Grace Duffy’s career has included excavating the desert canyons of Utah, earning a top secret security clearance to work in the White House, writing ten books and more than 250 articles, and speaking at conferences around the world. Her work has brought her to Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, as well as throughout the United States and Canada. Her consulting career has included projects with Mercedes-Benz and Siemens, as well as the FDA and the Red Cross.

This year, in addition to being named our 2014 Quality Professional of the Year, Duffy will also be honored with ASQ’s Distinguished Service Medal in May, the highest distinction ASQ offers. The first Distinguished Service Medal was awarded in 2001. This year Duffy will become one of the 43 people who have received the award.

If you need help with something, Duffy is a good person to have around. Her friends and colleagues in the quality field couldn’t say enough positive things about her. They offered up descriptions like: brilliant mind, great speaker, patient teacher.

“The thing that I have appreciated so much is that as a quality professional I’m not alone,” Duffy told me. “The quality profession is a collegial one. It’s team based. I am not talking to you because Grace Duffy is phenomenal on her own. I have had tremendous help. There’s no way I’d be here without the community of quality.”

An Indirect Approach Quality

Although she will be honored for a lifetime of work in quality, as with many others in the quality field, Duffy came about it through an unlikely major. She graduated from Brigham Young University with bachelor’s degree in archaeology and anthropology. (Her master’s of business administration came later). She did field work in the Utah desert and lived without a fixed address for two years. After graduate school, she eventually took a job with IBM, where she learned the foundation of quality.

Although it may seem unrelated, Duffy says that her anthropology skills have helped her in her career. People are still the same; it’s just the vocabulary has changed. We still face the “same issues for security and power and leadership,” Duffy says, “in tribal connections which we now call teams.”

Her IBM work allowed her access to some high-level government assignments. Only a few years after living in the desert, Duffy found herself with a top secret security clearance in the mid-1970s. The security clearance took about a year to get, Duffy recalls, since her lack of a fixed address in the late 1960s seemed questionable.

But the detailed security check was necessary since Duffy found herself with access to classified information in her work. “I would know where the wife of the vice president would be two days ahead of time,” Duffy says. “I knew that Rockefeller was going to be Ford’s vice president two weeks before it was announced.”

And under Ford’s administration, she found herself on the fringes of geopolitical events of the day, supporting Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s communications during the Lebanon crisis, as well as hearing upcoming news.

Even after she finished work there, for seven years she couldn’t leave the country without telling the State Department.

IBM Career

During her twenty years with the company, Duffy eventually became a senior manager and helped develop the quality curriculum for top international executives at the company. She also led the training and course development for 19,000 headquarters employees. At that time, many of the engineers had received their training in the military.  Duffy describes herself as one of the first girls in an old boys club. But this created opportunities for her, and she said she never felt there was any bias or discrimination at IBM.

Her career next took her to Charleston, SC, to develop and manage another quality curriculum—this time for Trident Technical College.  She taught courses in management, quality and business, and also advised the school on the Total Quality Management process.

At that time, she also became involved in ASQ. So in addition to her career at the college, she began doing a lot of unpaid, volunteer work in the organization.

In 2002, she went to Florida to pursue an independent consulting career. And her ASQ work continued, this time with the local Orlando chapter.

A Lifetime of Achievement

Since then she has chaired many different committees, served in leadership roles both at the local and national levels, and gone abroad with her work with ASQ. She went to Iran—“it was kind of fun getting a visa there,” she says—as well as Egypt in 2009 as part of her ASQ work. She went to Turkey the year before, and said the quality community in each country was well managed and organized. In addition, she also spent a week in Abu Dhabi auditing applications for a European quality award, and was impressed by the quality professionals she met. During her travels in Iran and Egypt, she was able to see some of the archaeological sites, once again connecting her college major with her career.

And when others are traveling, she is always ready to help as well. J.D. Marhevko, an ASQ colleague and also an ASQ fellow, remembers a group from Kenya at an ASQ conference that looked lost. Duffy didn’t hesitate to help. She went over to talk to them, and as a result, the group was able to enjoy the conference and even contributed to an ASQ article after the event.

Marhevko has worked with Duffy as part of ASQ’s quality management division. The division has a group known as Words of Wisdom, or WOW, members, consisting of knowledge experts, and Duffy is one of them. “You really have to know your stuff to be a WOW member,” Marhevko says. These are elected positions, and the role is for life. “It’s almost like a Supreme Court Justice,” Marhevko says. In addition, Duffy helped develop the body of knowledge for the quality management division’s certified quality manager exam.

Always Ready to Help

Whether she is developing exam questions, presenting sessions on quality topics, or explaining how to get the most out of a conference, mentoring and helping others comes naturally to Duffy. “I would say that she is brilliant and also able to explain things that a lesser brilliant person can understand,” says Elizabeth Burns, a colleague, friend and an ASQ fellow. “She’s a really amazing supporter of people in the quality profession. I doubt that she’s even aware of how many people she’s mentored and influenced, just by being such a noticeable part of ASQ.”

And if you happen to sit next to Duffy and Burns on a plane, you’ll be able to overhear a lot on the subject. Burns said when she would travel with Duffy to quality projects, the conversation consisted of almost nonstop quality. During the hour before the flight and for the two-hour flight, they would talk almost exclusively about the project. “We sounded very much like quality geeks,” says Burns. “I think there were a couple of looks. What are they talking about?”

Although air travelers might not be familiar with the language of quality, there are quite a few people involved in this community. And Duffy should be considered one of the best examples of the giving spirit of the quality community. Navin S. Dedhia, past chair of ASQ’s International chapter, fellow of ASQ, former board member of ASQ, and IBM retiree, said her selfless volunteering is something seen in very few people. He worked closely with H. James Harrington, and said that she is another individual who stands out for her contribution and involvement in the quality profession.

And colleagues also say that she is a pleasure to work with. Michael R. Kirchner, ASQ Regional Director, Region 15A (FL, GA, PR), and past chair of ASQ Section 1509 Orlando, met her through the Orlando chapter. “Grace is always helping,” Kirchner says. “She is always willing to share information, very quick to say, ‘Oh, I think I know someone,’ or ‘I have some info about this.’ She follows up and sends it right away.”

Jim Smith, our 2007 Quality Professional of the Year, sums up her accomplishments this way: “I told her, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t in competition with you.’”


The 2014 Professional of the Year At a Glance

Written 10 books and more than 250 articles. Her most recent book is “Modular Kaizen.”

Masters in Business Administration from Georgia State University ASQ Fellow.

This year she will also receive the Distinguished Service Medal Award.