Manager Interview: Quality Manager for a Chemical Company
William Wood is a quality manager for an international chemical company. The company has locations throughout the world, but has a number of chemical processing plants in Houston, Texas and the surrounding areas. As an international company that has multinational suppliers and customers, the company takes a global focus to order fulfillment, shipping, and environmental issues. The company develops and manufactures chemicals for a variety of different industrial uses, including, but not limited to: petrochemical applications, paint, household cleaners, and for use in semiconductors and light emitting diode (LED) chips. Dr. Wood has a PhD in electrical engineering and a background in the semi-conductor industry. He transitioned to the chemical industry after years of quality management in the electrical engineering field. He has worked for this company for two years as one of four quality managers at the company's largest plant in Houston, Texas.
A quality manager differs from a traditional manager in a number of significant ways. Many quality managers are not responsible for the direct supervision of the people working underneath them. Instead, quality managers are often part of a management team. As a quality manager, Dr. Wood's primary job is to ensure that the products being shipped from the company meet the quality standards set by the company. Complicating this job is the fact that different customers have different quality standards, depending on the applications that they have for the products. A large part of Dr. Wood's job involves traveling to customer and supplier business sites to ensure that processes meet the company's quality standards. In addition, he is a trouble-shooter; if the product fails to meet quality standards, it is Dr. Wood's job to find out what errors are occurring in the process and determine how to remedy those areas. In order to complete those parts of his job, Dr. Wood must have significant interaction with lower-level staff. Technicians are responsible for preparing reports and giving them to Dr. Wood for him to analyze the numbers. Once Dr. Wood recognizes an area in need of change or improvement, he is responsible for training and implementing those programs, after convincing upper management that the changes are necessary. In this way, Dr. Wood can be viewed as being in a position similar to a traditional middle-management position; he lacks the authority to implement changes without approval from upper-management, but is the one who is considered responsible if problems are not remedied.
Dr. Wood's position is a largely technical position, which he could not do without his formal technical education. He has a BS, MA, and PhD in electrical engineering, all from one of the top three schools in the United States for electrical engineering. His focus in graduate school was on crystal growth and structure as well as finding innovative crystal structures for use in electronics applications. His area of electrical engineering is closely related to chemical engineering, giving him the background needed to work in a chemical engineering capacity.
Shortly after beginning his career approximately 15 years ago, Dr. Wood determined that he had an interest in trouble-shooting and fixing problems. He transitioned from a research scientist into a quality analyst, where he learned the skills necessary to find out the root causes of problems and solve those problems. As part of this training as a quality analyst, he took part in Six Sigma training, where he earned his green belt. He is hoping to complete his training and earn a Black Belt. Furthermore, when he transitioned into a management function, he began to take classes to help work with employees. His company has provided classes on international relations, to help prepare him for dealing with diverse working environments, particularly in Asia. He has found this training to be very useful, as the Asian approach to business varies significantly from the U.S. approach to business. He has considered going back to school to get an MBA, which would position him to take on a greater management role as far as managing individuals, but, because he enjoys his job, Dr. Wood thinks that he would rather continue up the line in the quality management arena. Currently, three of the other quality managers at his site are set to retire within the next five years, and Dr. Wood is positioned to transition into a head quality manager position, directing the new hires that will be brought on to replace the other managers as they retire. His manager is grooming him for this process and has already made him the point-man for decision making in several different areas.
As a quality manager, the primary personal skill that Dr. Wood feels he uses in his daily work is a desire to understand how things function. His problem solving abilities help him determine why processes are failing and innovate solutions to those difficulties. Moreover, he has found that he can apply those same problem-solving skills to disputes between workers, particularly because his changes often need to cross divisional lines.
One of the primary challenges that Dr. Wood faced when he began working at his current job was a division between the engineers and the technicians at the worksite. There was a tendency for the engineers to dismiss the efforts put forth by the technicians, and even to treat them in ways that Dr. Wood found dismissive. He was even concerned that some of the behavior may have translated into a hostile work environment for the impacted technicians. This was a significant concern to him, though the engineers dismissed his concerns because, the relative pay for technicians was high enough compared to other skilled labor position that they did not think that the technicians would seek other employment. Dr. Wood found that confronting the problem head-on was proving futile; not only did he meet resistance from the engineers, but he did not have technicians willing to discuss the problem. Instead, Dr. Wood decided to make an effort to distinguish himself from the engineers. When he had questions and concerns about the processes, he consulted the technicians along with the engineers, and was careful to treat them with respect. He established an open-door policy. Soon, he found that the technicians viewed him as a receptive member of the management team, so that they came to him when they had questions and concerns. Oftentimes these concerns were not directly related to the quality management aspect of the job, but might focus on worker satisfaction, workplace fairness, or even benefits. What Dr. Wood noticed, which he brought to the attention of his superiors and fellow quality managers, was that when the workforce was happier, there were fewer mistakes. Even more importantly, there were fewer accidents, and, given the tremendous risk associated with industrial accidents in a chemical plant, the reduction in accidents was critical.
One of the pivotal elements of Dr. Wood's job is performance management; he must ensure that people are following the established guidelines in order to assess whether those guidelines are being followed. Within the context of his job, this means working with people in group settings. What he has come to recognize is that goal setting and continual performance development are critical group management skills that he utilizes on a daily bases. What he has discovered is that individual group members take a greater ownership in the process when they are involved in goal setting and have a say in their own performance development. As a result, even though he is not their direct manager, he has networked with the people working on the products in order to determine what they need to achieve their goals and to help them drive the goal-setting process. For example, one of the overall goals for quality and safety is the prevention of any industrial accidents. However, while that goal is a laudable one, it is not sufficiently concrete. Instead, he had the team sit down and brainstorm things that they could do to decrease the likelihood of accidents. By doing so, he gave them ownership in the process.
However, Dr. Wood's real challenges comes in when one considers that he is responsible for working with multiple groups, and that those groups do not report to the same direct-line supervisors. While he is in charge of the overall processes, he does not have independent authority to implement changes in multiple groups, but, instead, has to get the managers of each of those groups to approve or endorse any proposed changes. When there are conflicts in those groups or a competition for resources, it can be very difficult to get them to cooperate. As a result, Dr. Wood has to implement conflict management. He has found that the best way to do this is to have the different group leaders identify goals separately, compare those goals, and then present changes in ways that appeal to those goals. It may not be the most direct method of conflict management, but, because the groups do…