Quality's Identity Crisis

by Hank Lindborg

James Lipton concludes each interview for the Bravo Cable Network's "Inside the Actors Studio" with 10 questions. I've found one of these useful for dialogue about careers. It asks for a profession, outside of your own, you wouldn't want to pursue.

Another illuminating question is, "What do you dread?" (This I picked up in conversation with a young district attorney, who undoubtedly finds use for it in her practice.) I've found what we don't want to do and what we dread--though negative--speak to our identity.

For most of us, our job is an important part of that identity. (No? Think about the last time you introduced yourself.) When we dread losing a job, we confront questions about who we are. In ordinary business cycles, we may put these questions to rest by finding a new job--doing the same thing for a new company. In other times, professional identity itself may be in doubt.

For the quality profession in the United States, the restructuring of the economy not only threatens jobs in manufacturing but also raises deep issues of identity.

We read that the United States economy is being hollowed out. This is sometimes attributed to poor U.S. trade and currency policies. However, we also find that a similar fate is befalling Mexico, Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan. Accelerated by the Wal-Mart phenomenon in retailing, manufacturing jobs ever more rapidly migrate to new low cost producers.

At the same time the United States reports dramatic gains in productivity, it experiences a jobless recovery from a recent downturn that followed a decade of higher employment with considerable churn (ongoing downsizing, often applauded by Wall Street and sometimes conducted in the name, though not the legitimate practice, of reengineering).

In 2003, the 1980s quality messages about national economic competitiveness and performance excellence, especially as articulated and evolved in the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, were re-examined (sometimes belatedly) in light of a global economy and emerging issues of corporate responsibility. (Remarkably, Baldrige used the word "governance" for the first time in the 2003 criteria.)

Registration to ISO 9001 lags amid questions about how it adds value. We know tools and techniques are by themselves no longer enough, quality is no longer hot, and larger frameworks (including national competitiveness) seem no longer to suffice.

In this environment, the role of ASQ as a mediating institution--one that provides connections between the individual and the larger society--is critical in defining professional identity. This isn't prefabricated. It has to be continually rediscovered.

So, jobs are threatened, the profession is challenged, and participation in the Society is important. But how about that individual whose job and professional identity are on the line today?

The answer isn't simple. It includes more than standard advice on how to inventory skills and conduct a job search. My own work in guiding life reflections of leaders, educators and graduate students engaged in deeper "search" has shown job shifts are preceded and accompanied by values shifts over time.

In this process, career paths may no longer be clear, rational planning may seem inadequate, and identity derived from work may be threatened. Explanations of what's happening, examples of how others have handled such changes and useful guidelines for action have been difficult to find. However, Herminia Ibarra's new book Working Identity begins to fill these gaps.1

Ibarra, who tracks individuals in a wide range of career changes, begins by questioning the assumption that we plan and then act. "Career transitions should follow a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected," she writes.

Rather than coming to some deep self-knowledge and then changing, Ibarra says, "We rethink ourselves ... by gradually exposing ourselves to new worlds, relationships and roles."

She suggests envisioning possible futures as we find our way in shifting circumstances. Her advice? Make gradual change as you discover new interests and roles in activities such as volunteering.

In many organizations, projects offer new horizons. Take time out to reflect and remain alert to opportunities--there may be that lifetime opportunity you don't want to miss. Network, even if you're not looking for a job. Test your ideas in new contexts. Don't define yourself by a narrow skill set. Use life milestones for personal assessment. Take advantage of executive education or an MBA to expand your horizons.

For me, Ibarra's most important insight is that who we are comes first. Don't dread; act to find what is most you. Action often precedes rather than follows meaningful career decisions.

As the poet Antonio Machado writes, "Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar," or, "Searcher, there is no road, the road is made by walking."2


  1. Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Harvard Business School Press, 2003,
    pp. 1-2.
  2. We Make the Road By Walking: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, translated by Betty Jean Craige, Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ's Education Division and currently serves on the Education and Training Board.

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