The telephone receptionist's 'customers' are the callers on the end of the line. The factory worker's 'customer' is the next person on the assembly belt who would have to cope with his mistake.
Total quality ideas were exported to Japan after the Second World War by two American academics, Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, whose theories failed to impress their compatriots.
The ideas were shipped to the UK from Japan in the early 1980s and initially adopted by manufacturing industry. Impressive results were claimed by such companies as Rover and Rank Xerox.
The first wave of quality ideas concentrated on quality control and product quality, the second on customer satisfaction. The ideas have spread to service industries, the professions and beyond, with local authorities and health departments now eagerly affirming their commitment.
Although the basic concepts have not changed, measuring tangible results has become trickier. Financial measures in a local authority social services department are hardly appropriate. Asking the customers - the disabled, the elderly, children at risk - what they think of the services is the only real test.
And new ideas are being added. The European Quality Award includes a category on the impact on society, which covers involvement in the community, conservation and pollution control.