Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Quality Professionals and Avoidance of Risk

While Quality professionals deal routinely with potential and actual failure and evaluating risks in business, I don’t see many (including myself) who take enough risks themselves.  Could this be true? Paul Borwaski, ASQ CEO in a recent blog cited a study conducted on youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers. While most survey agreed that risk taking is essential, they also said that they themselves are risk averse. This syncs well with my observation that quality professionals don’t take enough risks.

A few years ago, I had asked the Head of Quality of a large global organization – Why don’t quality professionals often make it to the CEO chair? His reply was astonishing and one which I clearly remember even today. His response highlighted that being a CEO is about taking some bets and then backing them with resources and resolve. This is a quality that quality professionals usually don’t posses. This was coming from a quality professional that is considered a thought leader globally!

Why don’t quality professionals take enough risks?

I am not a psychologist who could conduct experiments on some subjects and throw some answers to this question. But then when has not knowing enough about something has stopped me from answering a question. J

Quality professionals don’t take enough risks because they are often blamed early in their career (or even mid career) for things that did not go wrong because of them.  This hardens them up and they choose to take fewer risks.  During an improvement project review I recently asked the Black Belt that why wasn’t Zero Defect a goal for this project when it appeared feasible. Her answer was – who will support me if I have that goal and don’t achieve?

Quality professionals don’t take enough risks because the people who are gravitated to a career in quality are usually calm, composed, rigour oriented, and yes – Risk Averse! When your career is about helping others achieve their goals you tend to be more careful. Years of being careful converts even risk takers into risk averse people.

Do quality professional, then, fail? Yes, of course – all the time. We are often even handed over the crown of other people’s failure to execute. Does this happen to me? Yes. How do I deal with failure?

First, I evaluate if what is being called is actually a failure. Remember Kanter’s law – everything in the middle looks like a failure. This is especially true of improvement projects. In cases where people around me are anxious and chanting failure I am often able to show them where we are on the project. Some diligence and faith will see us through.

Second, I embrace failure when I have contributed to it. One advantage of not working on a Space Mission is that we can make mistakes and learn from them. As long my team is honest about these mistakes, we dig for the root cause, establish mechanisms to not make the same mistake again, I am fine.

Third, grin and bear it. J


Ashok Kumar said...

Anshuman, Deep insightful analysis. The inference although not backed by data seems sensible from a perception standpoint. But when i reflect - I guess the generation of the Six Sigma Quality professionals think of results and take defensive targets in terms of fear /lack of adequate soft skills to make things happen.. When i reflect back on my career (manufacturing environment in 1980's and 90's ) , I don't seem to agree so, I have quit jobs - taking risks, I have made change happen taking risks ( sacking people ), I have got certifications taking risks, I have taken bold customer initiatives risking further business, stopped production processes for running defective products, recalled contaminated products from the market and so on and so forth.. It may not be a major project or business risk decision, but we do take decisions that involve risks to uphold your Quality values. I think Quality professionals do take risk indirectly and i think it is quite unfair to brand the fraternity as risk averse.

Anshuman Tiwari said...

Thanks Ashok for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree with your views but also think you and I could be in minority. :)

Madhusudana Rao said...

"Why do quality professionals don't make it to the CEO chair?" Is it also because they always worry about others' success being a support function and hence never think of being in the limelight?
Also, the success, when achieved is first attributed to the actual core function they supported and then comes to them? Thus - their perceived ability to succeed perhaps is not apparent to those who decide on CEO candidates.

Ajit said...

This is certainly an interesting debate. But I am of the view that they are certainly not risk averse as risk is part of life and one takes informed decisions to manage risk. Nevertheless why they do not reach to the corner office is something needs to be discussed in detail.
Yes, those who decides on future CEOs keep quality professionals among the last choices. I think this is a function of how closeness with the market. Eventually estimating, committing and achieving top line and bottom line has more dependency on market side rather than operational issues including quality.
A quality professional having closeness to market can certainly occupy corner office if understand money!