Defining Your Role: As a quality professional, who are you and what do you do?

by JP Russell

If you tell people you are a quality professional, in my experience, they assume you are some kind of quality control inspector. If you tell them you are a quality auditor, first they may think you work for the Internal Revenue Service, in which case they take a step back from you or start a conversation with someone else. It appears quality professionals have an identity crisis with the people we want to help—the customers.

With titles such as quality engineer, technician, auditor, quality manager, supply quality engineer, Black Belt, software quality engineer, quality management consultant and reliability engineer, quality professionals’ roles within organizations are generally invisible to those on the outside. Being inspectors is probably the most visible aspect of what we do.

One reason our jobs seem invisible could be because we cannot explain what we do in 20 words or less. My spouse has frequently said to friends that I have one of those jobs that no one understands, but whatever it is I do, I get paid for it.

If your friends and family cannot explain what you do, how do you expect anyone else to understand? You need a simple and understandable message, similar to descriptions for other professionals. For example, attorneys deal with law, teachers educate students, dentists care for teeth, and nurses care for patients as they bring them back to health.

Technical professionals are getting some recognition lately due to a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in today’s culture. Suddenly, professionals in STEM fields have a positive label, thanks in part to TV shows such as CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.” In fact, you can now tell people you have a STEM-related job and they will link it to technical work.

Identifying two or three core competencies of a quality professional can serve as a starting point for explaining who we are and what we do. I asked some peers1 in the quality field to help me with this task. These individuals are authors, trainers, consultants, auditors, and managers who have worked in the field for many years.

Competencies, characteristics

To begin, I asked: What should every quality professional know and understand? What are some characteristics of a competent quality professional? The ideas presented in the responses could help shape a simple description of what a quality professional does.

The first thought expressed was that quality professionals should know and understand Joseph M. Juran’s quality trilogy—meaning quality professionals must know how to plan, control, and improve processes. Juran’s trilogy is simple, but it applies to the technical side of the profession.

Another observation was that quality professionals can look through the bodies of knowledge (BoK) for ASQ certifications and see what components consistently show up for most certifications. This, however, could end up turning into a long list of geeky-sounding subjects.

A third idea was that quality professionals should know basic business processes, such as production, marketing, sales, shipping, and accounting as well as quality management system approaches such as the ISO 9001 standard. Additionally, they should know the seven basic quality tools. Because businesses and organizations are customers of quality professionals, it would be important to know business basics.

The Chartered Quality Institute2 has a competency framework that stresses context, governance, improvement, assurance, and leadership. It provides a fairly detailed description of a competent quality professional, but it’s probably not something I could pass along during a dinner-party conversation.

Another colleague said quality professionals should be ethical, open-minded, perceptive, observant, decisive, and persistent, and good communicators. Quality professionals are certainly expected to be ethical, but it may not be a core competency that is distinguishable from other professions. I think all professionals should be ethical.

One point was that quality professionals should have the ability to integrate effective systems to meet customer requirements. They should be highly skilled in process-based design, development, implementation, and control. To me, flexibility and ability to assess situations are important.

Certainly, quality professionals are expected to know and understand standards related to quality, and they must be able to measure and monitor conformance to requirements and improve processes. Some believe character traits such as bravery, tenacity, and good communication skills are a must.

It’s true that quality professionals can often be on their own when it comes to ensuring organizations conform to requirements and that requires bravery. Sometimes, we are akin to umpires at sporting events—a part of the process, but not on anyone’s team.

Walter Shewhart’s three core competencies for quality professionals are understanding variance, presenting data, and applying basic laws of control. This may work well for quality of manufactured products, but not as well for the service sector. To me, understanding variation is at the root of effective control.

Presenting data is an interesting take on a core competency because if you cannot communicate your ideas or conclusions, they will never be used by anyone.

Three other spins on core competencies for a quality professional include:

  1. A quality professional should know everything about some aspect of quality.
  2. A quality professional’s knowledge should be recognized by peers.
  3. A quality professional must understand users’ needs well enough to be paid for it.

While these three points are excellent, they would be true for any highly respected and effective professional.

Another aspect is that a quality professional must be an expert at change. To improve, processes and systems must be changed. Plus, quality professionals should achieve an expert level of acumen regarding the quality BoK in the area in which they work. Making improvements requires the ability to lead change in an organization.

A simpler description provided by one colleague was that quality professionals should know the right thing to do at the right time and know how to prevent risks and undesirable situations. That’s short and to the point.

Quality professionals must have courage for their convictions. It is the role of the quality professional to tell it like it is—regardless of what management expects or wants. They also must be aware that their initial perception of a situation may be inaccurate. Finally, they must focus on facts relative to the context of the situation to help engage others in what must be done.

What next?

These are all great ideas about the core competencies and character traits for a quality professional. Professionals, however, tend to make things more complicated than they need to be—maybe because they just want to make sure the information is accurate.

When I was conducting a corrective action training class for a biologics sector organization, it seemed every other word was professional mumbo jumbo. To get the organization’s employees to stop focusing on biologics lingo, they were assigned the task of applying corrective action to the problem of having too much snow—something completely unrelated to biologics. This allowed the participants to concentrate on the corrective action process steps and how they may be applied rather than on product complexities.

The education community has not recognized the field of quality to the same extent as other professions have such as accounting or math. If you search on Google for “quality manager” or “quality engineer bachelor or master’s degree,” you get a short list. You are unlikely to see large schools, such as Clemson University, the University of Southern California, New York University, or Ohio State University on the list offering majors in the quality field.

Conversely, there are more than 1.1 million ISO 9001 certifications in the world. That means there is an army of quality managers and auditors in the field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook 3 there were 258,100 mechanical engineering jobs in 2012 with an average salary of $80,580. The only job listed under quality was quality control inspector with 464,300 jobs making a median pay of $34,460. All the other quality-related jobs are listed under other professions such as industrial production managers, microbiologists, chemists, and computer control analysts.

Changing the mindset

Quality professionals must know how to apply certain tools to control and improve things. Basically, we must retrain college graduates entering the workforce because they know little about quality principles, doing it right the first time, or variation.

Based on the feedback provided by my colleagues regarding core competencies for quality professionals and on my experience, I have identified the three core competencies of a quality professional:

  1. Knowledge and understanding of controls to manage processes effectively and efficiently. Controls include standards, statistical techniques such as statistical process control, metrology, and audits.
  2. Knowledge and the ability to improve organizations using the seven basic quality tools, management tools, lean, Six Sigma, corrective action, and analysis and presentation of data.
  3. Knowledge of customer, end user or regulatory body needs, and the ability to ensure those needs are met by the organization.

Controls are applied to lower the risk of not meeting product or service requirements and quality objectives. Quality professionals have the knowledge to enhance performance and add value to organizations.

There is a strong link between quality professionals and the customer or end user of a product or service. Regulatory bodies also have requirements that must be met by organizations. Many times, it is the quality professional who is responsible for ensuring conformance to requirements. This is one aspect of quality that everyone—including the public—expects and it’s what makes the jobs of quality professionals unique.

For regulated industries, quality professionals ensure compliance to government rules related to product and service quality requirements. The government may not be a customer or end user, but it is part of the process to ensure customer safety.

Often, quality professionals find themselves at odds with other functions or groups within their organizations because they have a duty to ensure customers get the product or service they are expecting and that it is safe. When it comes to controls, improvement, or meeting output requirements, quality professionals are like ombudsmen for customers.

Quality professionals can become passionate about what they do because of the standard they bear to ensure things are done right. It’s not always the fastest or the cheapest way, but it’s the right way.

Simply quality

Considering the core competencies of a quality professional, I propose that the next time you are asked about what you do, you say: “I make sure things are done right, I improve organizations, and I am a customer advocate.” That would be my description of what a quality professional does. Perhaps you can come up with your own 20-words-or-less description of what you do in simple everyday words.

Finally, because this is my final QP Standards Outlook column, I want to wish readers good luck on their quality journeys. Remember: “Quality for the customer is getting what you are expecting; quality for the supplier is getting it right the first time.”

References and note

  1. The author extends his thanks to the following quality professionals who were consulted for this article: Dennis Arter, Lance B. Coleman, Grace Duffy, Stephen Hacker, Craig Johnson, Akio Miura, Duke Okes and Douglas C. Wood
  2. Chartered Quality Institute,
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook,
  4. J.P. Russell, The Quality Master Plan: A Quality Strategy for Business Leadership, ASQ Quality Press, 1990, p. 7.

This article first appeared in ASQ Quality Progress magazine, Standards Outlook section, October 2014.

About the author

J.P. Russell is the founder and managing director of QualityWBT Center for Education (, an eLearning provider. He is also an ASQ fellow, ASQ-certified quality auditor, member of the US TAG 302 for management system auditing, member of the U.S. technical advisory group for the International Organization for Standardization technical committee 176. Russell is a recipient of the Paul Gauthier Award from the ASQ Audit Division and author of several best-selling ASQ Quality Press books about auditing, standards, and quality improvement including editor of The ASQ Quality Auditing Handbook.