One of the most frequent questions I get asked is how to get started in a quality field. I’ve long wanted to write an article I could direct people to. When the ASQ Influential Voices program asked me to write on the subject I was happy to start!
I mean, what better career could you hope for? The root of quality is improving processes for people. It’s not a stretch to say the efforts of quality practitioners have dramatically improved the standard of living for the world over the last hundred years. Spending your time, talent and energy in that pursuit is a great and noble thing!
In fact, I was so happy to start I just began listing things; to-do lists, must-read books, practical advice, checklists, and more. It wasn’t long until I far exceeded the scope of what I could hope to publish in an article.
In an effort to reduce the sheer volume, I focused on the 80-20 principle; what are the primary drivers that would enable success. This is what I came up with in no specific order;
- Find mentors.
- When in doubt, solve a problem for someone else.
That’s it. That’s the advice I will give my own children as they grow up.
For a longer discussion, I invite you to read the following abridged version of my original attempt.
Problems Starting Out
Sure, it’s difficult when you start out. From the many conversations I’ve had with visitors to this site I’ve heard the following common:
- Don’t know the industry well
- May not have credibility in the eyes of your peers
- Don’t know the people “who can make things happen”
- Don’t have experience
The good news is that it’s up to you. All you have to do is find an appreciative audience and start.
You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.
And when you look at anyone who is operating in a space you want to be in it looks like they took a defined path that rocketed them to their field. From what I’ve learned from top performers, that is simply not the case. They just kept on working, learning, and applying that knowledge and one opportunity led to another.
The important thing is to get started.
Things in Your Favor
You are Not Alone!
The good thing is that you have lots of company! From new global market entrants, to recent college graduates, to those making career changes and reinventing themselves as a quality improvement practitioner, there are a lot of people in your situation!
Fortunately, there’s a lot of need as well. Look around. Think of the last few hours of your day. Chances are it wasn’t an idyllic perfect experience. There are things that get broken, services that are erratic, and experiences that just don’t pan out as we expect them to.
Permission no Longer Required
Another tailwind is that you no longer need permission to work on quality. In fact, improving quality is just “table stakes” for being hired. Employers want people who will take a personal, vested interest in improving the customer experience – and that is the heart of what quality it.
Unlike the proprietary counterparts that it soon eclipsed, the Internet has no main menu, no CEO, and no business plan. Anything could be built on top of it without permission of a central authority… To see the multidimensionality of quality in the information space is to understand the breathtaking array of choices and trade offs.
Stanley McChrystal and Rodney Evans, “The Future of Leadership: From Efficiency To Adaptability.”
You don’t have to be employed with Quality in your title to begin your work. In fact, if you want to get a job in quality, it’s best if you can apply it in your current position first. (See my guide to getting a job as a Six Sigma Black Belt.)
How to Start a Successful Quality Career
As we are talking about quality, why not begin with a Plan, Do, Check Act approach?
I’ll steal a quote that John Hunter surfaced in his blog article Culture Change Requires That Leaders Change Their Behavior to start off with.
The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge.The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people. Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to.
W. Edwards Deming wrote in The New Economics:
Any plan should begin with education. Consider planning your education and experiences so that you become a ‘T-Shaped Employee”. Get the vertical by finding a maturity model specific to your field and grow the horizontal by benc hmarking and learning how quality concepts are applied broadly.
Have the benefit of education. Of course you will need to learn and understand quality concepts. And there is no better place to start than ASQ’s various Bodies of Knowledge.
“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”
Find a professional development ladder for your industry and your specialty and work to progress from proficiency through mastery of the expected topics. A great example of this is Construx’s implementation of IEEE’s SWEBOK – the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge.
That will serve as your “I.”
To work on the “T” be sure to understand the end-to-end flow of your industry. Keep up with news. Read what the leaders of your company are reading. Understand how your company competes in the market place – and pay special attention to what your competitors are doing.
As you spot patterns, leverage your quality training to capitalize on the opportunities you uncover.
The next step is where the “rubber hits the road.” It is essential that you deliver results based on that education.
It doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing. Just get started.
“If you want to change someone’s life, change their day first.”
Patt Flynn, Author of Will it Fly?
Look for ways to apply what you are learning to your daily life. This helps you internalize the lessons so you can apply them on the business stage.
If you are having trouble finding projects, try my guide to finding qualified six sigma projects here.
All quality professionals will be judged on their ability to impact others. Whether that impact is improving external client experience or fixing internal process issues, we all have an audience we will need to please. Also, it’s very rare that professionals are in a position to give themselves a raise, or a bonus, or secure their own promotions, so we need to verify our progress with others. Be sure to seek out as many decision makers both in your company out for a diversity of viewpoints. It’s not necessary to take each review or suggestion as gospel, but interpret each as a data point.
Network with others.
Identify the people in your industries who always seem to be out in front, and use all the relationship skills you’ve acquired to connect with them. Take them to lunch. Read their newsletters. In fact, read everything you can. Online, there are hundreds of individuals distilling information, analyzing it, and making prognostications. These armchair analysts are the eyes and ears of innovation. Now get online and read, read, read. Subscribe to magazines, buy books, and talk to the smartest people you can find. Eventually, all this knowledge will build on itself, and you’ll start making connections others aren’t.
Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
Once you have begun building your network, determine their needs. Most people are happy to mentor. However, everyone is happy to mentor people who both apply their advice and bring additional value to the table. As you learn about what issues your mentors have try to apply the techniques from your quality training to make improvements and help them out.
Sure, you’ve been working hard all the way but you really earn credibility by becoming the change you want to see.
If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset “what can the world offer me?” and instead adopt the craftsman mindset “what can I offer the world?”.
Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You
In doing so you will cultivate your personal brand. You will become known as a dependable “go-to” person.
Branding is what people say about you when you are not in the room.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon.
As you gain experience and deliver results, ramp up your results by applying your solutions to similar patterns of opportunity. See my specific examples in my article How to Prepare for a Job as a Six Sigma Black Belt for more ideas.
Share your results with others. Regardless of your level of experience share your work. There is no better way to achieve outside results from your work by teaching your methods to others. Don’t be shy. Get started sharing and applying as soon as possible. Applying lessons to other issues in similar pattern. For a great example of this practice in real life, see Jeremy’s article on using Control Charts in the classroom.
Everyone has something to learn and something to teach.
Randy Emelo, Modern Mentoring
In addition to sharing your work, train and teach others – Here’s how to find teaching opportunities – even if you are new to the field yourself.
Ultimately your career is in your hands. There is no one else who will manage your career but you. Be proactive! Learn! Get your hands dirts doing work! Experiment and apply your lessons across diverse fields. And above all have a great time with it! Life is too short to chase a profession that you do not love.
“There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?”
― Warren Buffett