I have been asked many times, where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Usually it has been in the context of a job interview or a performance appraisal. Early on when my career was getting started I had no idea, so I answered in vague tentative terms. “I see myself doing what the company needs me to do.” “I see myself in a more responsible role,” whatever that meant. Truth be told, I did not give the future much thought. I was more concerned about the present. I need to start earning a living. Would I get this job? Would they sponsor me for a work visa? Don’t mess up.
One word sums up my early career: naive. For my first job, I was hired as an applications engineer by a semiconductor equipment manufacturer. The company made machines that chip makers used. It had nothing to do with my background in mechanical engineering. I did not know anything about the semiconductor industry, its technology or the company’s products. I did not know how the company was organized. I did not know what my role was about. How did I fit in? What was my function? Who was I supporting? In hindsight, I did not know what it is I even ought to know so I did not know what questions to ask or that I should ask any at all.
The way I dealt with my naiveté and feeling lost was to put my trust in management. Do what I was told. They, of course, had experience that informed their judgment, and good motives, too, didn’t they? On one occasion, I remember clearly, the general manager of my unit saying to me “This isn’t college where someone has mapped a curriculum for you to follow. Figure it out.” I did my best with right intentions, but best efforts and right intentions are not enough when you do not know what to do. For my efforts to be meaningful, for me to be productive, I needed to understand my context. I needed help, and I got lucky.
I was introduced to quality at the midpoint in my career by Samsung. When the company hired me as a quality assurance engineer I had no clue what it was about. But they sent me to their main facility to get training—a huge and impressive campus near Seoul, South Korea. The trip was for five full weeks; every day was spent on training. Part of each day was spent in the classroom being taught quality concepts like viewing work as a process where the next step is the customer, and performing root cause analysis by repeatedly asking “Why?” The rest of the day was spent learning how these concepts were used in practice with basic quality tools like process flow charts, checklists and Pareto charts. I was asked to “walk” and map various processes to understand what was happening and to compare what I found with what was supposed to happen. While I cannot recall my first impressions anymore, I do remember feeling engaged and curious.
Many different teachers were pulled in. These were men and women who had been performing the related functions for a long time. Training with them was intense. Not only was I asked to practice the lessons I was taught, but they would quiz me about what I learned. Sometimes they would know the answers and ask leading questions. Other times they would work with me to find the answers. I returned from my trip with a solid foundation and a context for my work. This was unlike anything in my previous jobs where I did stuff assigned to me without understanding. I had found purpose for my work—why I was doing what I was doing—and with it the joy of doing it.
The trip to South Korea was just the beginning of my education in quality. My manager, a veteran of the Samsung way, insisted on careful observation and deep thinking in my work. For example, in dealing with nonconforming product I was asked to check whether it was a process issue or a measurement issue, whether it was a recurrence of an issue, whether other attributes were also affected, and so on. I was asked to step through the consequences of my observations to determine how such an issue would manifest itself in the final product. My colleagues, short-term expatriates from South Korea, provided daily examples of how to do this through their own practice. It was one of them, as he was studying to take ASQ’s Certified Quality Engineer (CQE) exam, who introduced me to ASQ. In my time with the company, I went through further training that included an eight week course for Six Sigma Green Belt, and a week long course for lead auditor in ISO 16949. The people at Samsung made a heavy investment in my development for which I will forever be grateful.
There is no doubt luck played a crucial part in how I came to discover my context. And that discovery had to be enabled by an outside factor. But much of what has come about since has been through hard work and religious practice. Since my time with Samsung I went on to earn my CQE and CQA through self-study. In studying for those exams I discovered the breadth of scope of quality. It caused me to reframe my context, enlarging it beyond an individual company and traditional boundaries. I learned to view production as a system in Dr. Deming’s Out of the Crisis . This systems view was developed further by Dr. Ackoff’s Redesigning the Future , and Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline . Dr. Shewhart’s book, Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product , and Dr. Wheeler’s Understanding Statistical Process Control  taught me the ubiquity and nature of variation and how to differentiate between the two fundamental types: common cause variation and special cause variation. I developed a functional understanding of the psychology of human motivation through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow , and the Buddha’s “Dhammapada.” And Karl Popper in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery  and Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  showed me how knowledge grows.
I continue to read on the history of the field, the fashions and fads that came and went, its development, its successes and failures, and its challenges. My studying has been non-stop. So has practicing what I have learned. It is now second nature for me to plot the data when I am confronted with a problem; to understand it in its context, and whether it represents a potential signal or just noise. I use checklists as memory supplements everywhere—as daily to-do lists, as lists to define and meet the requirements of an operation or process, and as data collection lists to track frequency. I doodle process maps to understand what is happening or being described.
Quality has had a profound impact on me. It touches every aspect of my life. The ideas that make up the field of quality have helped me develop my observation skills, taught me how to reflect on the observations and understand them, and to then respond to them appropriately. While I am still subject to the vagaries of life, conscious practice of these learned skills has reduced the chaos I introduce to life through my actions. This in turn has improved the outcomes of those actions. And that, I hope, has made some small difference in the lives of those I touch. A trivial example of this is my daily commute to work. I observed that it made no meaningful difference in the time it took whether I actively changed lanes or stayed in the same lane. But the repeated lane changes significantly increased the risk of getting into or causing an accident. It increased everyone’s degree of frustration. It increased my driving effort, and reduced my fuel economy. So I no longer change lanes unless absolutely necessary. I get to work in just the same time, safe and sound, and hopefully so do others.
It will be ten years in 2016 since my fortunate introduction to quality. I could not have seen this is where I would be all those years ago. In the zigzag path my career has taken I have had a chance to work with many different companies in several different industries. I have taken advantage of each opportunity to observe how a company operated, particularly as it related to its employees. When I have come across coworkers, new or experienced, who reminded me of my naive self, I have tried to help them to understand their context and how they fit within it—something my management never did for me. I believe it has helped them to orient themselves, discover their purpose, and labor in a way that bore fruit instead of frustration. That has been most satisfying.
References and Notes
1. Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT CAES. 1991. Print. ISBN 0-911379-01-0
2. Ackoff, Russell L. Redesigning the Future: a Systems Approach to Societal Problems. New York: Wiley, 1974. Print. ISBN 0-471002-96-8
3. Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990. Print. ISBN 0-385260-94-6
4. Shewhart, Walter A. Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc, 1931. Print.
5. Wheeler, Donald J, and David S. Chambers. Understanding Statistical Process Control. Knoxville, Tenn: SPC Press, 1992. Print. ISBN 0-945320-13-2
6. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2011. Print. ISBN 978-0-374275-63-1
7. Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York : Basic Books, Inc., 1959. Print.
8. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. Print. ISBN 0-226458-04-0