March 2002

Vol. 4, No. 3

What tools? 
Statistical tools support Six Sigma, Baldrige'and they're everywhere.

When you open your daily copy of USA Today, Wall Street Journal, or even your hometown newspaper, you'll probably see a Pareto diagram, a line chart, or a histogram portraying data relevant to your life. Statistical and problem-solving tools have become so pervasive that we tend not to notice the impact that they have, but these tools continue to support even the newest approaches to quality improvement. Six Sigma, Baldrige, ISO standards, and others, build on proven methods of quality management and improvement. Software and the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle are not 'old hat ' but are part of every quality approach.

Regardless of the framework within which an improvement is made, certain steps are always taken. No one, for example, would advise an organization to rush headlong into changing things without ample study of the situation. Likewise, most improvement efforts are grounded in data analysis, initiating change on a small basis before broadcasting it, then looking for ways to continue the improvement. This is of course, the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, popularized by statistician Walter Shewhart and management consultant W. Edwards Deming.

Beyond this framework, there are a variety of approaches. Baldrige Criteria, for example, outline areas of the organization to be targeted, and criteria for improving organizational performance practices. These criteria apply to leadership, strategic planning, customers, etc. The Six Sigma approach, on the other hand, looks at the end'higher profits, improved quality, etc.'and establishes steps toward that end that will reduce variation in the process and improve quality in the product.

In order to pursue the process of improvement, certain tools are predictably required. Those involved must agree on the size and scope of the project, and gather data on agreed-upon measures. Data gathering and analysis, whether for Baldrige or Six Sigma objectives, must be carried out in a systematic way that produces statistical integrity in the data and confidence in the analysis. Check sheets, control charts and their many variations, histograms, and Pareto analysis help in this process. Operational definitions give clarity to what is being measured and studied, and assures that this will have the same meaning to all those involved.

Gaining knowledge about the way that the current system is performing is likewise integral to any improvement effort. Such knowledge is demanded by ISO 9000 standards as well as other frameworks for improvement. Stratifying data and using control charts are part of the approach to understanding the system prior to developing a theory about how to improve it, the stage at which affinity diagrams, cause-and-effect diagrams, relations diagrams, and other tools help to develop creativity and record relevant possibilities for improvement.

As theories for improvement are tested, another set of tools is applied, including force field analysis, systematic diagrams, and others; before a theory is set widely into place, results must be examined to see if it has really worked'again, drawing from the panoply of tools that are available. Flow charts, check sheets, affinity diagrams, and other tools then help a team or organization to fully implement the change, and to examine the process for future improvement possibilities.

Regardless of the language of improvement or the names of tools, some of the 'same old ' approaches are proving themselves to be sound, easy, and useful. Whether your improvement steps are arranged in a broad Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle or are focused on idiosyncratic improvements applicable only to your own industry standards, you will be hard pressed not to recognize the pattern that assures your success, and to see the ways in which it represents a far broader approach to improvement.

And even if you don't recognize a common pattern in these approaches, you will undoubtedly find yourself using many of the same tools toward the improvement that you want to see. Statistical and problem-solving tools represent the hands-on construction, and their appropriate use will ultimately bear much of the responsibility for actual improvement in processes, products, and services in any organization.

Copyright 2002 PQ Systems.

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