May 19 2019

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What does economy mean

What does economy mean

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What Does “Product Quality” Really Mean?

In this article, the author reviews and synthesizes the varying definitions of product quality arising from philosophy, economics, marketing, and operations management. He then goes on to build an eight­-dimensional framework to elaborate on these definitions. Using this framework, he addresses the empirical relationships between quality and variables such as price, advertising, market share, cost, and profitability.


Product quality is rapidly becoming an important competitive issue. The superior reliability of many Japanese products has sparked considerable soul-searching among American managers.1 In addition, several surveys have voiced consumers’ dissatisfaction with the existing levels of quality and service of the products they buy.2 In a recent study of the business units of major North American companies, managers ranked “producing to high quality standards” as their chief current concern.3

Despite the interest of managers, the academic literature on quality has not been reviewed extensively. The problem is one of coverage: scholars in four disciplines — philosophy, economics, marketing, and operations management — have considered the subject, but each group has viewed it from a different vantage point. Philosophy has focused on definitional issues; economics, on profit maximization and market equilibrium; marketing, on the determinants of buying behavior and customer satisfaction; and operations management, on engineering practices and manufacturing control. The result has been a host of competing perspectives, each based on a different analytical framework and each employing its own terminology.

At the same time, a number of common themes are apparent. All of them have important management implications. On the conceptual front, each discipline has wrestled with the following questions: Is quality objective or subjective? Is it timeless or socially determined? Empirically, interest has focused on the correlates of quality. What, for example, is the connection between quality and price? Between quality and advertising? Between quality and cost? Between quality and market share? More generally, do quality improvements lead to higher or lower profits?

Five Approaches to Defining Quality

Five major approaches to the definition of quality can be identified: (1) the transcendent approach of philosophy; (2) the product-based approach of economics; (3) the user-based approach of economics, marketing, and operations management; and (4) the manufacturing-based and (5) value-based approaches of operations management. Table 1 presents representative examples of each approach.

Table 1: Five Definitions of Quality

I. Transcendent Definition:
  • “Quality is neither mind nor matter, but a third entity independent of the two . even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what it is.” (R. M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , pp. 185, 213)
  • ” . a condition of excellence implying fine quality as distinct from poor quality . Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against being satisfied with the sloppy or fraudulent.”

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About the Author

David A. Garvin is Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University. Dr. Garvin holds the A.B. degree from Harvard University and the Ph.D. degree from M.I.T. His primary research interests are in the areas of production and operations management, industrial economics, and discussion teaching. Dr. Garvin has had consulting and executive education experience with major U.S. corporations, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies. He is the author of The Economics of University Behavior and coauthor of Cases in Operations Management. His many articles have appeared in such journals as Columbia Journal of World Business, Business Horizons, Harvard Business Review, and California Management Review.


I would like to thank Ken Goodpaster, Ted Levitt, John Quelch, members of the Production and Operations Management area at the Harvard Business School, and an anonymous referee for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. I would also like to thank the Division of Research at the Harvard Business School for its financial support.

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