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The Evolution and Constancy of Quality

Dr. Rose Sebastianelli and Dr. Nabil Tamimi

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Fictitious websites created by Dr. Nabil Tamimi used in a study that analyzed and measured consumer likelihood of making purchases.

A GOOD PHILOSOPHY STANDS THE TEST OF TIME. Twenty five years ago two professors influenced by W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy of “total quality management” joined The University of Scranton. Dr. Rose Sebastianelli and Dr. Nabil Tamimi, professors in the department of operations & information management, had each studied Deming’s principles independently prior to arriving at Scranton, but jointly came to realize the importance of Deming’s fundamental message of continuous improvement. Deming’s philosophy has had a significant impact on their professional lives.

W. Edwards Deming is recognized as one of the main gurus of TQM (total quality management). His now famous book, Out of the Crisis, argues convincingly that the long run success of the firm can only be achieved through the never-ending pursuit of continuous quality improvement. And he delivers his message in a deceptively simple list of 14 Points. While he was mostly ignored by American managers after World War II, Deming took his message to Japan. His philosophy and statistical methods were embraced by Japanese companies, and helped transform the country from post war devastation into a global economic power. When TQM gained widespread acceptance in the early 1990s, Deming was called upon to serve as mentor, consultant and teacher to many influential corporate leaders worldwide. Sebastianelli and Tamimi believe that Deming’s ideas are as relevant, transformative and vital for businesses today as they were back then, and that his 14 Points are more than just a prescription for good business practice.

As might be expected, Sebastianelli and Tamimi have collaborated on a number of research projects in the field of quality over the years. Their early work focused on identifying the organizational barriers that prevent the successful implementation of TQM. With the advent of e-commerce the focus of their research shifted toward understanding the factors that impact e-quality, including e-tailing and e-learning. While their research agenda has evolved to address changing priorities in the field, what has remained constant is their commitment to Deming’s philosophy and his 14 Points.

POINT 1: Create constancy of purpose.

Throughout their careers, Sebastianelli and Tamimi have been guided by the desire to make an impact, not only on their discipline through research and peer-reviewed publication, but also on their students by fostering an appreciation for the empirical approach to inquiry. From the beginning, they recognized the need for students to be engaged both in and out of the classroom. Theory and ideas need to be tested, and as Dr. Tamimi notes “students see little value in abstract theory.” So early on when both professors taught undergraduate sections of a course in Quality Management, they required students to get out in the “field” and interview managers about quality-related issues. Students asked managers how they defined quality, how their companies measured quality and whether or not TQM was being implemented in their organizations. The experience was “an eye-opener,” not only for the students but also for the professors. As they aggregated results at the class-level over several semesters, they discovered that managers had difficulty articulating a universal definition of quality, and that in most cases these managers did not know “how” quality was being measured in their companies or if the principles of TQM were being followed.

This led Sebastianelli and Tamimi to take a more “scientific” approach to study how quality is actually defined and measured in the workplace. Using a mailing list obtained from the American Society for Quality, they surveyed a national sample of quality managers on this issue as well as on the organizational barriers preventing successful implementation of TQM. These data served as the basis for several published journal articles, one of which appeared in the top rated Quality Management Journal, and the findings have been subsequently cited in several popular textbooks on the topic. Dr. Sebastianelli recalls vividly the first time one of her students came to class excited to have discovered her professors’ research findings in her textbook. It was rewarding for both professors to know that their work had made on impact on the field.

POINT 2: Adopt a new philosophy. We are in a new economic age.

“E-commerce and the internet have revolutionized how business is done,” Dr. Tamimi explained. The previously defined frameworks for defining product and service quality no longer captured all of the dimensions relevant to defining e-quality. This led Sebastianelli and Tamimi to begin researching quality in the e-commerce arena.

Much of their research in this line of inquiry has focused on e-tailing. Organized along the four phases typically encountered by an online shopper (homepage, product catalog, shopping cart, and post-purchase customer support), the professors first developed a framework of criteria that could be used to benchmark online retailers. Funded by an internal research grant, and assisted by GAs, one of their earlier studies involved benchmarking real online transactions with e-tailers. They purchased products, and then returned them, from a random sample of 55 different online retailers, including Amazon.com, Zappos.com, Old Navy, and Sephora. Their criteria allowed for an objective assessment of the online purchasing experience, as most involved making a yes/no determination. For instance, determining whether or not contact information was present on the homepage, whether or not return policies were explicit, and whether or not a restocking fee was charged for returns. This benchmarking study was published in Internet Research, a journal used by academics and practitioners alike, and was described by the editor as having “clear practical implications for improving website design and functionality.”

Sebastianelli and Tamimi have continued to investigate the factors affecting consumers’ perceptions of e-tailer quality as well as how specific website attributes impact the likelihood of online purchase. In one study, they surveyed a national sample of online consumers to get their opinions about the various criteria they had used to benchmark online retailers. This not only allowed the professors to extract a set of underlying “e-quality dimensions” that were validated empirically, but also to examine how demographic variables such as gender and income affect online consumers’ perceptions of these e-quality dimensions. An article that reports the findings of this study appeared in the Journal of Internet Commerce.

Most recently, Sebastianelli and Tamimi have begun conducting “experiments” to address their research questions. In one of their latest studies, Dr. Tamimi designed 16 fictitious websites by manipulating four website attributes related to trustworthiness and perceived risk: e-tailer reputation (Amazon vs. Nile), product displayed (Apple iPod vs. Technocrat Swiss watch), summary review of the product (4 . stars versus 1 . stars) and number of customers providing reviews (5 versus 307). Research subjects viewed the web pages and were asked to indicate the likelihood of purchasing the item displayed. Using conjoint analysis, the professors were able to discern that the summary review rating and e-tailer reputation had the greatest impact on a consumer’s likelihood of online purchase. A manuscript based on this work is currently under review.

POINT 7: Teach & institute leadership.

Sebastianelli and Tamimi are not only committed to educating and preparing future business leaders, but have made it a priority to mentor students who express an interest in pursuing a Ph.D. While they have involved a number of students in their research over the years, a great example is that of Dr. Kathleen Iacocca, now an assistant professor in their department. Iacocca completed both her undergraduate and MBA at Scranton, and was Dr. Sebastianelli’s GA. During that time, Iacocca began working with Sebastianelli and Tamimi on a study that followed stock prices for a portfolio of ISO 14000 certified companies in order to determine the “payoff” of improved environmental performance. Stock prices were analyzed over a 15 year period, until April 2011, and the results formed the basis of a manuscript just recently accepted for publication in the International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management. As Sebastianelli notes “the longitudinal nature of this study is consistent with Deming’s view that a long term perspective is needed when evaluating the benefits of improved quality.”

Currently, Caroline Swift, a student in the MBA program and GA to both Sebastianelli and Tamimi, has been working closely with the two professors to refine their scale, WebEdQual, which measures the quality of online education. Sebastianelli and Tamimi became interested in assessing the quality of e-learning as a result of their experiences teaching in the online MBA program. With assistance from Dr. Gnanendran, Director of the Online MBA Program, the professors have developed and empirically tested WebEdQual, but the scale needs some improvement in order to adequately capture the e-learning constructs cited in the literature. Swift will be working on this project during the coming year, running focus groups to determine which scale items need to be dropped or revised, and constructing new scale items to add. She will also be applying to several Ph.D. programs in Operations/Supply Chain Management.

POINT 13: Institute a vigorous program of education & self-improvement.

An active, sustained and vigorous research agenda has not only enabled Sebastianelli and Tamimi to have an impact on their discipline and students, but it has provided the means for them to remain vital and relevant. As Dr. Sebastianelli notes, “research is key for any academic who aspires to be a true teacher-scholar.” Research has been, and will continue to be, an integral part of these professors’ academic lives. It has informed their teaching and afforded them the opportunity for continued learning. Moreover, it has given them the chance to put Deming’s principles into practice. The professors’ cooperative styles have helped them generate transformative ideas to “constantly improve the quality and productivity” of their work.

Authors

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Rose Sebastianelli, Ph.D.
Operations and Information Management Department
rose.sebastianelli@scranton.edu
570.941.4287

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Nabil A. Tamimi, Ph
Operations and Information Management Department
nabil.tamimi@scranton.edu
570.941.4288