This past Saturday I sat for the Certified Quality Improvement Associate (CQIA) exam. I passed and now I can draw on this body of knowledge and cite this certification for the rest of my career in quality.
In this article I will explain what this certification is. I will describe my experience in preparing for and taking the exam. I will share what I have learned about certification pathways in quality. Finally I will offer some advice on whether you should pursue the certification yourself.
The Certified Quality Improvement Associate
The American Society for Quality (ASQ) introduced the CQIA certification in 2000 as a way to introduce the basics of quality to individuals and organizations that are not already in traditional quality roles. Getting such employees certified is a way to integrate quality throughout the company. Those already in a quality role can obtain the certification as a first step toward more intensive certifications such as Certified Quality Engineer.
The body of knowledge covered in the materials and coursework touches all aspects of quality. Some examples of learning objectives follow:
“Define quality and use this term correctly in various circumstances.”
“Define and distinguish between common and special cause variation in relation to quality measures.”
“Identify supplier performance measures, including quality, price, delivery and level of service.”
Succeeding on the exam requires remembering, understanding, and applying your learning from the materials I reference below. The exam reflects the body of knowledge presented in the CQIA Primer. Everything you need to know is in this textbook. There are additional materials that will enhance your learning and give you an edge. Actively participating in a prep course, doing as many practice questions as possible, and connecting with your instructors will also boost your chances and make your investment of time worthwhile.
Preparing for the exam
To prepare, I attended four three-hour courses presented by subject matter experts in quality. Each of the instructors were Certified Quality Engineers. At each session we:
- Did a practice quiz
- Went over two or three chapters from the CQIA Primer
- Did practice exam questions as a class
- Addressed any questions from our readings and end-of-chapter exams
You could prepare for the exam without this kind of course but that would mean doing a lot more solo work. In the class was at least one person who had failed the first time around. So, do whatever you can to get an edge!
Outside of class I read the Primer, took the end-of-chapter exams, and drilled myself again and again with the practice exam software.
It’s this last part that was especially valuable. The software is simple but has two particularly useful functions: it allows you to select the length of your exam and it breaks down your scores by section. This means you can practice for the exact length of the CQIA exam (110 questions in 3.5 hours). Once you are done you can see what areas you are weak in and revisit the Primer.
I read the Primer, highlighted key definitions, charts, figures and tables, and went over them again and again. I did not read the full Certified Quality Improvement Associate Handbook, but I visited it for some longer exposition of a couple of topics from the Primer. It also came in handy during the exam (more on that later).
During my many practice exam drills, I kept aiming for the 80% correct rate needed to pass the exam. I did some drills open book (as the official exam is) and some without. Both ways are valuable because you want to know the information and you want to know where to find it.
I had one classmate who did not have a college degree and was unaccustomed to the test-taking environment. Note-taking, reviewing, and computer-based exams were all unfamiliar to her. She was very anxious about what the exam would be like and she felt she wasn’t retaining anything during the course. If this sounds like you, anything you can do to become accustomed to that environment will help. Tell the instructor about your background. Take the practice exams. Create flashcards or other learning tools that work for you. Set up a timer and get used to how it feels to be timed while answering questions.
The exam itself
My exam was administered by Prometric, a third-party testing company. My exam was on Saturday morning. I had a good experience and found it was the same as Pearson Vue, where I took my EMT-B exam several years ago.
Read all the exam rules in advance and arrive with what you need. Make sure you have removed the practice exam questions from your CQIA Primer and that all your materials are bound.
The exam was the exact level of difficulty as the practice exam questions. As I said above, that program was very, very helpful for focusing on areas where my recall was weak.
You will spend lots of time flipping through the book looking for key tables and definitions. If you can find an answer within two minutes using the index or your own sticky flags (which are permitted), you will succeed on the exam.
There is plenty of time to finish the exam. I left with an hour to spare even though I went back to look up many flagged questions.
I used the exam software features to my advantage: a strikethrough to eliminate distracter choices, a timer to keep an eye on my progress, and a flag function that lets you revisit the question. I did not use the physical dry-erase board or the calculator that Prometric provided.
I did not take a break, but this is an option if you want one.
There was no math. At all.
I used the glossary of the CQIA Handbook several times. It was faster and sometimes more detailed than the index of the Quality Council of Indiana book. When a question was difficult and the choice depended on wording, I consulted the relevant section of both the Primer and the handbook.
ASQ certification pathways
My aim is for further certification. This graphic is pretty ugly but it gives you an idea of how to build on previous certifications as you grow more advanced and more focused on your area of quality.
Don’t take this chart as the final word. If you have questions, attend a chapter meeting of ASQ and talk to the presenter or another quality person. They will have firsthand knowledge of certifications. Tell them your situation and goals and ask for suggestions. Bring the same information to your manager and get their opinion as well, before committing to a specific certification.
As you can see, the CQIA is an initial certification that can lead to several professional ones.
Should you get the certification?
Yes, you should. Even if you are not in a traditional quality role, you may benefit from the CQIA. It may open the door to Six Sigma, lean, team dynamics skills, statistical process control, etc. Each of these is just a small section of the Primer but a vast field of practice of their own.
I am fortunate to be in a company that paid for my materials and for the exam as part of their dollars-and-sense interest in furthering my development. I hope you are in the same situation. If not, perhaps you can convince your manager to come around. If they won’t cover the cost, just pay for it on your own. The total will run you about $300. That might hurt a bit, but it will strengthen in your future earnings potential and pay off in the end.
Once you have the certification, you have it for life. You can keep the materials at your desk and share your learnings with coworkers. And if you progress to further, more expensive or labor-intensive certifications, you will walk in with greater confidence.
What do I mean when I say I “boosted my credibility?” In quality we are not just people with sharp eyes or attention to detail. People who work in quality do not have a certain personality type. Rather we are following rigorous methods developed toward the end of the Industrial Revolution to ensure safe products, reliable service, unexpected delight and longer, healthier lives.
To study quality is to apply the scientific method in your day-to-day work. Getting a certification such as the CQIA helps you learn these methods and meet the experts who practice them. It thereby signals your credibility. It shows others in your organization that you are on the path toward expertise and that your work is based on the methods of a true profession.
As you consider the CQIA (or if you are preparing for the exam), feel free to reach out to me for more details. I have plenty of study tactics to share and some ideas about quality certifications that I didn’t cover in this article.
I wish you success!
Certified Quality Improvement Associate Primer
Certified Quality Improvement Associate Exam USB Flash
Find both at (http://www.qualitycouncil.com/cqia/)
Get both of these! The Primer is absolutely required. The practice exam software is a near-necessity.
The Certified Quality Improvement Associate Handbook, Third Edition 3rd Edition
This is not a necessity, but I would recommend it. It is more attractive and better organized than the Primer, and it will be useful during the exam.