Reflections of Progress

Five lessons learned on the journey from shop floor to VP

by Scott Thor

Like many quality professionals I know, my career didn’t start with a focus on quality. My working life started after I finished an associate degree at a local community college and pursued a hands-on career in welding. Welding proved to be a challenging career choice, but soon the challenge wore thin, and I began pursuing a bachelor’s degree. This led to a position as a manufacturing engineer.

Going from working in a production environment—where every day I could see the results of my efforts—to working in front of a computer and not being able to physically touch the work I completed took some getting used to. Eventually, though, I got used to working less with my hands and more with my mind as an engineer, which led to my first interaction with the quality profession.

A few years into my engineering role, I finished an MBA and accepted a position as a quality engineer. I didn’t really know much about quality but decided the challenge was worth the risk.

Throughout the next eight years, I worked my way through many challenging assignments and applied what I learned through ASQ certifications to several projects. This experience led to numerous management positions and, ultimately, to my current role as vice president of organizational excellence within manufacturing.

Along the way, I’ve learned five important lessons that have helped me succeed as a quality professional:

1. Listen more, talk less. Far too often, we like hearing the sound of our own voices instead of listening to others. To be effective quality professionals, we must be experts in understanding our environment before trying to be understood by those within it. This comes from more listening than talking.

2. Encourage constructive conflict. Consensus should not be the goal of any quality professional. If everyone agrees, something is wrong. If consensus is reached too easily, it usually means someone has held back an opinion that could have a dramatic effect on the outcome. You only need to look back on the space shuttle disasters to realize constructive conflict is essential to making sound decisions.

3. Ask the right question instead of giving what you think is the right answer. Our society has a tendency to reward those who have the right answer. Quality professionals who are focused on coming up with the right answer will quickly become the go-to person for all problems.

The goal of any quality professional, however, is to build a culture within your organization in which everyone works to solve the problems they face. To find the right answer, you need to ask the right question.

4. Never stop learning. We’ve all heard the adage, "When you stop learning, you stop growing." It is most certainly true in the quality profession. The continual improvement process not only applies to the organizations in which we work, but also to our growth and development.

We all lead busy lives, but taking time out each week to pick up a quality magazine or journal or visit one of the many quality-related websites, such as www.qualityprogress.com, is all it takes to stay up to date with the latest developments.

5. Look back from time to time. One final lesson I’ve learned is time passes by so quickly that we often forget to look back and reflect on what we have contributed. I recently started a reflection journal to help compile my thoughts on lessons I’ve learned. It has not only helped me better understand how I could have done better, but also has given me the confidence to move forward and take on greater challenges.

Scott Thor is vice president of organizational excellence at Lortz Manufacturing Co. in Bakersfield, CA. He earned an MBA from the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. Thor is currently working on a doctorate in management at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. He is a senior member of ASQ and a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, quality engineer and manager of quality/organizational excellence.

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