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OnWords: Quality

You can usually tell that an organization has stopped caring about quality when it becomes the only thing they talk about.

“Quality” is one of those words that is necessarily vague, and, therefore, becomes a smoke screen behind which much mischief can hide.

Consider the continual quality improvement efforts so in vogue for the past few decades. They have all been accompanied by increasingly onerous and minute numeric evaluations and assessments. This data-gathering is then obsessed over for just long enough to justify the predetermined decisions of those in charge.

Constant measurement comes at immense cost, not just in monetary terms, but in terms of time, effort, and emotional capital. But when you think of the quality of a thing, you don’t think of data. You think in terms of your senses: what the fabric feels like in your hand, the sound of an engine, what a good wine does to your nose.

I’m equivocating here a little, simultaneously using the word “quality” to mean “what’s good” and to call up the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. But it’s to a purpose: quality is what makes measurable data meaningful.

Qualitative description is not merely the touchy-feely that stands opposed to hard facts; it’s what makes those facts real. So if it seems like a quality improvement plan has pulled all the passion out of your product, perhaps you should go back and ask what quality means for the product you sell.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.