Everyone has a general idea of what the word quality means but tying down its specific meaning in the purchasing context can be problematic.
In a typical purchase of goods, a wide range of different considerations would seem to be relevant.
- Suitability to purchaser’s requirement’s (intended use, etc);
- durability; and
- maintenance and service requirements.
In order to ensure suitability for intended use, it is customary for municipalities to specify their technical requirements when placing an order.
While detailed specifications are not always possible, some clear guidance should be given to suppliers as to the general capabilities that the item to be purchased will be expected to satisfy.
This information will often be conveyed by way of:
- Engineering’s specifications;
- detailed descriptions of performance requirements; and
- references to industry certification standards.
The suitability of goods not only relates to their intended purpose, but also to the environment in which they are to be used.
For instance, equipment must not be larger than the physical dimensions of the building in which it is to be contained. It must not be heavier than the load-bearing capacity of the flooring in that building. If the building is unheated or not air conditioned it must not be unduly sensitive to heat or cold, etc.
If equipment requires running water or electricity to operate properly, its demands in this respect should be consistent with existing supply or there should be some process (and budget) for modifying the supply at the place of intended use.
While these matters may seem obvious, it is surprising how often they are not considered in practice until after the purchase is made.
Other considerations that are less directly related to the quality of the goods supplied, but which will nonetheless prove important to any purchaser over the long run include assembly and maintenance requirements and extent of training and support required for users.
A customer’s quality assurance program may be distinguished from the quality control program of its suppliers.
Quality control is essentially a supplier-oriented monitoring of production, utilizing systematic sampling and statistical manipulation of data.
Through this process, some sort of objective outcome of production is measured and an objective quality rating (outcome measure) is generated, according to whether or not some desired goal has been met.
Where performance is not in accord with the desired goal, an attempt is made to identify the cause, either by way of systematic review of the production process, interpolation or some other method.
With each modification, the new process is tested and the results generated are then compared against previous performance.
If the outcome is better, the last process change is kept, or at least noted for future standards, and round two of improvements begin.
Quality control theory says quality is improving only if outcome measures for a process improve (at least on average) over time.
For the customer, the quality of supplier performance is measured using different criteria.
However, it is customary for significant customers to insist that a given supplier has proper quality control mechanisms in place. Moreover, major customers will often insist on receiving regular quality control reports from their suppliers, disclosing the results obtained through routine testing.
Consideration should always be given to the question of whether a prospective supplier has the facilities, technical know-how and experience to be able to meet the needs of the municipality.
The quality of items supplied will often be heavily influenced by the quality of the supplier.
While price comparisons can normally be made on an objective basis, comparisons of the quality of supply offered by different potential suppliers can be more difficult to assess before the supply is made.
The practice of taking up references has its uses, but such reports tend to be subjective and anecdotal.
Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.