Grade Vs. Quality

ImageThis conversation is largely about the differences between the Grade of something and its inherent Quality.  Far too often, people become confused by the use of these two terms.  They frequently believe that “high quality stuff” simply costs more.  We’ve all heard the saying: “You get what you pay for.”  In fact, sales people have been known to use this misunderstanding to justify charging more for something.  When this happens, they are actually upgrading you to the next level by saying: “For a few more bucks, you can get the same thing, but with a much higher level of quality.”  To the average person on the street, this argument has a lot of intuitive appeal and would seem like the common-sense thing to do.  But as we shall see, this is often not the case.

To begin working through this quagmire of misunderstanding, lets consider the grade of something tangible, like a bed sheet.  In this case, we’ll say the material was graded at 1,500 threads per inch, or TPI in short.  Certainly, in the world of fabric, a bed sheet that is graded at 1,500 TPI would be considered top-of-the-line, so to speak.  Naturally, this particular grade of bed sheet would cost significantly more to produce than the same item, but graded at 200 TPI.  More material (owing to greater density) means higher material costs which translates to you paying more at the cash register.

The same could be said for the type of materials that comprise the individual threads of a bed sheet, like the use of silk or cotton.  We naturally expect to pay more for silk than cotton (for the same reasons gold is more expensive than silver).  In this case, silk is a higher grade of fiber (when compared to cotton) simply because it costs more to acquire and produce.  And so it goes with other physical attributes, like the type or style of stitching used to edge the sheets.  Thus, we can now loosely say that the grade of something is more about the quantity of an attribute than the quality of that attribute.

To extend our example, lets suppose our 1,500 TPI sheets were made from threads of silk that had been exposed to a brief period of high humidity.  In keeping with our example, we’ll say that the unwanted moisture caused some microscopic rotting within some of the individual fibers.  Well, any given sheet would still be considered high-grade because there are still 1,500 TPI, but because some of the fibers were defective, it would be of lesser quality.

From this point-of-view, it can be said that quality will vary within a grade, but not between grades.  This means its totally possible to purchase a high-grade automobile (like a Rolls Royce) but the vehicle’s quality is low, simply because of all the material and assembly defects created before or during production.  Granted, the vast majority of those defects will be detected and fixed during the course of production, but that does not change the in-process quality.  Fixing those defects just improves the post-process quality.  Now we can better understand why quality varies with a grade and not between grades.  In other words, knowledge of grade is not a predictor of quality (and vice-verse).  On the flip side of the coin, its also possible to produce a low-grade automobile that is virtually free of defects during and after the course of production.  In this case, the car would be viewed as a high-quality, low-grade product.

Let’s switch gears for a moment, no pun intended.  From the quality perspective, its not uncommon to hear people say: “You know, we need to have some quality conversation about that.”  No doubt, you’ve heard others say: “We should really spend some quality time and talk about it.”  Given such statements, its only logical to wonder what the phrase “quality conversation” actually means.  For something like an automobile the notions of grade and quality are fairly simple.

In the same vain, is it possible to have a high-grade conversation with someone that is of poor quality?  On the flip side, is it possible to have a low-grade conversation that is of high-quality?  The answer is affirmative to both questions.  For example, we could declare several grades of conversation — from vital to trivial.  In this instance, we could say that a conversational defect occurs anytime a key piece of information or data is left out of the conversation or is altered in some way to create a different meaning or context.  Thus, its possible to have a very important conversation with someone, but the shared information and data is of low-quality.  Of course, the reverse of this could be true as well.

As we have demonstrated, use of the terms “quality” and “grade” can be quite confusing but certainly have many implications.  To avoid this predicament, just remember that grade is related to quantity as quality is related to defects.  So, if you pay little for a lot of something with no defects, that’s real bang-for-the-buck, or what we call “value.”

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About Mikel Harry

Dr. Harry has been widely recognized in many of today's notable publications as the Co-Creator of Six Sigma and the world's leading authority within this field. His book entitled Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations has been on the best seller list of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week, and He has been a consultant to many of the world’s top senior executives, such as Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric Corporation. Dr. Harry has also been a featured guest on popular television programs, such as the premier NBC show "Power Lunch." He is often quoted in newspapers like USA Today and interviewed by the media, such as The Economic Times. In addition, Dr. Harry has received many distinguished awards in recognition of his contributions to industry and society. At the present time, Dr. Harry is Chairman of the Six Sigma Management Institute and CEO of The Great Discovery, LLC.
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