Recently I had a discussion with a quality manager concerning the focus of quality and what skills are important to success. It centered on the degree of focus which should be placed on the quality tools versus people and teams.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had a chance to talk with many quality professionals, and this topic often surfaces at some point.

Being in the quality profession for many years, I cut my teeth on the technical aspects of solving quality problems, but over time I’ve spent a good portion of my time on teams and the soft skills. Because of this, many ‘pure’ quality professionals have remarked I spent too much time on “the people side” of quality.

Although I’ve spent a good portion of my career devoted to the quality tools, some say I should have spent all my efforts teaching people to use the tools more effectively. To the purely academic quality professional, this should be the focus of the quality professional.

There are plenty of opinions to go around on this topic, and all of them have some degree of legitimacy. With a career spanning more than five decades, I came to believe that too much emphasis on one approach fails to achieve total success.

In today’s environment, soft skills in the workplace matter significantly. Not only should quality professionals have technical competence, but they must also be able to communicate effectively and get along with others. Those intangible qualities that focus on behavior, personal traits, and cognitive capabilities may be more important now than ever.

“There are countless situations where highly skilled quality professionals generate an analysis that is technically precise but mostly ignored.”

Quality managers who promote team-based problem solving are considered a valuable commodity and given a “seat at the table.” Those who show too strong a focus on the technical aspect are often looked on as less valuable. Most executive leaders don’t like being told they have problems and arguably 85-94% of the time the root cause of a problem points back to the system, of which they own.

Definitely quality tools and techniques are important. Without them quality professionals would mostly be ineffective, nor could we deliver the results that senior leaders depend upon to make effective decisions. However, many experts proclaim the importance of being more rigid with the application of the technical tools which takes time, effort, and resources. This can serve as a ‘turn off’ to leaders.

I’ve had success applying quality tools in ways to allow people with limited experience to use the tools effectively. While some ‘pure’ quality professionals criticized the approach, the approach got results. But I am not demeaning technical capabilities nor the long history of developing cutting-edge toolsets.

What happens often in the quality world is that quality professionals become too focused on the technical aspects. There are countless situations where highly skilled and superbly trained quality professionals generate a detailed analysis that is technically precise and mathematical sophisticated, but mostly ignored because the laymen cannot comprehend nor accept the results!

It doesn’t make any difference how well someone knows and can use statistical analysis; if you cannot work with people to help make effective decisions, or influence them to choose the best course of action, you are deluding yourself that you are doing a good job.

As quality professionals, we must become more influential, and more acclimated to learning how people think. We need to become more effective at communicating information, clarifying the results, and leading change. The data or other quality information are but artifacts and elements of decision-based management. One way to become better at communicating is through gaining more knowledge of the softer skills. It is only when we can use data to effectively influence others that we fully achieve potential as quality professionals.

Certainly, there is a need to have technical quality professionals who love to play with numbers and crunch statistics. I played that role in the early part of my quality career. I found, however, that it was much more fruitful to have a ‘seat at the table’ to influence quality decisions on a broader scale as a quality management professional.

Quality professionals owe it to themselves and their organizations to be equally adept at the technical skills as well as the soft skills; however, the truth is that soft skills alone won’t get you everywhere you may want to go, but they will continue to be nonnegotiable for organizations.

In a study, 92% of hiring managers said soft skills were equally important as technical skills. Additionally, nearly 90% said when a person isn’t successful, it’s often because they lack the soft skills to be effective.

The data indicates it’s critical to continuously build upon our soft and hard (technical) skills as both are essential skills for everyone, including the quality professional. This approach of “lifelong learning” will ensure that the possibilities for personal and professional growth are limitless.