A career in Quality, and beyond

For the last 20 years, Thomas Lazer has been building a career focused on Quality Management in the automotive industry, working for major corporations in Germany, the United States and Belgium.

Interviewee: Thomas Lazer – Former Chief Officer, WABCO

Most recently, he was Chief Quality Officer at WABCO, a leading global supplier of technologies to improve the safety and efficiency of commercial vehicles. He is now looking for a new role – considering other industries as well as being interested in expanding his field of responsibility beyond the area of quality management.

“I’m open and flexible about the type of industry I move into next,” he says. “The structure and rigour of quality work in the automotive industry is something other industries can benefit from. And, having obtained a high degree of expertise in quality management, I’m now open to a leading position in supply chain management.”

After studying Precision Engineering in Germany, he began his career as a liaison engineer. “That means you go to the production line of the customer and listen to the customer voice. If necessary, you kick off the necessary changes,” Lazer explains. From there, he moved into a role with responsibility for project quality, focusing especially on the beginning of the product journey to ensure that quality comes first, rather than having to rectify mistakes in the post-operational phase.

Lazer joined WABCO, based in Belgium, in 2016, and was responsible for the entire quality spectrum, from supplier quality to projects, operations and warranty management, all the way to the end-to-end quality management system. He previously held similar roles at ZF Group, GESTAMP, Behr and Lear Corporation, all of which produce parts for the automotive industry.

“During the last 15 years I have always been responsible for the full range of quality work,” says Lazer, “from designing the product up to getting it returned if things went wrong.” He typically worked along the complete supply chain, with both suppliers and in-house. That, he believes, has provided him with a strong grounding to move into a role as a Supply Chain Officer.

“Having a quality background is something that is really useful for anyone with influence over the product lifecycle,” he says.

“If you are going to be a manager, I believe this should be a prerequisite. Managers need to understand that the business needs to focus on producing parts that are ‘right-the-first-time’, rather than on producing high volumes regardless of whether those parts have to be reworked or replaced.”

Not only has he interacted with a wide array of divisions within the companies he has worked for, he also has excellent knowledge in customer expertise: “Customer satisfaction is no longer just a question of measuring customer PPM (parts per million – a measure of customer complaints),” says Lazer. “The delivery of one not-OK part is an issue. It disturbs the production, creates waste in many departments, and must be avoided,” he states. This understanding, along with a clear focus on the control of processes rather than checking and fixing their results, is the best way to get first-class results, he further amplifies.

Lazer argues that the role of the quality professional has changed significantly during the past decade, as more sophisticated companies have scaled back the size of their quality teams and instead sought to integrate quality disciplines into every part of their businesses. “The challenge is to ensure you never get to the point where people believe that the quality department is the only one responsible for quality,” says Lazer. “One of the tendencies is that some believe quality has been outsourced to a department and now quality is the responsibility solely of that quality department, so they don’t have to care about it. That’s very dangerous for a company.”

On the contrary, more experienced quality professionals play a high-level role, interacting across the company. Lazer explains: “You need a small but strong quality department, because the tasks need to be carried out in and by the single departments. The quality team can’t make good or bad quality, it must instead put the right processes in place, sustain them and continuously hunt for improvements, in partnership with the departments. The basis for improvements should be the analysis of data, so that everyone is working together in order to deliver a stable design and good products to customers, at the best possible cost-value ratio.”

One of the most important skills of today’s quality leaders, therefore, is strong communication capabilities, says Lazer.

“You need to know how to communicate with people across the business, and how to interact with customers. Those communication skills are much more important than before, but equally you still need to understand the technologies, the products and the processes.”

Finding that combination of interpersonal skills, technical capabilities and strategic thinking is very difficult when it comes to recruitment, he says. “It’s very easy to find people who get into technical detail, but don’t like working with people. And you can find people who want to sit in their chairs making phone calls, but don’t want to go out into the plants. Strategic quality roles are often tough roles to fill.”

One particular challenge is getting people to relocate across borders to take up new roles. Lazer spent four years in the United States from 2005, as Director of Quality for North America for Behr. He says that experience alone taught him the value of working in other countries. “Today’s leaders have to lead very diverse teams across the globe,” he says. “Having the experience of living in a different culture opens your eyes, broadens your mind and helps you succeed in your career.”

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