Is quality really free?

In the 1980s, the US-American quality guru, Philip B. Crosby, said, quality is free. [1,2] Crosby meant that the price not doing quality assurance is very high and always justifies the investment in quality.

One central goal of any quality management system is to reduce quality costs to the lowest practical level.

The figure shows that the cost of defects decreases as the quality of conformity increases towards perfection, during assessment and prevention increase. Theoretically, an “optimal” target quality was the sum of prevention, assessment, and error costs at a minimum. Efforts to increase quality above the optimum would increase total quality costs and would be inefficient. [3]

Source: Juran’s Quality Control Handbook [3]

In that sense, quality is a cost-benefit trade-off. On the one hand, there is the cost of good quality, which breaks down into appraisal and prevention costs.  Appraisal costs are associated with measuring and monitoring activities related to quality. On the other hand, prevention costs are incurred to prevent or avoid quality problems. These costs are associated with the design, implementation, and maintenance of the quality management system.[4]

On the other hand, there are the costs of poor quality, which are divided into internal and external failure costs.  Internal defect costs are incurred to correct defects before the goods reach the customer. These include waste, scrap, rework or rectification, and the cost of the internal product or service failure reasons. External error costs arise from customer feedback and complaints (repairs, reclamations, returns) and the associated administrative and communication costs.[4]

The metaphor of an iceberg is used to differentiate the costs of missing quality.[5] Thus, a minor part of quality costs such as complaints, rejection, rework, scrap or inspection and testing are easily visible. In contrast, the more significant part of quality costs is less visible. These include late delivery costs, inventory costs, premium shipping costs or loss of customer loyalty. The problem with these hidden costs is that they are difficult to quantify.

Figure: Costs of Poor Quality [5]

In principle, Crosby assumes that cost savings always justify investment in quality. Thus, if Crosby’s thesis were generally accurate, all companies would have to invest in quality management systems.

However, it is mainly large, internationally active corporations that certify and update their quality management systems regularly. In contrast, many SMEs have no formalised quality management in place. Moreover, in geographical terms, systems like ISO 9001 are less present in the Global South than in the North.

To better understand why many companies in the Global South do not use certified quality management systems, my Ecuadorian colleague, Mauro Rivadeneira (Corporación Q), and I conducted a non-representative survey with the support of ISO Tools. [6]

Between April and June 2021, 152 companies from twelve Latin American and Spain countries completed our questionnaire.

Costa Rica21,32%
Other Central American countries138,55%
Source: Survey of Mesopartner and Corporación Q

More than half of the companies have been active for more than ten years. The remaining companies existed for 5 to 10 years (6.6%), 3 to 5 years (11.9%), 1 to 3 years 24.5%) and less than one year (4%). In terms of sectoral affiliation, the service sector (34.5%), manufacturing industry (24.7%) and the public sector (12.7%) dominated.

Operation timeTotal%
1. less than one year63,97%
2. between 1 and 3 years3724,50%
3. between 3 and 5 years1811,92%
4. between 5 and 10106,62%
5. more than ten years8052,98%
Source: Survey of Mesopartner and Corporación Q

Source: Survey of Mesopartner and Corporación Q

Only about 40% of the companies surveyed stated that they have or had a certified or accredited quality management system. Among the systems, ISO 9001 dominates, followed closely by ISO 14001 (environmental management), ISO 45001 (occupational safety) and accreditations of the ISO 17000 series for conformity assessment bodies.

The management systems of 30% of the companies have been in place for ten years or more. Another 30% have been certified for five to ten years and the rest of the certified companies for less than five years.

It raises concerns that 27% of the once certified companies have not renewed their management system certification. The reasons for this were manifold: the companies mentioned that customers did not demand certificates or that the cost of certification was too high. Other companies switched from the general ISO 9001 to more specific certification schemes.

We assumed that in companies without certification, the investment in quality exceeded the cost of tangible quality improvements. In the case of companies with certification, the result was the opposite.

In the case of the companies with certification, the costs of obtaining the certificate exceeded the adaptation of the production processes and personnel training. The companies without management system certification also invested in quality. Surprisingly, the non-certified companies also report high expenses for conformity assessment. These costs may be explained by the fact that these companies were previously certified or by a simple mistake in filling out the questionnaire. The transformation of production processes, staff training and consulting costs are also high. In both cases, costs for acquiring standards, payment for overtime or other representative costs were less relevant.

Source: Survey of Mesopartner and Corporación Q

The costs of non-quality are similar in both groups. Overall, the costs of correcting defects, losses due to poor quality and the costs of complaints and warranty services dominate. The costs of inspection and other representative costs, on the other hand, were less critical.

Source: Survey of Mesopartner and Corporación Q

Regarding the monetary costs of quality and non-quality, the survey did not generate any apparent results. In general, companies find it difficult to qualify the expenses of non-quality precisely. Therefore, we assume that the hidden costs of quality are generally underestimated. Overall, there is a need for further training among SMEs in Latin America and indeed in other world regions to assess the costs of quality.

On the other hand, it is noticeable that the offers of the certification bodies and quality consultants still seem expensive, especially for SMEs. In this respect, the certification bodies should make more effort to explain the benefits of their services and adapt the prices to the financial capacities of SMEs. At the same time, larger companies and the state are called upon to create incentives for investment in quality management systems by introducing quality requirements into procurement processes.


[1] Crosby, P. B. (1980). Quality is free: The art of making quality certain, Signet Book.

[2] Crosby, P. B. (1996). Quality is still free: making quality certain in uncertain times, McGraw-Hill Companies.

[3] Juran, J.M. and Gryna, F.M. (1988) Juran’s Quality Control Handbook. 4th Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.

[4]  ASQ, COST OF QUALITY (COQ); in: Quality Glossary Definition: Cost of quality, retrieved 16/07/21

[5] DeFeo, J. A. (2001). The tip of the iceberg, in: Quality progress 34(5): 29-37, 

[6]  ISO Tools (2020)., Costos de la No calidad Presentación de los resultados del estudio, Webinar

This entry was posted in Conformity assessment, ISO 14000, Quality, quality assurance, Quality culture and tagged , , , , , , , , by Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

Dr Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke is a global expert in the field of international economic development cooperation. With more than 25 years of consulting experience, he is active in all phases of a project and program development (preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation) and collaborates with various implementing organizations and development banks (German Development Cooperation - GIZ and PTB -, Inter-American Development Bank, European Union and United Nations). He has consulting experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr.Harmes-Liedtke is an experienced trainer and process consultant. He works with groups and teams to reflect on their situation and to then formulate change projects to improve their reality. He enables dialogue, facilitates and designs workshops, processes, and sense-making processes. He is certified in facilitation, mediation, and communication techniques which allow him to deal with sensitive, diverse, and even conflict situations. He supports systemic economic development in various roles: • As an expert and trainer in international trade, national quality policies, industrial policy, clusters, and global value chains • As a process consultant in designing and leading diagnostic processes that result in change, adaptation, and improvement • As a facilitator of dialogue, workshops, training, and sense-making processes • As a transdisciplinary researcher in the field of systemic economic development Born 1965, Ph.D. in political science and economics (Bremen 1999), MA in economics (Diplom-Volkswirt) (Hamburg 1991). German nationality.

1 thought on “Is quality really free?

  1. Lieber Ulrich,

    vielen herzlichen Dank für den sehr interessanten Artikel.

    Herzliche Grüße


    Dr. Pascale Pouzet, Coaching & Prozessberatung


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