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Need to Know


According to Websters, quality is a peculiar and essential character, an inherent feature, or distinguishing attribute. Jim Juran, the legendary guru on the subject, defines it as fitness for use. Philip Crosby, the well-known practitioner of quality management and author of Quality is Free, says it means conformance to requirement. The Six Sigma man, Howard Gitlow, defines it as surpassing customer needs and expectations throughout the life of the product. And James Harrington, the prolific writer and international quality advisor, says its about meeting or exceeding customer expectations at a cost that represents a value to them.

But in the lubricants industry, like many others, there are at least two more definitions of quality. These are the beguiling definitions often used on the street by those looking to make a sale, or explain why they couldnt.

The first, in its most basic form, simply defines quality as what we have and our competitors dont. Examples are heard when a lubricant marketer says it has superior quality lubricants because it uses only API Group II and Group II+ base oil while its competitor uses Group I. Or a marketer says, Let the numbers speak for themselves when its hydraulic fluid offers an 18,000-hour thermal oxidation stability test (TOST) life, and the competition only offers 3,000 hours, or when its engine oil has a Total Base Number of 12 when the competitors has 8.

Its also in use when someone says the quality of anothers product is low because its price is. In other words, they must have higher quality because what they have that their competition doesnt is a high price.

The second definition of quality is a mirror image of the above. It seeks to establish quality by saying We have what our competitor has – and sometimes adding, but at a lower price.

One example of this is heard when a marketer says it uses the same additive package and base oils as the market leaders. Another is voiced when a sales rep tells a prospect that its product is the same as the genuine oil branded and sold by a leading original equipment manufacturer – and it knows because it makes that genuine oil for the OEM.

One of the more specious examples of this definition at work is an SA/SC engine oil currently on the market labeled miscible with SF, SG/CC, SG/CD, SH/CD, SJ. Likewise, this companys Type D-M transmission fluid is labeled as miscible with DEXRON-III and MERCON. Here, theres an implication of quality by including references to specifications found on other quality products in the marketplace.

There are endless other examples, but these street definitions share one important characteristic: At best, they only contrast and compare product attributes, without addressing the customers real needs and/or expectations. As a result, they do not define quality.

But what happens when a lubricant marketer builds its quality story around the well-accepted and internationally recognized definitions of Juran, Crosby and others, who say quality is about compliance to specifications and meeting customer expectations? According to some, ironically what happens is that they sometimes are maligned for selling low-quality products. The competition pulls out the latest and great-est specification from API, ACEA, JAMA, ILSAC, OEMs and others and shows what we have, our competitors dont. The implication of course is that they have quality because they meet these specs and the rival doesnt.

But is what they have really needed or necessary to meet or exceed the customers expectations? Must a blender meet the latest and/or most challenging specifications in order to formulate a product that is compliant with the specifications of its customers? In some cases the answer is an unequivocal no.

Whereas a hydraulic fluid with an 18,000-hour TOST might be high quality based on the competitors street definition, is it really fit for use in a leaking system with aging components and outdated controls? Will it meet this customers expectations with regards to cost and value? And what about the new installation where the system needs to be flushed for a few hours with several thousand gallons of hydraulic oil before going into service? Most would likely agree that a high TOST life or high scores on other standardized tests is no measure of quality in these and similar scenarios, where product performance and manufacturers specifications are not matched with the customers needs and expectations.

Where there seems to be a good deal of disagreement, however, is when marketers invoke the definitions of Juran, Crosby and the others when speaking about the quality of automotive lubricants. An example of this is a lubricant manufacturer that, with full disclosure to its customer about the facts, continues to provide them with GF-3 passenger car motor oil after GF-4 is on the shelves. Although this may infuriate a competitor who cant get at some business because they will not sell what they say is low quality engine oil that doesnt meet spec, one could certainly make a case that the first supplier is, as Harrington urges, meeting or exceeding customer expectations at a cost that represents a value to their operation. The federal EPA and engine builders might want GF-4 in new vehicles, but this customer might not feel that a PCMO designed for newer vehicles is worth the extra $0.30 to $0.40 a gallon to its fleet of aging vehicles, which can do fine on the older formulation.

Similarly, a lubricant manufacturer and its customer could agree that the appropriate quality for an older fleet of diesel tractors is not premium CI-4 Plus engine oil formulated with exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) in mind. Instead, they might be quite content with the quality of a CH-4 heavy-duty diesel oil for their fleet. Moreover, the customer may have a very high comfort level with its supplier, and not even care if the supplier is selling certified, licensed, authorized, or otherwise industry-blessed juice.

This all may sound like heresy to some, but its a reality that not everyone in our industry is marching in lockstep with API, ACEA, JAMA, ILSAC and the OEMs, and there are reasons for it – not the least of which are the high cost of testing and certification, concerns about backward compatibility, the influence of the EPA on engine oil specifications, and yes, even greed and efforts to make more money by selling what truly is low-quality lubricant by any definition.

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