Slow Burn

Despite twists and turns, a passion for quality never cooled

by Scott Smith

As someone who is passionate about quality and experienced in the field, it seems strange that I have only held a quality title for two years in my 20-plus year career. Like many, I found quality by accident.

In the mid-1990s, a previous employer pursued ISO 9001 certification. The organization needed help with writing procedures and work instructions, and conducting internal audits. To get involved, an individual had to show acumen for quality by becoming a certified quality engineer (CQE) with the incentive of a $5,000 bonus. That was a lot of money to me back then, so I got right on board.

Having a business background and a business degree, passing the CQE exam was no easy feat. I took the exam several times before passing on my fourth and self-proclaimed final attempt. To receive an additional $1,000 bonus for passing the certified quality auditor exam, I buckled down harder and passed on my first try.

I got involved with my organization’s fledgling ISO 9001 program as an internal auditor. I enjoyed auditing the plant’s quality system, and I was offered a position as quality manager in the Baltimore plant. The pay was a modest increase over my account manager salary and barely enough to cover the cost-of-living difference between Baltimore and Knoxville, TN. To further complicate matters, my wife was offered her first job as an attorney in Knoxville. Moving would have meant my wife retaking the bar exam in a new state and many financial sacrifices. I reluctantly declined the job offer, and that was the right decision at the time.

I kept my hands in quality from the sidelines and maintained my hard-earned certifications. I also approached leaders of ASQ Section 1105 in Knoxville about volunteering to earn recertification units. I became a die-hard ASQ volunteer in 1999 and remain active.

My employer launched a lean Six Sigma (LSS) program in 2001. I enthusiastically served two years as a Green Belt and two years as a Black Belt on top of my full-time account manager job. Unexpectedly, I was a casualty of downsizing after 18 years with the organization.

Back on the job market, I sought quality and accounting jobs. I accepted a corporate accountant position near Savannah, GA, that required Six Sigma experience. A month later, the VP of finance encouraged me to enroll in a Master Black Belt (MBB) course. Within five months, I was a full-time MBB and realized my dream of a full-time quality role. After a couple of successful years, my position was cut during a leadership change.

It was time to take control of my quality aspirations, so I founded an LSS consultancy. I also began working in mergers and acquisitions in a medical benefits management organization—an exciting and dynamic role that builds my project management skills.

I became more involved with ASQ as an International Team Excellence Award preliminary round judge and served as my section’s vice chair, chair and treasurer. I also served as an internet liaison and member of the publications committee for the Lean Enterprise Division to satisfy my newfound love of writing.

My passion for quality has only grown. At first, I was concerned about the technical aspects of using the correct tools to get the optimal answer. I’ve since learned there are several suitable approaches and tools to manage projects. I’ve realized the importance of soft skills in building a culture of improvement and using empowerment to gain buy-in at the grass-roots level. I’ve discovered the necessity of management buy-in and faced the difficulty of fighting a culture that does not value customers or employees.

At times, quality can feel like a thankless pursuit. But you must be persistent and continue to fight the good fight every day. When you reach someone, get them hooked on continual improvement and watch them grow and better serve customers, it makes it all worth it.

Scott Smith is a senior manager of strategic operations at CareCore National in Bluffton, SC. A senior member of ASQ, he earned a master’s degree in operations management from Tusculum College in Knoxville, TN, and ASQ certifications as a quality auditor and quality engineer.

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