Putting Practice into Theory

Something over 15 years ago, I was asked to lecture on “quality” for an MBA course. I’d been working in “quality” for about 15 years and was the current IQA branch chairman – so professional credentials and plenty of experience for the task. Er, no! Before replying I made a mental inventory of what I could say. I could talk about what I’d been doing for the past 15 years; I could describe what I think had worked; I could describe what didn’t and talk about my mistakes. I had learned from the latter and could pass that onto others but, other than working through what would be a timeline and diary, and in a specific industry sector, would the students learn anything useful for their own careers. Something, certainly, but not as much as they should, so I declined the invitation to lecture.

Instead, I enrolled on a Quality Management MSc and spent my next three years free time at lectures, reading, researching, writing essays and revising for exams. It was hard work but throughout those three years, I learned beyond my experience but, more importantly, I was able to put a broader context to my experience – I was able to put my practice into theory.

Just over a year ago I took on the role of tutor for the CQI Certificate and Diploma courses run by Aberdeen College. I don’t claim to be brilliant at the job, I don’t see myself as a teacher, but I hope to encourage everyone in the “quality” field to take some time to study the subject.

When young graduates come out of college and university they have plenty of theory but little experience. Experience grows as they work through their careers, often in ways they never planned. I graduated in Materials Science first time around and actually turned down a job offered at the MoD QAD – it just didn’t interest me. Instead, I went to work at Rolls Royce and, only five years later, was offered a QA role in a large multiple-national oil services company on the basis that, working at Rolls Royce, I must know a lot about “quality”. It was a good job so I didn’t argue – besides, I had a month’s notice to work out at RR to find out what on earth it was all about. My “quality” learning started and, over the next 15 years, I built up my experience. But I didn’t really learn beyond what was immediately necessary to address each new challenge. I built up the practice but, as I started in this topic, I lacked the theory, the understanding of why some things worked and others didn’t. Also, my knowledge was limited to what I’d done in the past – only limited help when tackling totally new challenges.

(Posted as a blog on August 14th 2011)