Time for a Change - Look into a career as an innovation managerTime for a Change

by Peter Merrill

A quality manager’s career is far from predictable. It depends on the attitude of an organization’s leadership toward quality and, perhaps more importantly, leadership’s understanding of what quality is.

All too often, I hear an organization’s president say, "I believe in quality control," referring to the Japanese interpretation. This is the mark of a leader who has not even reached the second half of the last century and who sees quality as being fundamentally based on correction rather than prevention.

Fortunately, there are leaders who understand quality management and have made quality a key component in their organization’s business strategy.

There is little doubt that excellent organizations around the world have built quality into their everyday activities, and we’re increasingly seeing a quality manager’s activities being deployed to other parts of the organization. Many members of the quality profession will agree this is the way it should be. Quality should be built in and not bolted on.

What’s your role?

This leaves some serious questions about what a quality manager should do.

As we scan the world of business, we see a variety of roles that depend on the maturity level of the organization. Phillip B. Crosby defined five levels of maturity starting with level one (uncertainty) and ultimately reaching level five (certainty).1These levels have been adapted by different quality models ranging from Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) to the Baldrige criteria.

When quality managers are presented with uncertainty, they’ll often employ ISO 9001 as a way of getting the chickens in the coop. At this first level, the quality manager’s role is about defining processes and getting the people in the organization to understand what quality is. 

When managers reach level three, they’re leaving ISO 9001 behind as they develop a prevention-based organization. At this level, measurement is driving the organization, and the quality manager’s role is similar to a financial controller. As Joseph M. Juran said, "You plan and manage quality in the same way as you plan and manage finances."2

In my past life as a CEO, my financial controller would present monthly and quarterly results. My first action was to go to the bottom line, and my second was to scrutinize the variances. My third action would be to turn to the controller—I was fortunate to have a good one—and ask him to explain why the variances occurred.

As good as he was, he was not close enough to the organization’s processes to give me the answers. This is where good organizations will integrate their financial and nonfinancial measures to enable informed leadership decisions.3

The question is how to reach Crosby’s level five, where terms such as optimization and innovation are used in the CMMI for example. We see the 2010 update of the EFQM Excellence Model peppered with the word innovation, and the Baldrige criteria recognize innovation’s importance.

Where you’re going

The ASQ Quality Management Division’s Innovation and Value Creation Technical Committee has termed innovation as quality for tomorrow. But what does this mean to a quality manager’s career?

If you look at the innovation process and the history of the quality manager’s role, it gives you a guide for the career of the innovation manager of the future. An innovation career starts where a quality career was 20 years ago: by convincing people there is a need for innovation.

I recall having lunch a few years ago with a company president who was considering developing a formal quality management system (QMS). He said, "I don’t want to spend my time and energy squeezing out the last 1% of inefficiency if our offering is no longer relevant to the market."

You need a good QMS to deliver a new offering, but his words resonated because they acknowledged the ties between quality and innovation. 

The first task of the innovation manager is to show that innovation matters. But as with quality management, you need leadership commitment before you start. Then, you can identify opportunities by working with the sales and marketing people to find mature products.

For some quality managers, this may be unfamiliar territory; but I promise you it’s an exciting process because it’s the first step in breaking down silos, something that should be familiar to every quality manager.

The next part of your job as an innovation manager is to define the process. If you’re just starting as an innovation manager, be careful to produce this definition in a language everyone in the organization can understand. Make it simple and understandable, and show how everyone in the organization is involved.

At this point, I’ll refer to change management guru John Kotter’s model and advise you to create a core team tasked with getting an early win.4 You do this by initiating a project in which you have committed resources from your leadership. Eventually, you’ll find that the steps in your project are the same as those in the innovation process:

  • Find the opportunity.
  • Define alternative solutions.
  • Select the preferred solution and engage leadership.
  • Make a working solution.
  • Deliver the solution.

The last two steps are where a strong QMS is imperative.

Crucial characteristics

What kind of a person do you need to be to become an effective innovation manager? This is where I must give major credit to the work of Jane Keathley, past chair of the Innovation and Value Creation Technical Committee, who has written and spoken extensively on the quality manager of the future at ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement, as well as in ASQ publications.5

These are some of the key attributes you must possess if you’re going to transition from being a quality manager to being an innovation manager:

  • Think strategically. Instead of addressing today’s customer requirements, you must look at today’s unfulfilled needs that will become tomorrow’s requirements.
  • Be able to plan at a business level. Any success will require you to work comfortably with the organization’s strategic planners.
  • Be able to manage problem solving. This is different than being a problem solver. You must draw on the collective knowledge of a diverse group of people. One challenge will be getting market researchers to coexist with product researchers.
  • Possess project management skills. You’ll need the flexibility to manage the market and product researchers in a loose manner while managing the development engineers in a more traditional project management mode.
  • Be able to manage a variety of people. This is crucial when you’re working with and attempting to manage cross-functional teams. 

If you think you have these attributes, perhaps it’s time for you to approach your president or general manager about becoming the innovation manager. And if they’re not interested, you’ll find there’s a growing number of jobs for innovation managers in the marketplace.

References and note

  1. Philip B. Crosby, Quality Is Free, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
  2. Peter Merrill, Do It Right the Second Time, second edition, ASQ Quality Press, 2009. 
  3. My quarterly ASQ webinar on cost of quality addresses many of the issues involved in integrating financial and nonfinancial measures.
  4. Kotter International, "The 8-Step Process for Leading Change," www.kotterinternational.com/kotterprinciples/changesteps.
  5. Jane Keathley, "In the Spotlight," Quality Progress, June 2012, pp. 30-35.