Let There Be Light
Lessons for the future based on reflections from the past
by Peter Merrill
After returning from ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in May, I was fired up to write about how new technology—especially artificial intelligence (AI)—would affect our careers as quality professionals.
Since January 2015, I have shared the World Economic Forum (WEF) report “The Future of Jobs,”1 which describes how quality control as a skill set will disappear from the top 10 competencies, and the new skills—such as complex problem solving, creativity and emotional intelligence—will be needed.
Collecting my thoughts one evening in my living room, the lights suddenly went out. A major storm earlier in the day had brought 70-mph winds to our rural area and power cables had been brought down: A harsh reminder of the fragile infrastructure that our new technology rests upon.
By the next morning, there was still no power and I really had a problem: My laptop was dead and my phone battery was nearly depleted. Another harsh reminder of the fragile infrastructure of modern technology. Knowing that innovators must be agile, I asked myself, “Now what do I do?”
Time to reflect
We have a log stove, so I lit a fire. Fire means I can boil water, and that means I can make a cup of tea. Without the laptop, I resorted to pen and paper to capture my thoughts. This isn’t low technology—it’s no technology. I realized this was the perfect environment for creative problem solving and releasing my inner thoughts. I watched the flames of the fire, sipped my tea and let my thoughts unfold.
I reflected on my career and considered what I could share that would help others. Common wisdom is that we all have five careers. I counted nine. We talk of a cat having nine lives, but also remember cats are very agile. The careers include R&D, chemical, textiles, quality management and innovation. I won’t say I was especially agile, and I certainly was not a job hopper, but I always searched for opportunity and new learning. Be ready for nine careers in your own life.
My first opportunity involved a tough decision after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Birmingham University. The university had offered me post-grad research in catalytic distillation, but I had a job offer waiting in the research division of a major chemical and textile organization, Courtaulds plc. To this day, I agonize over whether I should have stayed and gotten my doctorate. What tipped the balance was that Courtaulds actually cared.
You see, the corporation invited me for three days of interviews, and I met more than a dozen people for in-depth conversations. They asked tough technical questions, but they wanted to know if I would fit in their culture. Lesson one: When you go for an interview, it’s not always about the money and the technical content—it’s about whether you will be happy with these people. This is where you will spend the biggest slice of your life.
Missed the learning
After a year at Courtaulds, I realized I missed that intense learning at the university. I was sharing an office with someone a bit older who would later become a longtime friend. He explained he was taking a post-grad management course. I took the plunge and signed up for the course. Going back to school evenings and weekends was difficult, but the learning was huge. The focus was less financial and more behavioral sciences.
Lesson two: Get an MBA, but look for a course with human content. That will equip you for learning about leadership and people.
The advantage of working at a larger organization is that you get a lot more opportunities. I did, however, make the mistake of assuming culture is uniform across corporations. After a few years, I ended up in a division that had been purchased, and the employees there resented it. This was in the corporation’s textile arm. I had achieved the exact job I wanted, but it was a toxic culture.
Being in this area also led me to another tough decision: I wanted to run a business so I decided to run my own. Fashion design does not need much capital and I had learned about fabric and color, so all I needed was a partner who knew garment structure. My network entailed my rugby club and I eventually connected to a fashion designer. We set up a business and I learned the basics of entrepreneurship. Lesson three: Learn to run a business, no matter how small. It can be a vital skill set for the future because organizations fragment and change so rapidly.
Another opportunity came at the same time: The rugby club asked me to captain a team. I was convinced I was the team’s worst player and was uncertain about the offer. Others convinced me otherwise. Lesson four: Take on leadership roles. I learned that good leadership is not about command and control or high technical competence, it’s also about ensuring the people you work with have what they need to do their jobs. I made sure we were always a complete team, and eventually we became a winning team.
As foreign competition loomed, I made another tough decision to close the business and rejoin Courtaulds. Eventually, I rose from a humble salesperson to become chief executive of a business unit that was a leading brand. The lessons of getting experience running a business and leading groups of people had paid off.
And then the lights came on
Imagine my disappointment as the environment in my living room, which I was starting to enjoy, suddenly disappeared. Power was restored with a harsh reminder (again) that as innovators, we must be agile. I needed to stop being nostalgic, and go back to the future, which is where I started this article.
At the same time, I felt a bit of déjà vu. I had a feeling I had written some of this before. I was now able to check my power-restored computer and sure enough, I had written a similar story earlier, but not quite the same. This time I was discussing broader, deeper lessons.
So where does this take us looking to the future? In The Future of Industry, Alec Ross projects that 60% of the jobs 10 years from now do not yet exist.2
Before going further, let’s revisit the WEF “Future of Jobs” report. I must re-emphasize the skill sets that the report identifies as critical in the future.
- Emotional intelligence is something we can personally develop. A stronger emotional intelligence supports creativity, which we see as an imperative in the future.
- Creativity becomes essential for complex problem solving and systems thinking.
The behavioral issues described here will remain essential. That takes me into the specific areas that you must work on and understand for your future career: the internet of things (IoT), big data, machine learning and AI. They all merge one into another.
Big data affects quality management
IoT is dramatically increasing the amount of data we’re collecting. Quality professionals must understand its implication for their careers. For example, business units might generate the same product, use the same equipment and work with the same suppliers, but performance often varies among units. Data collected through IoT enable us to analyze performance, and we can apply best practices to align processes across multiple business units.
IoT and machine-to-machine data flow will enable us to remotely monitor equipment—whether in manufacturing or service. Inside an ambulance, for example, an IoT-connected defibrillator can feed data to the ER, triage can be performed in the ambulance and hospital resources aligned before the patient arrives. The data provide further support during subsequent surgery. All of this shortens cycle time and increases success in patient treatment.
We now have huge amounts of data, and big data has become a major asset. A protocol I have used for many years is, “Data are just numbers, information is patterns in the data, knowledge is information we can act on.” When the right tools are applied, we can find new meaning in our data. We might find that failure rates spike at a given temperature or on a certain product. This enables us to get to the root cause. Control charts, Pareto charts and design of experiments are tools commonly used by quality professionals. In our future careers, we must be able to process vast amounts of data through these tools or equivalent ones.
Quality professionals can help business leaders by teaching the use of big data as part of the decision-making process and training people to think about data as an asset. We don’t just need IT people to implement big data—we also need the broader population to know how to use big data analysis. As a quality professional, you must develop a basic understanding of analytical techniques for big data and develop workshops to train your staff.
Many people fear the future because of possible job losses due to AI. But the technology can actually create the best-performing organizations. There are many career opportunities in the AI field—including some in math, linguistics, neuroscience and decision theory. AI is disrupting the visual world, speech recognition, decision making and translation.
This is not as new as it sounds, and we have managed audits with technology for years. Audit software drills into data-producing metrics on nonconformances, time-to-complete corrective actions and finding high-risk processes. We are simply increasing our capabilities. AI can shift human tasks from menial to strategic, freeing time for creativity and innovation. Notice how AI is pointing your career toward innovation.
Machine learning is a subfield of AI in which a learning algorithm enables a machine to identify patterns in data, build models for action and predict outcomes. It is now common to find machines in roles that were carried out by ourselves.
Machine learning is a good place to start understanding AI and is at the core of our journey toward AI.
Circling back to this year’s world conference, I recall a conversation with Sagar Kulkarni, who was presenting at the event. He explained how his organization, Microsoft, uses machine learning in customer service. The organization receives thousands of emails each day. The machine scans the text, translates it to English and identifies the nature of the inquiry. The machine automatically converts these into cases and routes them to agents for action. More importantly, the machine is teaching itself as it performs the work and continually refines its accuracy. This learning is becoming exponential.3
Remember these lessons: We shouldn’t be afraid to take time to step back and reflect—always be learning and be agile—and take opportunities when they come.
Learn to run a business, no matter how small it might be. In our new world, develop your emotional intelligence, creativity and ability to solve complex problems. Look for opportunities in the fields of big data, AI and machine learning.
Most of all, enjoy your work by working with people you enjoy.
- World Economic Forum (WEF), “The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” WEF report, January 2016, http://tinyurl.com/futurejobsreport-wec.
- Alec Ross, The Industries of the Future, Simon and Schuster, 2016.
- Microsoft, “Dynamics 365 Automates Complex Transactions and Business Processes,” June 22, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/microsoft-dynamic365.
Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank. Merrill is also head of delegation for his country to ISO/TC 279 Innovation Management.