Long-time quality professionals agree: the industry is not the same as when they started. No longer are quality managers seen as the police officers of the plant, checking to make sure nothing has gone wrong. Instead, the quality field has gotten much more proactive, aiming to prevent problems before they take place. Quality spoke with a group of quality experts to learn more about the current state of the profession.

The field continues to change. The state of the quality profession in 2019 doesn’t look much like it did in 1989, and it will likely look far different in 2049. As Jane Keathley of the ASQ Board of Directors, says, “As always, it’s in some transition, changing and adapting to current business and organizational needs. It’s always been that way, nothing is ever static.”

A Look Back

The early days of quality were often a battlefield, with the quality department and manufacturing not working together. Management often did not understand the perspective of the quality staff, and the quality staff had a difficult time expressing their issues in terms of dollars and cents. In many ways, the quality profession has dramatically improved.

“When I first started, you were the opponent, you were the organization that was preventing getting things done,” said Jim Spichiger of the ASQ Inspection Division. In his later work, the operators had the responsibility to build a product, and build it right, with a different reliance on the quality department. “We were more of a guide than a doer,” Spichiger says. It was the classic, give a man a fish vs. teach him to fish, he says.

Today there is much more planning for quality upfront, says John W. Jennings of ASQ’s Inspection Division, with design development, risk management and preventative actions. “Before it was: go out, design something, manufacture it, and throw it over the wall to quality.”

Quality Today

The current state of quality seems to be in transition. While the role of the traditional quality department has been subsumed into other departments—“quality is everyone’s job”—there is still a need for quality professionals to solve problems and prevent issues from happening again. The importance of quality is a given. This understanding means a shifting role for quality professionals, to more of a problem-solving expert. Along those lines, the rise of standards has also affected the industry.

“The ISO standard does put more emphasis on preventative than corrective actions,” says Spichiger. “Instead of waiting ‘til something goes wrong and fixing it, you are preventing the fires from starting in the first place. Obviously you want to be ahead of the game, analyzing the trends and solving potential problems.”

“I think that a lot of what organizations are looking for is speediness, timeliness, innovation and agility to rise to the top, and I think a lot of what quality professionals do lines up with those needs,” Keathley says. “We use the tools we have already to help organizations be more creative, move more quickly, and meet those needs of a demanding marketplace.”

Along with the changing responsibilities come changing problems. The challenges of the quality profession today are numerous. While the demands of the industry continue to increase, these come from a range of fronts, from new technology and standards to evolving people skills.

But challenges are often outweighed by the rewards of the work. For quality professionals, the feeling of accomplishment and recognition after a job well done makes it a satisfying career. Seeing the impact of your work is one of the best things about the role. Whether it’s successfully completing a big project, teaching someone a new skill, or preventing a problem from recurring, there is often much to be proud of.

ASQ is also a part of this journey. For many quality professionals, the organization is a place to learn new skills, get certified for them, and boost their career. They acquire a valuable network of fellow professionals and a strong sense of community.  If you ever lose your job, an ASQ meeting could be a good place to find your next one.

At a dinner meeting for ASQ, Spichiger sat across from someone who was looking for a QC manager. He had just lost his job, but started a new position just a few weeks later. This opportunity came about through a combination of luck and certification, he says. He got certified to advance in his career, and that’s also what brought him to this recertification meeting: “If I was never certified, I wouldn’t need to go to the meeting.”

In addition, Spichiger says that volunteering can also lead to future opportunities. Through his volunteer work with ASQ, including a leadership role, he says he ended up advancing his career: “My volunteering got me to several promotions because of the skills I developed. It wasn’t a plan or intentional.”

The Path to Quality

Many quality professionals also know what a good career it is because they have worked in other fields as well. Whether they started in manufacturing or restaurant management, they eventually came to the quality field.

“No one really says I’d like to be a quality technician. It’s so behind the curtain still. Even though there’s been a lot of effort in the industry, it’s tough to get people to make that a career choice,” says Wes Shelton, president of Manufacturing and Quality Services Inc. “I got into it by accident, I was happy designing stuff, doing the engineering work I was doing.” The plant manager told him the quality manager was retiring, and asked if he would be interested in the position. He wasn’t really interested until he was told that it would come with a manager salary, and “I’ve pretty much done that ever since.”

“You play a part in making things better, whether it’s food products, automotive, garments. That’s what I like about it,” Shelton says. “You get to touch so many different areas with that, engineering, manufacturing side, customer, end user. I came for the manager’s salary and stayed for the fun of it.”

Before John W. Jennings joined the quality field, he worked in restaurant management. An armed robbery at a nearby restaurant chain made me him reconsider this career path. After stumbling into quality, he now has thirty-eight years of experience in manufacturing as a quality technician, QA engineer, reliability engineer, QMS auditor, QA manager, quality system manager and director of performance excellence. Helping to improve processes has been a career highlight for Jennings. “That was one of the most striking things in my career, go in and improve things, improve processes, makes you feel good. That’s where a lot of people feel much more able to make a difference from a quality standpoint.”

For those in the field, his advice is: “Don’t be stagnant in your career. How can you get better, how can you learn something else? Because the quality field is constantly changing. You’re better off, with better job security, the more you know and the more you can do. On the other side, don’t be scared of trying to do something you may not be comfortable with doing.”

Spichiger also says it is important to have a broad skill set. Though being an expert may mean being highly paid for your skill, Spichiger notes, “if your skill is eliminated, you don’t have a paddle to row with.”

Before Jennings had any experience with design of experiments (DOE), he says, “Our director asked me if I wanted to do a DOE. I studied a lot on it, got to go out and implement it, and changed one process from 53% to 93% first pass yield. Don’t be bashful. Try something. Too many people get into fear of failure. Edison found several hundred ways not to make a lightbulb.”

What’s Next

The future of quality may include areas that didn’t exist years ago. Social media is one. Keathley says, “As quality professionals we need to understand those mechanisms, social media, also incorporate those into our traditional processes, in terms of data gathering, getting customer feedback, understanding customer satisfaction, new skills in terms of customer listening. Keep the mindset that these are new opportunities with a lot to offer organizations.”

With trends of artificial intelligence and big data, quality professionals have to learn how to address these, Keathley says. “Quality professionals have a lot of experience in data analysis and how to get involved in big data sets, we should use our skills to ask the right questions.”

With the rise of artificial intelligence, Jennings says, “How do you use that to ensure quality and measure it, make sure that you have people available and can work with it?”

As technology and the industry both continue to change, the hope is that more and more people find their way into the quality field.

“The quality profession is still something you fall into, the job you end up with or people you meet along the way,” Keathley says. To encourage more people to enter the field, the industry has been working hard at promoting the message of quality as a career. “I think we’re doing a lot to attract new quality professionals and some of that is certainly paying off,” Keathley says. “Do we have floods of them coming in? No. But we’re working on it.” Q