Encourage the Next Generation of STEM Professionals

A version of this blog post was originally published by www.biztimes.com.

We all know how important it is to get students interested in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. But we also know that STEM doesn’t always have the best reputation among teens—with perceptions ranging from science being “hard” or boring. And yet, the news is not all bad.

Case in point. Every year ASQ surveys teenagers about various STEM topics. In our 2015 survey, 80 percent of teens said they admire engineers’ problem-solving abilities and 68 percent think engineers get paid a high salary. Only 38 percent, however, think that engineers can easily get a job.

To us at ASQ, the survey underscores that teens have at least some interest in STEM, but worry about the job market. Are their fears unwarranted? According to various sources, the U.S. may have a STEM skills shortage, and many such jobs are going unfilled. You can read more about the state of STEM jobs in the U.S. News and World Report and The Bayer Facts of Science Education XVI survey.

(And by the way, if you’re based outside of the U.S., I’m interested in the state of STEM in your country–are young people pursuing this field? Why or why not?)

So, what to do about this problem?  Note that unfilled STEM jobs slow down business growth, lower productivity, and lead to lower revenues–whether you’re a STEM business/employee or not. (Source is this infographic.) In ASQ’s 2014 Engineering Week survey, we asked our members to give engineering students some advice. I believe their advice is applicable nearly worldwide, and is also helpful to businesses that may be employing  students as interns or staff.

Be a mentor. Consider becoming a mentor, formally or informally.  For students, the “the best way to learn about leadership is by seeing it demonstrated in real life, not out of a book.”

Build relationships. Do you have a relationship with a local school, university, or STEM program? This can be a source of potential future interns, apprentices, and employees.

Consider STEM-related sponsorships. For example, a local doctor’s office might support students with a sponsorship to a Science Olympiad team or a small manufacturer might partner with students who are participating in a robotics club. You could also look into opportunities to speak about your own STEM-related field during career days at school.

Provide a business education. Students who go into STEM benefit from understanding business basics and how to communicate with the C-suite. Even if your business is not in the STEM field, any potential science student will gain from your knowledge and experience.

Educate yourself as a parent. Frequently, parents with no background in STEM fields are not aware of the opportunities in those areas, and consequently do not educate their kids in the vast career opportunities available. If your child shows interest in math or science, it’s time to read up on the different career paths available. Does your child want to be a mechanical or civil engineer? What about a career in nanotechnology, biomechanics, or astrophysics?  There are so many choices available and you should start educating yourself so that you can have informed conversations with your children.

Businesses can play an important role in helping to encourage the next generation of STEM professionals. It’s time to step up to the plate.

Why Should Quality "Go Global"?

We were privileged last week to have with us at ASQ Headquarters in Milwaukee representatives from our global offices in India, Mexico, and China, and our partner organization in Brazil, Quali.  It is a rare treat to get nearly the entire global team together– we also have an office in the United Arab Emirates serving the Middle East and North Africa region–and it is cause for a few minutes of reflection on our global posture.

The first question that may occur to some is, why?  Until our rebranding in 2010, we were the American Society for Quality.  Why do we need to be spread out around the world?  Today I want to discuss ASQ’s reasoning for “going global,” but also to note the importance of making information about quality global in scope and available to all.

First, before we did the first thing to be global, we already were.  Some may consider quality as proprietary—that is, knowledge used by a nation to increase its competitiveness in the world. However, at ASQ, we have had many members all over the world years before we opened offices outside the U.S.  In fact, I suspect from almost the very start ASQ had members who lived outside of North America.

The ideas, the passion for quality, the networking, and the tools were attractive to those who found themselves seeking like-minded quality professionals from many different industries and businesses.  So even if we had NO plans to expand our membership globally, we would still be global.  Given that, we have an obligation to serve our global members. We want them to feel welcome, supported, and listened to.  In some cases that meant we needed a presence on the ground to better understand and serve their needs.

Second, the quality knowledge our members want and need cannot be bounded by borders.  If the Quality Body of Knowledge® is to have any value to our members, it must transcend national borders.  Where is quality making the biggest impact in the healthcare world today?  The U.S.?  India? Canada?  Wherever it is, members of the quality community are hard at work, using quality in ways tried and true and ways new and innovative, and our members want to learn from them, wherever they are.

The QBoK® is not a fixed, stagnant resource.  It is constantly growing and changing, and that evolution is happening from the auto industry in the Czech Republic to the energy industry in China and dozens of different fields in a hundred different countries.  To grow that knowledge, to give our members access to ways quality is making the world a better place, we have to be out in the world.

Third, ASQ is like any other business in one important respect: grow or perish. It’s that simple.  There is no such thing as a benign status quo.  We have to grow means, influence, and members.  Our members themselves demand it, our board demands it, and the quality community throughout the world demands it.  Our global partners don’t fear our growth–most of them welcome it because they grow along with us.

If we are to thrive for the next fifty years, we must achieve an acceptable degree of growth and the evidence is very clear that a significant portion of that growth must come from global markets. (Note that globalization is the one force that has appeared in every edition of ASQ’s Future of Quality study since 1996.)  We know we must attract more young professionals to quality, and to an ever-increasing degree, demographics tell us those young professionals will come from outside the U.S.

This month my question to you is: ASQ’s mission statement talks about increasing the use and impact of quality in response to the diverse needs of the world.  Are we doing enough, throughout the world, to accomplish that mission?

Finding Inspiration From Quality Leaders

In December I had the privilege of spending time listening to and learning from Paul O’Neill, a quality thought leader, 2013 Juran Medalist, and  former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

It was one of the most profound engagements I have ever had.  As some of you know, Secretary O’Neill was chairman and CEO of Alcoa from 1987 to 1999, where he retired as chairman at the end of 2000.  He was indisputably and famously successful increasing both the market value and the revenue of Alcoa many times over.  He is now immersed in taking the principles of quality and using them to fix the enormous problems the U.S. faces in healthcare.  As an acknowledged expert in healthcare economics, he uses the same quality principles he espoused and enforced at Alcoa to help healthcare executives and providers cut waste and increase effectiveness and safety.

Secretary O’Neill was gracious, welcoming and fascinating.  He was interested in me as an individual and interested in what we are doing at ASQ.  I asked him to help me understand what he did at Alcoa to be so successful and what I might glean from his current work in the healthcare industry.  I can’t possibly do justice to all he told me, but I will highlight three points that made an enormous impression on me.

  • First, when he went to Alcoa, he surprised everyone by what he made his top priority.  It was not increasing shareholder value, capturing market share, or increasing profits.  It was worker safety.  His board and his top management team were incredulous.  Sure, safety on the job was important, but the most important thing we do?  The CEO’s top priority?  Yes, because, as Secretary O’Neill explained to me, your people are the most precious asset you have.  When they are injured, you don’t have just an interruption in the work, you have real human suffering.  No profit is worth that. Furthermore, on-the-job injuries are enormously expensive and produce absolutely nothing.  Workplace injuries violate the trust between the workers and the company.  The workers count on management to keep them safe even while they do hazardous work.  Finally, if an enterprise cannot instill and enforce the discipline to keep workers safe, what other forms of indiscipline are tolerated?  Sloppy work?  Tardiness and absenteeism?  Low standards tend to breed more low standards.
  • The second point I took away resonated with me as much as the first.  It is simply to treat everyone with dignity and respect.  As CEO Paul O’Neill spoke to everyone as equals and he did not let the trappings of being CEO get in the way of honest, respectful, authentic person-to-person interactions.  This sounded very familiar to me.  In my military career, one of the first things drilled into our heads was called “Schofield’s Definition of Discipline” from General John Schofield (1879).  It expresses a similar theme, “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment… He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.”
  • The third point sounds simple, but its implications are unforgiving and pervasive.  It is that your aim must be to be the best in the world at everything you do.  This is a radical departure from what most of us think of as improvement. It does not say be better than last year or be better than the guy down the street.  It says you must drive to be the best in the world and he meant exactly that.  When I pressed him on this point, he explained you have to figure out theoretical perfection, measure yourself against that standard, and then figure out how to get there.  You then start systematically eliminating everything that is keeping you from attaining that theoretical level of perfection, keep measuring, and don’t stop until you get there.  My guess is that’s where even a leader as good as Paul O’Neill will lose a lot of potential followers. If you really mean it, this part is very, very tough.  But, as Secretary O’Neill told me, it is also a lot of fun!  I intend to find out.

Keeping all this in mind, my question to you is: Have you met someone whose teachings on quality influenced you or inspired you? What were these lessons? You might name a famous quality guru, but I would encourage you to think of those outside the quality field who nevertheless can teach us key lessons about quality.

Postscript: On a related note about leaders who value quality, I’d like to mention the passing of the former New York State Government Mario Cuomo last week. You may not know of Cuomo or support his politics if you did, but I think it’s worth pointing out how a government leader can be a champion of quality, even if we don’t consider him or her a “quality professional” per se.

For example, Governor Cuomo helped transform New York State’s local motor vehicle departments, reducing wait times and increasing efficiency. He also paved the way for New York’s version of the Baldrige award (then called the Governor’s Excelsior Award and now part of Partners in Performance Excellence). This award led the way in areas beyond traditional quality, including education, health care and not-for-profits. Governor Cuomo made it clear that quality was the standard, and this standard was recognized and aspired to throughout New York State government.

The takeaway: No matter where you’re located, leadership counts.

Is Quality Ambitious Enough?

This month, I’m trying something a little different for our monthly topic for discussion. I recently read an article by Brooks Carder, a longtime member of ASQ who recently worked with our board. Brooks shared the following piece that he’s written for ASQ’s Human Development and Leadership Division newsletter. I think it is well worth our time to read, discuss, and learn from.

As Brooks points out, we have all gone through some kind of conversion.  We know in our hearts we can help make this world work better.  We don’t need to be over-the-top, but we should have the confidence to tell our story, understand our own value, and inspire others.
You may agree or disagree with Brooks’ piece, but as you read it, keep these two questions in mind:

  • How do we encourage those who work in quality to understand their own value? (Beyond the perception of ourselves as “nerd engineers,” as referenced in Brooks’ piece.)
  • How do we spread the message of quality in a marketplace overflowing with ideas about how to boost profitability and ever-changing management trends?

Here’s Brooks’ piece:

One of my college roommates recently sent me an intriguing article, “Redefining Capitalism,” published in the McKinsey Quarterly, by Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer. It came under the heading:

“Despite its ability to generate prosperity, capitalism is under attack. By shaking up our long-held assumptions about how and why the system works, we can improve it.”

Just the notion of McKinsey giving a voice to the notion that maximizing profits was not a good thing intrigued me. The gist of the piece is expressed in one of the opening paragraphs:

“Significantly, this view shifts our perspective on how and why markets work from their allocative efficiency to their effectiveness in promoting creativity. It suggests that markets are evolutionary systems that each day carry out millions of simultaneous experiments on ways to make our lives better. In other words, the essential role of capitalism is not allocation—it is creation. Life isn’t drastically better for billions of people today than it was in 1800 because we are allocating the resources of the 19th-century economy more efficiently. Rather, it is better because we have life-saving antibiotics, indoor plumbing, motorized transport, access to vast amounts of information, and an enormous number of technical and social innovations that have become available to much (if not yet all) of the world’s population.”

When I read this, it reinforced my belief that quality is critical to the function of the economy that is described here. But many of us do not appear to realize that. Consider ASQ’s mission: To increase the use and impact of quality in response to the diverse needs of the world.

In my opinion this is not sufficiently ambitious. After all, quality is responsible for many of the things that make life better. Just the change in automobiles would represent major improvement in the quality of life, an improvement that was enabled by quality.

My own version of a mission would be: To improve the function and value of goods and services worldwide, and to facilitate the development of new products and services that improve the quality of life.

You may think that this is too ambitious. After all, are we not just a bunch of nerd engineers, sitting at the end of an assembly line, keeping statistics and occasionally convincing someone to change a process for the better?

Well, we are what we think we are. But we should not just settle for that. We have undergone a conversion, and it’s a conversion that is very much like a religious conversion. We believe in something that most people don’t believe in. The something we believe in can make life better in the here and now. We need to understand that this religion must be preached.

My own conversion was at the feet of the Billy Graham of quality, Dr. W Edwards Deming. I had the great good fortune to attend six of his four-day seminars during the final years of his life, and even had some brief conversations with him. My conversion was literally an epiphany.

As a scientist I had difficulty understanding why business was conducted in the way that it typically was. Deming explained that my instincts were right and showed me the path to apply scientific knowledge and common sense to business.

Each of us has undergone a conversion. Probably many of them have been dramatic. Mine certainly was. So small groups of us get together for dinner once a month and engage in our rituals.  There is no incense, no chanting, no hymns, and no vestments for the leaders, unless you count our leadership team polo shirts.

But our religion is not as healthy as it should be. Our numbers are getting smaller and our members are getting older. Where is our outreach? The Mormons send their best and brightest young people around the world on two-year missions to spread the word.

But before we can mount an effective outreach, we need to appreciate the value of our own conversion, and the huge contribution we can make if we can bring our full capacity forward.