Use your talents to move the goals of the organization forward.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to an American Society of Quality (ASQ) meeting. Some time ago when I was serving as director of region 12, I was invited to speak at an out-of-town section meeting. It was scheduled at a nice restaurant, and I wanted to arrive a little early to participate in the social hour beforehand.

Upon entering what I thought was the meeting place, I hung up my coat, got some refreshments and proceeded to mix with the crowd. It seemed strange that I didn’t recognize anyone from this local section, but I approached a small group and introduced myself. After they introduced themselves, one of them asked, “Where do you practice?”

This question set me back a little. “Practice?” I’d recently retired as a senior leader of aFortune50 manufacturing company, but I’d never referred to the work, primarily as a quality professional, as “practicing.” I proudly responded, “Caterpillar,” and then countered, “Where do you practice?”

At this point I got some puzzled looks from the group. After an uncomfortable delay, I got the feeling that I might be in the wrong place. I broke the silence and asked, “Isn’t this the ASQ meeting?”

No, it was the local chiropractic group holding its regular meeting on the same night in the same room where I was expecting to find the ASQ crowd. “The ASQ meeting is upstairs,” the group informed me.

Evidently the usual meeting room had been changed for this evening and the chiropractic group was moved to the normal ASQ space. After a few jokes, I left the group, still chuckling about my quality practice and the comedy of the situation.

After I got over my initial embarrassment and reached the correct room, it dawned on me that, in a lot of ways, we in quality are not unlike those in the medical profession. We do in fact practice our profession.

When we accept an assignment, we agree to use our skills to improve the performance of the organization. Those who are ASQ members are even bound by a code of ethics, not unlike some oaths taken in the fields of medicine and law.

In many cases we are not called on until organizations have problems that need immediate remedy, not unlike a “pain the neck.” Proper diagnosis and root cause analysis are needed to stop the pain and put longer-term repairs or countermeasures in place.

Ongoing care is needed to keep any organization in good condition from a quality systems perspective-not unlike regular visits to our doctors.

We have seen this with the need for third-party certification audits and ongoing, random surveillance audits to ISO 9001 quality management standards. As with the human body, regular exercise of an organization’s quality systems keeps everyone ready to respond to the constant challenges of problem solving in a competitive environment. Those who do not follow sound quality principles and practices will soon find their organizations sick and desperately in need of professional help to analyze and correct their problems. No one is better able to treat the problem than the quality professional.

It may seem like a cliché to say problems are opportunities, but if they are looked on as opportunities to exercise the organization’s teamwork, this is really true. There is much satisfaction in being part of a team that uses all available resources to identify and solve a problem.

One of my former managers provided advice in a way that makes a lot of sense. When discussing a problem he would listen, ask questions and then give suggestions. One constant suggestion was to look for ways to engage the organization. This means those who should be involved are engaged, and everyone uses his or her talents in the best possible way to move the goals of the group forward and tackle even the biggest problems.

Successful problem solving is one of the most rewarding experiences in a quality professional’s work and can help build strong networks among those involved. These activities have an even bigger future payoff as people develop more confidence and a better feel for their abilities and for the ability and willingness of others to practice quality.

Think about your own situation, personal and professional, in quality terms. As quality professionals we are highly trained to deliver value to our organizations. Are you pitching in when and where you should, or do you wait to be asked (or told)? Hopefully for the majority of us it is not the latter.

The next time someone asks, “What do you do?” say, “I practice quality.” Then be ready for some interesting looks, followed by fascinating discussion. After all, quality professionals, no matter what job function, hold the key to a healthy organization. If you don’t believe that, see whom management calls when there is a quality or customer problem.