Improving Quality in Design-focused Services

Dr. Terence Love
Curtin University



This paper reports research investigating quality improvement in design services. It explores issues relating to the complex environment in which design services operate, and reviews quality improvement in this area in terms of the strong   critiques of quality improvement methods from the Systems fields in which many quality-based methods originated. The paper concludes with suggestions for approaches to improving quality in design services that are systemically appropriate.


Design services, quality improvement, system dynamics, constituent orientation, methodology.


This paper provides an overview of recent research into quality-focused aspects of design services that forms part of a larger research project exploring design infrastructure at national, local, firm and individual levels. This work was funded by Curtin University as part of a Curtin Research Fellowship. The paper problematises the application of Quality improvement methods to design services for two reasons:

Quality of design activities is increasingly a concern for all stakeholders. It is important to businesses buying in design services because it provides confidence in the competence of the design services providers. It is important to businesses with in-house design services because design activity impacts strongly on their commercial future. Quality of design education programs is important to students because of their investment in time, energy and finances. Aggregated at national level, it is important to governments because it impacts directly upon national competitiveness, fulfilling economic and social development agendas, and the innovation benefits from investment into research. These multiple concerns about improving quality in design activity are likely to increase alongside increasing awareness of the roles design activity plays in all aspects of economic and social development.

Evidence of increased concern about quality in design activity is found in increased interest in certification of design professionals and the increased number of national institutions for promotion of design. A review of certification of designers showed Quality through certification is emphasized in many design domains including: engineering design, interior design, architecture, software programming, network design, voice system design, optical system design, irrigation design, human factors and usability design, aircraft design, web services design, along with certification of software skills in graphic design. Quality improvement through certification is already established in other professional domains in which practitioners such as doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and teachers undertake some of the broader forms of design activities that come under Simon’s (1981, p. 129) definition of design. Concern about Quality has the longest history in design domains most closely associated with manufacturing where are found commercial approaches to quality, e.g. TQM., House of Quality, Quality Rings, Quality Assurance, and methods of Design Performance Management. Typically, metrics to assess quality are cost based, although quality improvement can be undertaken via other metrics.

The paper consists of four sections. The second section maps out the institutional context of design services and ways perspectives on quality differ between constituencies. The third section outlines real world problems found by systems researchers investigating quality improvement. It draws attention to counterintuitive realities of quality improvement;  failures due to problems of ‘commonsense’ understanding of  human and process behaviour as found in engineering, humanities, arts, and management; the importance of boundary conditions, exogenous variables, human behaviour and motivations; and understanding the range, effects and timing of feedback loops. The fourth, concluding, section summarises the main issues to emerge from the research.

Institutional context

Every organisation sits at a nexus. There are organisations and individuals upstream, downstream and in parallel interactive relationships (Tellefsen & Love, 2002, 2003). These are the organisation's external constituencies. There is also an internal network of constituencies: departments, functions, and formal and informal power and legitimation structures. Those involved in design activity impact to a greater or lesser degree on all of these constituencies, and, as social beings, are influenced by them.

A simplified map of constituencies of an idealised mid-size business with in-house design team is shown in Fig 1.


Figure 1: Constituencies of organization with in-house design team (figure derived from presentation of Tellefsen & Love, 2002)

When design activity is undertaken by an external design team, the relationships are as in Fig 2.


Figure 2: Constituencies of an organization with an external design services team (figure derived from presentation of Tellefsen & Love, 2002)

Individuals in different constituencies have different interests, and the nature of constituency subgroups shape their balance of attention and their underlying value distributions and motivations (see, for example, Tellefsen, 1995). These differences result in constituents having different attitudes towards, and conceptualizations of, the quality of design services.

For example, constituents involved in manufacturing are likely to assess quality of design services in terms that relate to the manufacturing function. These might include, e.g., designs that are easy to manufacture, awareness of production issues, rapid response to undertaking rework when production output is compromised, and minimising cost of production.

In contrast, internal and external marketing constituencies are likely to assess quality of design services in terms of maximising sales, e.g. quality as attractiveness and desirability, and maximising the value proposition as perceived by buyers.

Differences in power and legitimation between constituencies influence overall perceptions of quality of design services due three factors: the focus of interest of a constituency, its power, and its legitimation. Powerful constituencies dominate. These are not always obvious; however, as in many organisations informal constituencies and power structures are the real operational modalities.

In design, an additional factor, time, can be especially significant to some constituencies because it is 'of the essence' in many business and innovation processes involving design services e.g.:

Most of these time issues are centrally related to the value contribution of design services. As a consequence, for many constituencies of an organisation, time is likely to be an important element of their perception of design services’ quality.

Problems in Quality Improvement

There is significant evidence suggesting that contemporary approaches to quality improvement are fundamentally flawed (Ford & Sterman, 1997; Keating, Olivia, Repenning, Rockart, & Sterman, 1999; Repenning & Sterman, 2000; Sterman, 2002). The literature from the systems fields exploring quality (the area from which quality improvement techniques such as TQM originated) suggest successful quality improvement requires managers and quality improvement consultants to apply more sophisticated approaches (Cooper, 2004; Keating et al., 1999; Repenning & Sterman, 2001; Sterman, 2002).

Three main problem areas have been identified:

Several concepts from systems modeling offer deep insight into addressing some of these problem areas for improving quality in the provision of design services. These include:

Problems due to 'everyday' and 'technical' discourses of quality

This section is based directly on recent research by Cooper (2004, Chapter 2). Dictionary definitions of everyday use of the term 'quality' indicate it implies goodness or excellence i.e. is appreciative. Problematically, the exact detail of appreciation, goodness or excellence is defined in terms of the values of the person making the judgment that something has 'quality'. It results in the opportunity for its specific meaning to be hegemonically used to privilege values of dominant interests. A secondary implication is it supports an assumption that people can recognise quality without any need to define its attributes or characteristics.

In contrast, the idea of quality improvement requires measurements to be able to assess whether improvement has happened or not. This requires the idea of quality to be defined in a formal technical manner. There is as yet, however, no single agreed technical definition of 'quality'. Cooper (2004) collated six different groupings of technical definitions of quality identified by Cameron and Sine (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Definitions of quality derived from Cameron & Sine (Cooper, 2004)

Concept of quality (C&S)

Definition: “Quality is…”


How measured?

Transcendent (1)

Quality can not be defined but can be recognised

Innate excellence or beauty

Perceived by those who are sensitive but cannot be measured.

Product-based (2)

‘unpriced attributes contained in each unit of priced attribute’

Extra desired features (by the customer?) or durability

Measure ‘features’ that exceed (customer) expectations

User-based (3)

Fitness for use

Satisfies customers

Fulfils customer expectations

Measure level of customer satisfaction

Production based (4)

Conforms to specifications


Measure against what is promised (to the customer?)

Value base (5)

Best for price; Best for actual use

Provides value for money (to customer)

Efficiency based upon cost per unit

System-based (6)

System to produce services that satisfy customers

Accepted systems for quality assurance adhered to

Check whether systems are in place and adhered to

Cultural (7)

Organisation’s culture supports the constant attainment of customer satisfaction through integrated use of training, techniques and tools

Quality as a ‘mindset’ throughout the organisation in all aspects of work

Examine whether the organisation supports customer satisfaction in an integrated way


Definitions 2, 3 and 5 define quality in terms of customers’ values, and definitions 6 and 7 point to customers’ satisfaction as a reference point for judging quality of organisational processes.

Cooper identified that technical definitions of quality that reference to 'customers' only apply at real customer-supplier interaction boundaries.  Many circumstances in which quality improvement is attempted do not, however, lie at customer-supplier boundaries, or the customer-supplier relationship is an illusory convenience. Examples include internal relationships between departments, cost centres, organisations with primary supplier or customer relationships, and organisations that operate in terms of public good (e.g. universities, doctors, hospitals, local government). Designers, in-house design teams and design services organisations frequently operate in these pseudo customer-supplier environments. In these situations, the concepts of 'quality' and 'quality improvement' must be more carefully defined in ways specific to the real organisational environments.

Complexity in quality improvement - feedback loops

Design activity and the provision of design services within an organisation’s value production chain comprises a complex phenomena with many interrelated feedback loops that strongly influence subsequent outcomes, their timing, and the influences and timings of intermediate physical, social and informatic processes. There are many different barriers to quality improvement with complex interrelationships. In 2002, at an American Society for Quality seminar, twenty seven different problem areas were identified by researchers (Powell, 2002).  It is naive to assume that managing improvement in design services can be achieved without understanding this complexity. The level of complexity and importance of feedback loops in design activity is indicated by figure 2 below which is a System Dynamics representation of a small part of a product development process. Each node and related processes represent an opportunity for quality-related interventions.

Figure 2: Element of product development process (Ford & Sterman, 1997)

A key mode of failure in managing complex systems, including quality improvement in design services, is where constituencies attempt to improve things to their own advantage rather than optimise the whole. This phenomenon, local suboptimisation, is a well-known problem within the systems research literature ( Hutchinson, 1997). Problematically, it appears the systemic problems of local suboptimisation are not as well known by managers devising programs of quality improvement. The complexity of quality improvement in design services provision means local suboptimisation is likely to be a significant problem and a source of failure in quality improvement initiatives.

Sophistication of human behavioural responses to quality management motivation

The literature of systems research focusing on quality management and improvement shows human behavioural feedback loops often act against well-intentioned decisions by managers (Repenning & Sterman, 2000).

One example of the problem arises as follows. To improve quality, managers measure specific attributes of processes and outputs. The research in this area indicates a common human response. First, people continue with existing practices with additional efforts to improve outcomes. Relatively quickly, workers transfer their attention to achieving the required metrics at the expense of other quality issues. The limitation of time and resources means effort and attention is taken off other issues to 'improve' the values of the specific attributes being measured. This usually results in an overall reduction in quality.

Another significant human behavioural issue is that neither designers nor design managers obtain sufficient credit for successful quality improvement. In essence, this is because there is little credit for managing to avoid problems that do not happen (Repenning & Sterman, 2001).

Conclusion: Improving quality in design services

All processes produce defects. In design services, these include a wide range of potential defect outcomes, e.g. products, services, financial management and interactions with constituencies. Typically, management focuses on reducing the defects seen by the customers. Experience and research shows that quality improvement initiatives based on fixing defects after they have occurred is inefficient and, systemically speaking, likely to increase the amount of defects in the longer term (Keating et al., 1999).

Quality improvement is more effective and efficient when it focuses on removing the root causes by which defects are produced (Keating et al., 1999; Repenning & Sterman, 2001). Reducing the rate of initial production of defects reduces resources used in rework and resources needed by many of the feedback loops that comprise the organisation. In the short-term, this requires allocating resources from repairing defects to improving the underlying systems so that fewer defects originate. Where resources are limited, this is likely to increase the number of defects seen by the customers. An alternative is to release additional resources so the rate of defect production is reduced without reduction in resources needed to fix the defects that the organisation is still producing.

Currently, the most robust approach to quality improvement is found in the systems dynamics literature. Also in this area are found theoretical representations of design process that are of a complexity sufficient to address issues of quality improvement. In addition, systems approaches (including the soft systems approach, which has not been discussed in detail in this paper) address as a matter of course the hidden behavioural and conceptual misunderstandings of designers and design managers that compromise quality improvement initiatives.

The following is a list of action points distilled from a review of the literature analysing success and failure in application of quality improvement approaches:

In conclusion, there is no easy fix to improving quality in design services. The quality improvement issues identified in this research imply that initiatives aimed at improving quality in design services are unlikely to be successful if undertaken naively or simplistically.

Improving quality in design services is likely to require substantial changes to individual and organisational practices to reduce the rate at which defects originate. If additional resources are not available, this transformational change will in the short-term reduce the quality of outcomes until the effects of the quality improvement changes propagate through the system of design production.


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