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Arun Hariharan


Qualities of a Successful Quality Professional

How do you measure up?

Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2016 - 11:02

I don’t claim to be qualified to advise other quality professionals. However, having had an opportunity to work for many years in this field with reasonable results and also having made my share of mistakes, I’ve observed that certain qualities help make a successful quality professional. I didn’t possess many of these qualities and learned several lessons the hard way. I’ve listed these qualities below, in case you find them useful.

The best quality professionals are the customers

Be a customer of your business, and hire customers in the quality department. I found that the easiest way (rather, the only way) to see things from the customer’s perspective is to become a customer myself. What better way to experience what your customers do and empathize with them? I also found it useful to hire customers in the quality department. The next best option is to encourage quality employees to become customers. Putting oneself in the customer’s shoes all the time is a trait that must come naturally if one is to be a successful quality professional. I believe that customers would make some of the best employees not only in the quality department, but in most other functions as well.

Help everyone to see things from customer’s perspective

I realized that my primary responsibility as a quality professional was to help everyone in the company, starting with myself, to think and see things “wing to wing” from the customer’s perspective rather than from their limited departmental view. One business leader I worked with used to say, “I want the quality department to be the customer’s representative sitting inside the company—we’ll even pay you a salary for doing this.” However, there will be times, usually when short-term business interests conflict with the customer interests, when quality professionals face pressures to abandon this perspective. But in the long run, those who never abandon the customer perspective, even under pressure, will emerge as successful quality professionals.

Be hands-on: Go to the gemba, observe, and do 

I quickly learned that quality isn’t an ivory-tower job. To be successful, the quality person must constantly go to the gemba, the place where actual work takes place—especially work that affects customers. You must meet and listen to customers, distributors, salespeople, operations people, employees on the manufacturing floor—in short, the people who make your business run. Observe and even try your hand at doing the work they do. I found that this helps quality professionals find practical solutions to problems. Not surprisingly, some of our best quality professionals were people who had earlier worked in operations, customer service, or even sales. Also, some of the best improvement ideas came from these people on the ground. We miss some of the most innovative and practical ideas when we don’t spend time at the gemba.

Ability to execute or implement

I’ve come across a few armchair philosophers who became quality professionals. They would complain that nobody in the business listened to them. I’ve learned that one of the most important qualities needed to be successful in quality is the ability to execute. Few people in the business will be interested in theories alone; the quality person must work with their colleagues in the business to implement what they preach.

Institution-building skills

In my book, Continuous Permanent Improvement, (ASQ Quality Press, 2014), I’ve described the experiences of several companies with strategic initiatives such as the monthly quality dashboard review process, lean Six Sigma, or innovation. The reason why these companies achieved sustained results from these initiatives was because they were institutionalized. During the initial months, the quality person occasionally needed to push the business to sustain these practices, but today they have taken on lives of their own. Now nobody needs to tell the leaders of these businesses that they should review their quality dashboards, do lean Six Sigma projects, or listen to their people’s ideas; these practices have been institutionalized. Of course, the business leaders need to feel the benefits from these initiatives for the initiatives to become institutionalized—and that’s the quality person’s responsibility.

Understand and speak the language of the business

After some gaps in a process had been identified through an audit, the quality head at one company tried to push through certain improvements to the process. The quality head told the CEO and senior management team, “We must improve this process, or we may not successfully complete our ISO 9001 certification audit.” Not surprisingly, the problem wasn’t taken too seriously by the CEO and others. Why was this? The quality person here wasn’t speaking the language of the business. The process gap was a serious business risk that could cause financial losses and customer dissatisfaction, but instead of saying that, she spoke about the ISO 9001 audit. It goes without saying that the quality professional must be technically competent in the quality field, but the successful ones are those who can translate quality priorities into the language of the business.

Help people to win

I hate to say this, but I’ve seen a few extremely capable professionals who couldn’t achieve much success because of a single flaw: they felt a need to show that other people were idiots. For a quality professional, this is a sure recipe for failure. Don’t forget: You work through other people in the business. You succeed only if you can help them win. Work with them, not against them.

Don’t retro-fit analysis

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to review hundreds of quality improvement projects in different companies. I have come across the occasional project where no data collection, analysis, or use of any quality technique was evident in actually solving problems. However, some PowerPoint slides showing so-called data and analysis or application of tools were retrofitted after the event—just to impress the reviewer. Sometimes this is done in an attempt to win quality awards. In my experience, this neither gives the company any real benefit, nor does it even serve the limited purpose of winning any award or points because experienced reviewers or judges can usually detect the retrofitting in no time. 


Like any other job, people who achieve success as quality professionals tend to be passionate about their work. To be successful, a quality person must be passionate about customers, quality, and getting to the root cause of problems. If you’re to be the catalyst that will galvanize the rest of the organization into quality action, you’d better be passionate yourself.

Use appropriate tools

Particularly in service industries and in the nonplant departments of manufacturing industries, my experience has been that simple quality tools and methods can give immense business results. Use the higher statistical tools where a particular problem genuinely warrants their use, but do not try to force-fit these tools for other business problems that can be solved with simpler tools. Quality professionals are recognized for their ability to solve and prevent business problems, not for the complexity of the tools they use.

Help create a culture of seeing problems as opportunities

It’s the quality person’s responsibility to help the business leader create a culture where problems are seen as opportunities—a culture that encourages people to make quality problems visible and get to their root cause.

Bring quality down to earth

I learned that it’s not enough for quality professionals to limit quality to training programs or certification to standards (e.g., Six Sigma Black Belts, ISO 9001). These enablers are important only to the extent that they contribute to real quality on the ground, as experienced by your customers on a sustained basis.

Give and share credit for results

I realized that it’s important for quality professionals to ensure that credit is clearly given to the concerned functional owners and the business head for results from quality initiatives.

Influencing skills

I believe that not even the best quality professional can achieve any results by forcing people to “do” quality. The best way to influence colleagues who may not be convinced initially is to work with them and help them achieve results in their own business or function—faster, better, and in a more sustained manner than before. Most people become convinced when they see the results for themselves and are given credit for it.

Strategic thinking

Although quality involves a lot of detailed work, I discovered that it helps quality professionals to be able to think strategically. Quality happens at two equally important levels. One is at the operating level or the shop floor; this has to do with the quality of products, processes, or service. The other is at the strategic level, where quality can and should be an organization’s best tool for long-term competitive success. Quality leaders who use strategic thinking can help businesses make quality their strategy.

Try to improve every day

I found it useful to ask myself every day whether I’ve helped the business make at least one small but permanent improvement that day. Obviously, there were days when we weren't able to make any improvement. Creating a culture where everyone in the organization thinks, “Have we made an improvement today?”—everyday—gives bigger and more sustained business results than a few people using sophisticated quality tools.

Eye for detail

We found innumerable improvement opportunities when we went into the details of a business process. We would have missed these opportunities if the eye for detail were missing. In my experience, it especially helps a quality professional  to have an eye for detail.

Be practical and results-oriented

I believe that the quality professional's job is not merely to lead their company to some theoretical ideal of quality (such as following a particular model or achieving some certification), but to help the company to keep their quality initiatives of practical relevance to their business and their customers and, by doing this, achieve sustained business results.

Cultivate a positive self-image

If you are a quality professional, remember always that you are doing one of the most important jobs in the company. Have a positive self-image (without being arrogant, of course).

Set high expectations and deliver them

I saw that sometimes, businesses don’t know what to expect from their business excellence or quality program. It’s the quality professional’s responsibility of to set high expectations—and then help the organization to achieve them.

Have a sense of humor

And finally, as important as anything else, quality professionals can do with a sense of humor. There seems to be a perception among quite a few that quality is an “important but boring” discipline, and this image also rubs off on quality professionals. We might think we’re important, but others may think we’re boring.

I’d lay most of the blame for this unexciting image of quality people on ourselves. Many of us seem to think that it’s not OK for a quality professional to smile or have fun while working. Quality professionals seem to rank close to the bottom of dour professionals, only slightly better than accountants and undertakers. No offense meant to either of those professions: I’ve known many jovial accountants, as well as undertakers who could tell really wicked jokes.

My own experience working in quality is that there's never been a dull moment. My latest book, Humor in Quality (Amazon Digital Services, 2015), talks about the funny side of our profession.

Usually, it’s up to us to decide if we wish to be at the periphery doing some bits and pieces work, or at the heart of the business working on what really affects customers and the business. Your passion and belief in quality, as well as yourself, that will determine this more than anything else.


About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.


A succinct summary of what it

A succinct summary of what it takes to be a quality Quality Professional

I’m glad to have clicked this

I’m glad to have clicked this topic.  Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience, Mr. Arun!  It’s really worth reading! :)


Arun, thanks for sharing yiur knowledge and personal experience. It is a must read article for every Quality Profissional!

Thanks for Sharing

Hey Arun,

Thanks for sharing.  Although I think that most of us feel we measure up to our own standards its good to humble ourselves and go back to the basics.  Keep up the refreshing articles.  Thanks.