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How to Make Process Behavior Charts Work for You

Donald J. Wheeler, Ph.D.

The calculation of control limits is not the end product of process behavior charts, but rather the beginning of
knowledge. The chief advantage of process behavior charts is the way they enable people, who may have had very
little statistical training, to reliably separate potential signals from the probable noise that is common in all types of
data. This ability to characterize the behavior of a process as predictable or unpredictable, and thereby to know when
to intervene and when not to intervene, is the real outcome of the use of these charts. This is why I have always
said that SPC is a way of thinking with some techniques attached. The computations are part of the techniques, but
the real objective is insight, not numbers.

To this end, you will need to organize your data appropriately in order to gain the insight. This appropriate organi-
zation of the data has been called rational sampling and rational subgrouping.

The first principle of understanding data is that you must know the context for the data. This involves the particu-
lars of how the data were obtained as well as some appreciation for the process or operations represented by the data.
The context for the data will create a certain structure—it will make certain comparisons interesting, while it makes
other comparisons uninteresting.

Rational sampling has to do with collecting data in such a way that the interesting characteristics of the process are
evident in the data. For example, if you are interested in evaluating the impact of a new policy on the operations of
a single office, you will need to collect data that pertains to that office, rather than for a whole region. Or, for a
physical process, where in the process are the potential sources of variation? Collect data to allow evaluation of
these points in the process.

Rational subgrouping has to do with how the data are organized for charting purposes and is closely linked to the
correct ways of computing limits. With Average and Range Charts (X-bar and R Charts) there will be k subgroups
of data. The right way of computing limits for these charts was shown to involve the computation of some measure
of dispersion within each subgroup (such as the range for each subgroup). These k measures are then combined into
an average measure of dispersion (such as the Average Range) or a median measure of dispersion (such as a Median
Range), and this combined measure of dispersion is then used to compute the limits.

The objective of the process behavior chart is to separate the probable noise from the potential signals. The varia-
tion within the subgroups will be used to set up the limits which we shall use as our filters. Therefore, we will
want the variation within the subgroups to represent the probable noise, and nothing but the noise. In other words,
we will want each subgroup to be logically homogeneous. Shewhart said that we should organize the data into sub-
groups based upon our judgment that the data within any one subgroup were collected under essentially the same

In order to have a meaningful process behavior chart you have to have a meaningful subgrouping, and in order to
have a meaningful subgrouping you must take the context of the data into account as you create the subgroups.
This is why it is called rational subgrouping—it cannot be left to chance, nor can it be automated. You have to
actively and intelligently organize the data into subgroups in order to have effective Average and Range Charts.
When you place two or more values together in a single subgroup you are making a judgment that, for your pur-
poses, these data only differ due to background noise. If they have the potential to differ due to a signal, then they do
not belong in the same subgroup.

This is why the Average Chart looks for differences between the subgroups while the Range Chart checks for consis-
tency within the subgroups. This difference between the charts is inherent in the structure of the computations—
ignore it at your own risk!

But what if every value has the potential of being different from its neighbors, such as happens with monthly or
weekly values? With periodically collected data the chart of preference is the chart for Individual Values and a Mov-
ing Range (the XmR Chart). Here each point is allowed to sink or swim on its own. The Moving Range approach
to computing the limits uses the short-term variation to set the long-term limits. In this sense it is like the Average
Chart where we use the variation within the subgroups to set the limits for the variation between the subgroups.

So while the right ways of computing limits will allow you to get good limits from bad data, the chart will be no
better than your organization of the data. When you use rational sampling and rational subgrouping you will have
powerful charts—charts that will reveal the potential signals for all to see and understand.

If you organize your data poorly you can end up with weak charts that obscure the signals. Subgrouping is a skill
that is best obtained by practice under good tutelage. So until you have the opportunity to develop this skill, it is
good to remember that it is hard to mess up the subgrouping on an XmR Chart.

Dr. Donald J. Wheeler is a specialist in the field of Data Analysis and SPC. He has written 15 books and over 120
publications and is internationally known as an author, teacher, and consultant. You may contact him through his
Statistical Process Controls, Inc.
5908 Toole Drive, Suite C
Knoxville, Tennessee 37919 USA
Phone: 865-584-5005 • Fax: 865-588-9440 • Web Site:
© Copyright 2002 SPC Press