If you recognize Praveen Gupta’s name, perhaps it’s because you read one of his more than 200 articles or 14 books. Or maybe you attended a conference in Chicago, Kuala Lumpur, or Zagreb and heard him speak. Perhaps you work at one of the more than 100 companies he’s worked with during his long career.
Beginning at Motorola, Praveen has worked in quality from Austin to Chicago to Silicon Valley; was appointed an ASQ Fellow before the age of 40; and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Chicago ASQ Section. Today he works on quality and innovation in Palo Alto, CA.
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” says Dr. H. James Harrington, our 2009 Quality Professional of the Year. “He’s more leading edge. So many people are just regurgitating what’s been said before. He’s working more two or three years in the future.”
Praveen is an electrical engineer by training and began his career in 1981 as a product engineer at Motorola. He took different positions in Motorola—“I loved Motorola,” he says—and found a job in the quality department. “I said, ‘I’ll be in quality for three years.’” Then he took ASQ’s certified quality engineer (CQE) exam and passed. He hasn’t left quality yet.
“When I joined the quality department in the early ‘80s, the relationship between quality and other functions used to be adversarial,” he says. “My boss wasn’t allowed to go into the manufacturing area.”
Praveen, as a new quality guy, wanted to see what was happening on the floor, and didn’t know he wasn’t allowed to go there. So he did, and opened up a dialogue between the manufacturing and quality departments.
Martin Swarbrick knew Praveen back from their time together at Motorola when Praveen led the Small Wins to Six Sigma initiative. “He’s a very dedicated professional, very inquisitive and curious about the topics he’s interested in, always looking for new and refreshing perspectives,” Swarbrick said.
Later Swarbrick went on to another company and Praveen started his own company. But they kept in touch over the years, discussing quality and innovation.
“Innovation was Motorola, and is Motorola,” Swarbrick says. “It wasn’t just innovation in products; it was innovation in processes and improvements, innovation in the broadest sense.”
This concept of innovation obviously stuck with Praveen.
Around this time, he moved from Austin to Chicago, and transferred within Motorola to near the headquarters in Schaumburg, IL. This was when ISO 9001 was becoming big, along with the Malcolm Baldrige award, and Praveen was interested in taking his quality skills to small businesses. He started his own consulting business and taught for Motorola University. While he was teaching, he was hired to reduce defects at a small company, and this started his consulting career.
His writing career began at Motorola as well. Motorola had incentives for publishing papers: they paid you to write and gave you a plaque called the Silver Quill for your office. “I wanted that plaque,” says Praveen.
His first article took 13 rounds of edits, but he became hooked. Today he has written 14 books, some of which have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Lithuanian and Polish.
And he’s also helped others get involved in publishing. Rajesh-Kumar Tyagi has co-authored several books with him. They would meet every month, sometimes every week, sometimes spending the entire weekend in the office, playing devil’s advocate to polish their ideas. Before working with Praveen, Tyagi said the world of publishing was just a black box to him. Working together allowed them to pool their skills. “I learned how to write books, he learned how to teach business graduates,” says Tyagi.
Praveen has taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, DePaul University’s MBA program, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and in Mexico. In 2008, he received a Professional Achievement Award from his alma mater, IIT Chicago, for his work in the field of quality and innovation.
The books have also brought speaking invitations. He’s spoken at ASQ meetings in Chicago, Central Illinois, Detroit, Seattle, Silicon Valley and Montreal. Today he’s the chairperson of the ASQ section in San Francisco.
“He’s always willing to help anyone with anything, and always with a smile on his face,” says Dan Brown, who met Praveen through the ASQ Chicago section. “He’s very knowledgeable, but in a way that he doesn’t come across as a know-it-all; it comes across as confident in his abilities. A lot of people know a lot of stuff and want you to know how much they know. That’s not Praveen.”
Brown says Praveen could explain concepts in such a way that he understood them. “I’m grateful for every presentation I got to hear from Praveen,” Brown says. “Praveen is so proficient in so many areas. He truly is brilliant. I learned a lot listening to him.”
THE QUALITY JOURNEY
After leaving Motorola, he began training and consulting. He’s worked with more than 100 companies in various industries. “Every company should really focus on quality from a profit point of view,” Praveen says.
He did consulting work for about 20 years until he was lured to Silicon Valley to work at a startup.
Greg Podshadley was looking for a director of quality for a start-up company, and said it was a difficult task. “Those kinds of people are really hard to find,” Podshadley says.
When he found Praveen, he convinced him to move from Chicago to Silicon Valley to take the job at Prysm, a company that makes video walls, and he dropped right in at the company. With his many years of experience in quality, he was able to make it a priority and methodically convince others to get involved in quality.
“I’ve seen other people use the big stick approach to quality management. He doesn’t do it that way,” Podshadley says.
Praveen was at Prysm for about two and a half years, and then decided to pursue other projects. “He’s head and shoulders above most people when it comes to promoting quality,” Podshadley says. “There isn’t anybody that’s doing that as much as him.”
IN THE VALLEY
“Silicon Valley is the startup land,” Praveen says. “It’s interesting how many quality opportunities are advertised in Silicon Valley. Startups don’t get enough time to focus on quality. I’m trying to figure out how to get quality thinking in the entrepreneurial mind. Quality engineering and the quality of R&D are becoming more critical.”
In addition to his engineering skills, Praveen enjoys the human element of quality and working with people. “People love quality guys as long as they offer help,” Praveen says. It can be a rewarding career. He’s been told, “You don’t realize how much stress you reduce, by improving quality; good quality systems improve the quality of life for people at work.”
INNOVATING AND HAVING FUN
He’s missed in Chicago, not the least because his former colleagues now eat at their desks instead of playing ping pong at lunch. Scott Pfeiffer worked with Praveen at IIT, helped with his innovation conference, and used to play ping pong with him during their lunch break. Once, Pfeiffer attended a tour of Google that Praveen took his students on and saw people playing ping pong in the game room.
“Praveen’s approach was to step away from a problem and then refocus and attack it from another angle,” Pfeiffer says. “When we went to Google, I was thinking, ‘Wow, they are saying the same things he’s saying.’”
He says Praveen was so enthusiastic about innovation, and students raved about his innovation course.
“Praveen is a great person,” Pfeiffer says. “It sounds so cliché, but really, he was very encouraging, easy to get along with, very cooperative, a fantastic co-worker and person.”
Innovation has long been a passion of his. Dr. H. James Harrington says Praveen was talking about innovation before it became popular. “Praveen is a visionary,” Harrington says. “He’s looking forward, not trying to be part of the mold; he’s looking at how to change the mold, to be more efficient and more adaptable.”
A COLLEAGUE AND A FRIEND
Arvind Srivastava met Praveen through an alumni association and then worked together for about 10 years at Accelper Consulting. Srivastava now teaches Praveen’s former class at IIT and uses his book “Business Innovation in the 21st Century” as a textbook. He also co-authored the “Stat Free Six Sigma” book with Praveen. Although Srivastava loves statistics, he said the book came about when the two of them realized the group they were teaching was not comfortable with statistics. Thus, they decided to tone down the stats element and focus on the intent of the process.
“He’s a wonderful person,” Srivastava says. “I feel honored to be working with him and to know him.” Q