Obstacles to the creation of attractive quality

The Authors

Johan Lilja, Department of Engineering, Physics and Mathematics, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden

Håkan Wiklund, Department of Engineering, Physics and Mathematics, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden

Abstract

Purpose – The purpose of the paper is to contribute to the solution, and understanding, of the current lack of activity concerning the development of practices, such as engineering methods, for the creation of attractive quality. The current situation is clearly problematic given the important positive effects assigned to attractive quality in the literature.

Design/methodology/approach – First, different descriptions of attractive quality are examined in order to determine whether there is a common understanding of the concept. Second, the ability to manage attractive quality creation in accordance to a proactive ideal is approached by an examination of the current ability to predict the occurrence of attractive quality.

Findings – Two obstacles that currently hinder the development of practices for attractive quality creation are identified. The first obstacle is the diversity of meanings given to the concept of attractive quality, resulting in confusion about what to obtain. The second obstacle identified is the current lack of valid explanations to the occurrence of attractive quality, resulting in an inability to develop proactive practices.

Practical implications – The practical implications of bringing attention to, and overcoming, the two obstacles identified will potentially be substantial. A common attractive quality concept and valid explanations to the occurrence of attractive quality will constitute an essential base for the successful development of practices, such as engineering methods, for attractive quality creation.

Originality/value – The paper contributes via the identification of two critical areas in need of intensified attention and future research in order to facilitate the sought-after development of practices for the creation of attractive quality.

Article Type:

Research paper

Keyword(s):

Quality; Quality concepts; Quality management.

Journal:

The TQM Magazine

Volume:

18

Number:

1

Year:

2006

pp:

55-66

Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

ISSN:

0954-478X

Introduction

Modern quality management has been continuously evolving in response to the changing demands of business. The increasingly intense competition has accordingly caused a shift in interest from the original producers' point of view, which goes under different names such as “manufacturing-based quality” (Garvin, 1984), “objective quality” (Shewhart, 1931), and “production management quality” (Steenkamp, 1990), towards the customers' point of view, recognizing quality as a subjective matter and approaching the marketing concept. In other words, regarding the two aspects of quality, originally defined by Shewhart (1931) as subjective and objective quality, the subjective aspect has become more emphasized along with the progress of free-market economies (Kondo, 2000). Furthermore, an advancing belief is that it will not suffice to have customers that are merely satisfied (e.g. Chandler, 1989; Schlossberg, 1990; Deming, 2000; Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003). In addition, an organization should ultimately delight its customers. This higher level of satisfaction is generally thought to be the key to more evasive goals such as loyalty and loyalty-driven profit, and it has been seen as a driver of increased sales (Kondo, 2000), considerable competitive edge over the competition and loyal customers (e.g. Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003), and sustainable competitive advantage (e.g. Kirker, 1994).

Within quality management, delighting the customer has often been referred to as a matter of offering attractive quality elements to the customers. Attractive quality elements was one of five categories of quality elements suggested by Kano et al. (1996) in the so-called “theory of attractive quality”. These elements have been seen as intimately connected to customer delight and have even been denoted as “delighters” by some authors (see Pardee, 1996). Furthermore, “attractive quality creation” has for some time been proposed as the next step of the quality revolution (Joiner, 1996; Silverman and Propst, 1999), and a number of researchers have emphasized the importance of creating attractive quality (e.g. Matzler and Hinterhuber, 1998; Tan and Shen, 2000; Kano, 2001; Ting and Chen, 2002). Kano (1987) even envisioned total quality creation as a third stage of the development of quality management, focusing on attractive quality creation, in terms of potential or latent needs, in addition to the previous focus given to basic and expected needs during the earlier two stages of quality control and quality management. Evident progress towards this vision is however notably absent. An error avoidance focus is seemingly still dominating today's quality practice, even when it comes to new initiatives such as Six Sigma (see, for example, Goh, 2002). Kano (2001, p. 19) described it thus:

… although from early times philosophers discussed the meaning of quality […] many of today's quality specialists have not considered this topic. Rather, quality specialists of today are developing engineering methods for how to eliminate current quality problems and meet customer requirements.

Kano is hence arguing that today's quality specialists should be, but are not, developing engineering methods for how to create attractive quality.

The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the solution, and understanding, of this somewhat problematic situation. The purpose is hence to contribute to the current knowledge by identifying reasons for the current lack of activity concerning the development of practices, such as engineering methods, for the creation of attractive quality. Following in the footsteps of, for example, Shewhart and Deming, the authors are inspired by the philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis (Lewis, 1929). More specifically, the purpose has been approached by acknowledging the crucial importance given by Lewis to common concepts, argued as necessary for accomplishing a community of action. Seen in this context, the first question of examination is whether the target of practice, such as engineering methods for attractive quality creation, in terms of attractive quality elements, is commonly understood. Do quality scholars give a similar meaning to the attractive quality concept? Is the target clear? Furthermore, quality management generally advocates a proactive rather than reactive strategy – a proactive strategy that is dependent upon the ability to predict. The second question of examination is accordingly whether the current understanding of the attractive quality concept provides the ability to predict and thereby enables the development of proactive engineering methods for attractive quality creation.

The theory of attractive quality

Quality is currently more or less generally defined in terms of customer satisfaction (e.g. Shiba et al., 1993; Dale, 1999; Dahlgaard et al., 2002; Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003). A deep understanding of what creates customer satisfaction and customer value is hence essential to quality management. The theory of attractive quality is frequently used to provide such an understanding, claimed to be an excellent mental model for deeper understanding of how customers evaluate a product or offering (see, for example, Tan and Shen, 2000; Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003; Magnusson et al., 2003). In this theory, Kano et al. (1996) aimed to link what Shewhart (1931) defined as objective quality (independent of the existence of man) to subjective quality (what we think, feel, or sense as a result of the objective reality). As a result they proposed a two-dimensional recognition of quality as shown in Figure 1, with five general categories of quality elements as specified in Table I (Kano et al., 1996). Note that the model was published in Japanese by Kano et al. (1984).

Over the past two decades, the theory of attractive quality has gained increasing exposure and acceptance and it has been applied in strategic thinking, business planning, and product development to demonstrate lessons learned in innovation, competitiveness, and product compliance (Watson, 2003). However, the issue of further interest to this paper is two obstacles that have in all likelihood contributed to the current lack of activity concerning the development of practices, such as methods for the creation of attractive quality.

Identifying the first obstacle

Clarence Irving Lewis (1929), the philosopher who influenced many of the profound insights of both Shewhart and Deming, clearly stressed the importance of reflection about common concepts in order to be aware of the possible different meanings of a concept. The authors share the notion of Lewis (1929) that common concepts are necessary for community of action, further elaborated in Mauléon and Bergman (2002). However, descriptions of the concept of attractive quality found in the literature indicate that the concept is currently given a number of very different meanings, as shown in Table II. Note that the examples are intended to serve as indicators of diversity in understanding, not to give a complete reflection of all of the literature.

Table II indicates, on a comprehensive level, that scholars are currently attaching very different meanings to the concept of attractive quality. Some descriptions share similarities with competitive advantage and differentiation (e.g. Ishikawa, 1990; Kano, 2001), stressing the importance of being superior to, or discernible from, other products. Other descriptions refer to the ability to surprise and delight the customer (e.g. Edvardsson, 2000), and still others to the satisfaction of a specific type of need (Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003). When making a closer examination, the indicated diversity concerns several aspects of the theory of attractive quality. As indicated in Figure 2, even the two entities proposed as correlating in the theory of attractive quality, i.e. the labels on the vertical and the horizontal axes, are currently being given different meanings in the literature.

The vertical axis

The label on the vertical axis is of great importance as it indicates the proposed effect of attractive quality elements and more generally the very target for quality management in terms of customer response. Kano et al. (1996) used the term “satisfied feeling”, referring to an affect, or an emotional state. Other representations of the model, however, use “customer satisfaction” (e.g. Edvardsson, 2000; Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003) which is currently seen as a construct with both affective and cognitive components (Oliver, 1996). Still others use the emotion “delight” (e.g. Magnusson et al., 2003), which clearly changes the meaning as researchers have found that the drivers of satisfaction and the drivers of delight are not the same (Rust et al., 1994). The different entities used on the vertical axis therefore alter both the causes and effects of the attractive quality elements. Having in common that feelings are part of the attractive quality response, it is not clear, however, what kind of feelings these are. Delight is, for instance, seen as a secondary emotion based on surprise and pleasure, which is quite far from the original “satisfied feeling” which studies have shown to be interpreted as the absence of negative affect (Watson and Tellegen, 1985). The emotions “delighted” and “satisfied” even appear to be roughly independent, as elaborated by Lilja and Wiklund (2005). The diverse meanings given to the vertical axis then extend between two very different emotions.

The horizontal axis

As noted, Kano et al. (1996) used the label “state of physical fulfilment” on the horizontal axis, aiming to reflect objective quality as defined by Shewhart (1931), i.e. “an objective reality independent of man”. Others refer to the horizontal axis of the Kano diagram as indicating how “fully functional” an aspect of a product is (Berger et al., 1993), and more interestingly Bergman and Klefsjö (2003) use “degree of achievement” in terms of need fulfilment. This label distinguishes itself by linking an underlying mechanism to the attractive quality perception. It is obvious that the state of physical fulfilment of objective quality and the degree of need fulfilment are essentially different. The first focuses on the product itself – what the product has – claiming that different physical attributes of the product can be directly assigned to different customer responses, such as the more than proportional satisfaction response assigned to attractive quality elements. Alternatively, the second focuses on what the customer gets, claiming that the different customer responses correlate with the fulfilment of different needs, which do not necessarily have a one-to-one relationship with physical product attributes. In fact, need fulfilment does not necessarily have any relationship at all to physical product attributes.

In sum, there seems to be widespread confusion concerning the attractive quality concept and the theory of attractive quality in general, as seen in the examples summarized in Figure 3. A mixture of physical elements, needs, diverse emotional states and cognitive components currently appears in the literature – a situation where different causes, such as needs, and expectations as well as different effects (e.g. delight and satisfaction), are assigned to attractive quality elements.

Consequences for practice

The first obstacle identified is the lack of a common attractive quality concept. This lack contributes to a confused situation for the development of methods for attractive quality creation. A number of vital questions are currently left unanswered, such as:

  1. What is supposed to increase more than proportional to what?
  2. What are the methods supposed to create a satisfied customer, a delighted customer, or customer satisfaction?
  3. What are the methods supposed to design quality elements?
  4. Are the methods restricted to physical elements?

The current lack of a common concept is clearly an obstacle to the development of methods for attractive quality creation. As argued by Lewis (1929), the lack of a common concept is hindering a community of action.

Identifying the second obstacle

Deming (2000) stated that management in any form is prediction and that rational prediction requires theory and builds knowledge through systematic revision and extension of theory based on comparison of prediction with observation. The importance of theory is further accentuated by “theory of knowledge” being one of four parts in Deming's system of profound knowledge. We agree with Deming, stressing theory as central to the ability to learn and improve, since without theory there is nothing to revise, nothing to learn. We also agree with scholars like Kaplan (1964), Merton (1967), and Sutton and Staw (1995), who assert that theory is the answer to queries of “why?”. Theory is about the connections between phenomena, a story about why acts, events, structures, and thoughts occur. Theory emphasizes the nature of casual relationships, identifying what comes first as well as the timing of such events. Strong theory, in our view, delves into underlying processes so as to understand the systematic reasons for a particular occurrence or non-occurrence. As Weick (1995) succinctly put it, a good theory explains, predicts, and delights.

However, such explanations are currently notably absent for the attractive quality response. The theory of attractive quality currently enables the classification and identification of attractive quality elements but does not provide explanations as to why some elements are perceived as attractive while others are not. Using the logic of realist explanation from Pawson and Tilley (1997), Kano et al. (1996) proposed an empirical regularity, a pattern in the correlation between subjective and objective quality. They did not, however, explain the causes for these regularities; they did not posit some underlying mechanism which generates the regularity. The attractive quality response needs to be explained by the action of particular mechanisms, in particular contexts, in order to constitute a theoretical base that enables prediction. Using the criteria of, for example, Kaplan (1964), Merton (1967), and Sutton and Staw (1995), as previously declared, it can be questioned whether the theory of attractive quality can be regarded as a theory. Explanations in terms of the psychological processing of performance can currently be illustrated as a “black box”, shown in Figure 4, because the theory of attractive quality only tells what goes in and what comes out, not what occurs inside.

The need to unravel the black box in Figure 4 can be seen as confirmed by a substantial number of suggested reasons for the attractive quality response currently given in the literature, although not being empirically explored. Some examples among the different suggestions are that attractive quality elements exceed expectations (Rust and Oliver, 2000; Tan and Shen, 2000), satisfy latent needs (Kano, 2001; Elliott et al., 2003), or satisfy excitement needs (Bergman and Klefsjö, 2003). Bergman and Klefsjö hence suggest that attractive quality fulfils a special type of need which, it should be noted, is in line with the distinction of motivators in the motivator-hygiene theory (Herzberg et al., 1959, Herzberg, 1987), which is declared as the theoretical basis of the Kano model (Kano et al., 1996; Kondo, 2000). Kano (2001) proposes that the needs that drive attractive quality perception are characterized by being latent, in terms of unspoken or unconscious. The specific response “delight” refers on the other hand to a profoundly positive emotional state generally resulting from having one's expectations exceeded to a surprising degree (Oliver et al., 1997).

Here it is vital to remember that needs and expectations are two very different things. As noted by Bergman and Klefsjö (2003, p. 24):

… our expectations sometimes include elements that we do not really need. On the other hand, as customers, we have needs that we do not expect to be fulfilled, sometimes because we do not realize our own needs.

Oliver (1996) further confirms this notion when concluding that the question of falling short of, meeting or exceeding needs may, in all likelihood, give different predictions of satisfaction than the question of falling short of, meeting, or exceeding expectations.

Consequences for practice

The second obstacle identified is then a current lack of valid explanations to the attractive quality response. Modern quality management generally advocates a proactive rather than reactive strategy. Obviously, not everything can be predicted by analysis, but the ambition is generally to increase the predictive ability. The initiative Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), for instance, aims to improve the predictability of product quality during the design phase (e.g. Berryman, 2002; Huber and Launsby, 2002). However, the development of proactive engineering methods for attractive quality creation is dependent upon theory, dependent upon the understanding of why the attractive quality response occurs. Unravelling the processing in the black box in Figure 4 is hence necessary for further advancement in line with a proactive strategy separate from the current reactive approaches provided by the use of the so-called Kano questionnaire (e.g. Berger et al., 1993; Kano et al., 1996) – a questionnaire that provides a classification of quality elements into attractive, one-dimensional, must-be, reverse, indifferent, and questionable results, based on measurements of customer perceptions as visualized in Figure 4. The current ability to simply categorize product features in accordance to their relationship with subjective quality might suffice for a reactive strategy but not for a proactive strategy. A vital question for the development of methods for attractive quality creation is this: what are the systematic reasons for a particular occurrence or non-occurrence of the attractive quality response? Is it a matter of satisfying a certain type of need, a matter of diverting from expectations, and if so, in what way? The current lack of valid explanations of the attractive quality response is clearly an obstacle to the development of proactive methods for attractive quality creation. As argued by Deming (2000), management in any form is prediction, and rational prediction requires theory.

Discussion and conclusions

Quality professionals and researchers constantly need to seek to improve their knowledge of subjective quality and how to accomplish it. The theory of attractive quality has clearly advanced such an understanding, perhaps mostly by proposing that avoiding dissatisfaction and merely listening to the customer is insufficient. The theory also points at the existence of a category of quality elements that are of particular interest as they complement the one-sided avoidance of dissatisfaction, the attractive quality elements. Interestingly, these elements have been given considerable words of praise but have principally failed to be reflected in current quality practice. The purpose of this paper was to contribute to the solution, and understanding, of this somewhat problematic situation and it has been accomplished by the identification of two obstacles that currently hinder the development of practices for attractive quality creation. The first obstacle identified is the diversity of meanings currently given to the concept of attractive quality, resulting in confusion and hindering a community of action. The target of practice for attractive quality creation is hence vague. A number of vital questions are currently left unanswered, such as: what are the methods supposed to create, a satisfied customer, a delighted customer, or customer satisfaction?

The second obstacle identified is the current lack of valid explanations of the attractive quality response. However, the development of proactive engineering methods for attractive quality creation is dependent upon the understanding of why the attractive quality response occurs. The two obstacles constitute a point of departure for new efforts within the field of attractive quality creation. The practical implications of bringing attention to these obstacles will potentially be substantial as the obstacles are reflected in practice as misunderstandings and an inability to manage attractive quality creation according to a proactive ideal.

Avenues for future research

This paper has identified two obstacles in need of intensified attention and future research in order to facilitate the development of practices such as engineering methods for attractive quality creation. In addressing the first obstacle, the ambition of researchers focusing on the theory of attractive quality should be to bring clarity into the current situation of confusion. Until then, it is of vital importance to take into account the currently diverse meanings given to the concept of attractive quality among different scholars. In addressing the second obstacle, future empirical studies and literature studies into related subject fields such as marketing and psychology are believed to be essential. Future research should focus on the question “why?”. Why are some elements perceived as attractive quality? What are the explanations of this particular response? The attractive quality response might very well be explained by a number of different mechanisms working alone or in tandem, involving – for example – expectations and needs. A valid understanding of the systematic reasons for a particular occurrence or non-occurrence of the attractive quality response will constitute an essential base for the actual development of proactive practices, such as engineering methods, for the creation of attractive quality.

ImageA two-dimensional vizualisation of three quality element categories defined in the theory of attractive quality
Figure 1A two-dimensional vizualisation of three quality element categories defined in the theory of attractive quality

ImageThe current state of confusion
Figure 2The current state of confusion

ImageThe situation of confusion exemplified concerning the label on the horizontal and vertical axis as well as the attractive quality concept itself
Figure 3The situation of confusion exemplified concerning the label on the horizontal and vertical axis as well as the attractive quality concept itself

ImageThe processing psychology which might explain the different relationships between objective and subjective quality is currently not addressed, basically left as a “black box”. The Kano questionnaire enables measurement of the output from such processing but provides little support for a proactive strategy
Figure 4The processing psychology which might explain the different relationships between objective and subjective quality is currently not addressed, basically left as a “black box”. The Kano questionnaire enables measurement of the output from such processing but provides little support for a proactive strategy

ImageThe five categories of quality elements including attractive quality elements
Table IThe five categories of quality elements including attractive quality elements

ImageExamples from literature describing the concept of attractive quality elements
Table IIExamples from literature describing the concept of attractive quality elements

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Further Reading

Matzler, K., Hinterhuber, H.H., Sauerwein, B., Sauerwein, E. (1996), "How to delight your customers", Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 5 No.2, pp.6-18.

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Corresponding author

Johan Lilja is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: Johan-Lilja@miun-se