Quality is not an invention of the XX century nor a fashion. It is a part of human behavior that develops and unfolds according to the circumstances and needs of each historical moment.
Quality and reliability have accompanied humanity since the beginning of its history. We can guess that a Paleolithic hunter with better tools would surely obtain more and better prey, which should not have gone unnoticed by the rest of the community (Grima, Pozueta, Prats, and Tot-Martorell, 1998).
History of quality: first documents
Reviewing the first writings that document the history of quality, the Hammurabi Code, in its chapter CCXXIX (2150 B.C.), recounted how to proceed with the person in charge of a building if it turned out to be of poor quality:
“If a bricklayer has built a house and, not strong enough, it sinks and kills its occupants; the bricklayer must be executed.“
Similarly, the Phoenicians used more drastic corrective methods than today. If someone did not meet the quality standards, the inspectors eliminated any possibility of repetition of the defect, cutting off the hands of the individuals who had produced a product that was not suitable for use. As we can see, reviewing the history of quality, in the past, work was much more dangerous than today, and making a mistake could be paid with life.
The oldest treatise on quality is the one discovered in Egypt in the tomb of Rekh-Mi-Re in Thebes. It dates back to 1450 BC and shows how an inspector checks a stone block perpendicularity with a rope help. In Central America, the Aztecs proceeded similarly.
Let’s go through a few centuries in the history of quality to stop at the Middle Ages. With medieval corporatism, a way of proceeding flourished closely related to quality: the corporation dictated rules and control methods that tried to guarantee the client the conformity of the products they purchased. Although this system allowed an important development of the economy, on the other hand, the corporate rules could be a brake on improvement and innovation since the professionals of a union had a strict obligation to abide by the established norms when carrying out their duties.
Over the centuries, quality has been transformed, especially since industrial activity began in the Lyon textile factories, the Saint-Etienne iron and steel mill or the Annonay paper mill.
In manufacturing, the worker does not have direct contact with the client, so he cannot assess whether the product he manufactures is suitable for use and satisfactory. In addition, with mass production, the worker no longer feels ownership and pride in the object he produces, affecting the final quality of his productions.
The 20th century brought great advances in manufacturing technologies and quality control methods. In its early years, many technological inventions aimed at industrial application meant a spectacular development of production capacity in different sectors.
Likewise, the two World Wars marked a before and after in the quality control methods applied. The increase in the production of the military sector required more efficient control methods than the 100% inspection typical of artisanal production. For this reason, research in the statistical methodology applied to quality control was highly encouraged in the first decades.
What is quality?
Regarding what quality means, it should be said that various definitions have been used, more or less subjective, as is the case of quality understood as excellence. Looking for a better conceptualization, the standard ISO in 1994 established:
“Quality is the total of the characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy explicit and implicit needs.”
Another widely used definition of quality is “fitness for use or a certain purpose.”
To better understand what ISO intends to indicate with the conception of quality as the satisfaction of needs, we will say that, in a contractual situation, the explicit needs are indicated in the contract and are translated into characteristics that the products must have, according to certain previously established standards. As for the implicit needs, it will be the company that defines them based on the knowledge it has of its market and its client. Since customer needs change over time, companies should review quality requirements periodically to ensure a good fit with market demand.
Currently, most organizations meet specific production criteria, such as technical specifications. However, according to the ISO 9000 standard,
“Specifications do not necessarily guarantee that customer requirement will be constantly met.”
For this reason, the ISO 9001 standard considers quality from four perspectives: needs and requirements of the product or service, design of the product or service, compliance with the design, and support for the product in the value chain.