and exceeded expectations.
The point is, Quality IS subjective, and to that end, we need to make sure it is targeted to what our AUDIENCES and CUSTOMERS will respond to so that we can meet the goals. That begins with marketing strategy. It begins with looking at the brick, building that plan, and expanding outward.