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Joseph A. DeFeo

Quality Insider

An Evolving Industry Requires Evolving Skills

Finding the tools to succeed as a quality professional

Published: Tuesday, June 9, 2015 - 15:23

Editor’s note: The author, in conjunction with Quality Digest’s Professional Development Curriculum, is offering a fee-based, two-part presentation on this topic on June 16, 2015 and July 28, 2015. These presentations are offered live and on-demand, and CEU are provided to those who complete both sessions. Click here for more information and to register.

Many quality professionals are at a crossroad in their careers. Although those in related operational excellence (OpEx) fields such as lean and Six Sigma are positive about their careers and their futures, those in more traditional quality roles tend to have somewhat of a negative outlook due to a number of factors, including greater workloads, fewer available resources, and often, less respect from management.

The key to a more optimistic outlook for any knowledge worker, particularly in the quality space, is to keep up to date with the skill sets that employers are looking for. The ability to think strategically, to understand risk, and to connect broad streams of data with customer satisfaction will always be highly valued by employers. Whether you are a discouraged quality manager or perhaps a too-complacent lean leader, making sure that your own personal toolkit is relevant to the broader industry at large should be a high priority.

What are the key skills?

There are several elements that quality and OpEx professionals need to embrace if they wish to flourish in their careers. These include:
Evaluating product and service quality. This means exploding silos, tracking value streams, and delivering consistent and sustainable product to customers in as close to real time as possible.
Quality control. This entails everything from standards registration, compliance, and auditing to testing and inspection. These basic building blocks of organizational quality are still highly valuable and valued.
Corrective and preventive action. This requires a bulldog mentality, the ability to find root causes, and a desire to ask, “Why?” Customer satisfaction and repeat sales depend on these processes.
Coaching. This takes a commitment to demonstrating, through word and deed, the value that quality, lean, and Six Sigma initiatives can bring to the organization.
Understanding, gathering, and communicating the importance of data. This allows management to see that methods such as statistical process control (SPC) are of critical importance in achieving and sustaining continuous improvement.

This is an ambitious list of qualities, and most everyone could benefit in their careers by learning more about how to improve their skills in these various realms. The path for doing so will vary from person to person. Some may need mentoring or coaching, either inside the organization or outside it, to improve. Others may wish to read from our industry’s exhaustive library of literature on these and many other quality topics.

Another wise option is to draw current-state maps for these processes, gathering as much information about all of them as possible within the tribal knowledge of the organization, and then begin to sketch out future-state maps that will evolve as more data are uncovered about processes.

In all cases, you will need to approach these knowledge-gathering and knowledge-enhancement opportunities with humility and an open mind, regardless of where you are in your career arc.

How did we get here?

“Quality” as a discrete practice and profession really came into its own during the 1970s, when the astonishing efficiency of Japanese manufacturing methods, most notably those used as part of the Toyota Production System (TPS), first came to the attention of top U.S. managers. Long-time quality leaders such as my mentor, Joseph M. Juran, had taught the Japanese many of these methods decades earlier, but U.S. manufacturing in the post-war era was so dominant in terms of access to raw materials, customers, and markets that maximum quality and efficiency were not necessary.

So in the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. managers woke up to the very real competitive challenge posed by efficient production systems in Japan, quality became very much a buzzword in the United States. TPS (later termed “lean”), total quality management (TQM), and quality circles flourished. Later came system-based approaches such as the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards and Six Sigma, followed by much-sought organizational honors such as the Baldrige and Shingo awards.

As a consequence of all this activity, quality professionals were held in relatively high esteem by top management in U.S. companies. Those who understood and could apply the principles and tools of quality were given resources to investigate and fix problems. Slowly, the quality of U.S. companies began to improve.

Where do we go now?

As is normal in any large and complex system, however, the momentum eventually swung in the other direction. With various macroeconomic bumps and bruises during the past few decades, most notably the “Great Recession” starting in 2007, companies began to trim and reallocate the resources that had once been committed to quality. Where large companies once had quality teams, they now had a single team devoted to the practice—even as these companies grew into global entities. Similarly, small companies that might have once had a quality team perhaps saw that team dwindle down to a single person. Perhaps you are that person, the sole survivor of your organization’s quality legacy.

This is why it is so important for you—and your organization—to commit to your ongoing education in the skills of the quality profession. If your department has been “leaned out” and you are doing more with much, much less, you need to really know what you know, and to start to master what you don’t know, too. Ultimately this will lead to better quality for your current organization, and better future opportunities for you personally as well.

The linked fields of quality and operation excellence are living disciplines, and exposure to new ideas and knowledge can help you evolve along with them. Keeping your skill set updated is the best way to ensure great opportunities for yourself in our industry for years and decades to come.


About The Author

Joseph A. DeFeo’s picture

Joseph A. DeFeo

Joseph A. DeFeo is president and executive coach with Juran. He is recognized worldwide for his training and consulting expertise which enables organizations to achieve superior results. For additional information, visit www.juran.com.