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The Data Heads: Selecting Statistical Software for Six Sigma

January 16, 2009
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Dr. Neil Polhemus, CTO at StatPoint Technologies (and publisher of StatGraphics) contributed a great article in the current issue of Quality Magazine about selecting statistical software for Six Sigma. In it he lists four criteria for selecting the right statistical package:

1. How strong a background in statistics does the typical operator have?
2. What types of data are operators most likely to encounter?
3. If data are mined for information, how easily can multiple approaches with multiple options be tried?
4. How easy is it to create a report or presentation that can be shared with other colleagues?

I want to surface an unspoken assumption in the article and add a couple of criteria that I think Dr. Polhemus missed in his list.

The unspoken assumption is that one statistical package will serve all the needs of a Six Sigma deployment. My experience is that there are at least two broad categories of statistical software, and each has their place in Six Sigma.

Two Categories of Statistical Software

One category of statistical software is Advanced Statistical Analysis tools. Dr. Polhemus’ article outlines criteria for this group. Products in this category include StatGraphics, Minitab, JMP and others. These systems were developed (origianlly) for statisticians. Often Black Belts (BBs) and Master Black Belts (MBBs) depend on these packages for in-depth work in the Analysis phase. These systems are less useful for selecting projects. For the most part they operate poorly in the Control Phase. Put another way, these tools are of less use to the Champions and Business leaders who charter projects, and also of less use to Green Belts (GBs) and Process Owners who inherit and live with a project when it is completed.

The other category of statistical software is what I call Real-time Enterprise SPC Solutions. It will come as no surprise that GainSeeker Suite falls into this second group. This category comes out of the Real-Time Statistical Process Control (SPC) world. These packages are designed for ongoing data collection and analysis in a continuous improvement (kaizen) environment. These tools are, first and foremost, a tool for process owners and Green Belts. They are also tools for Champions and Sponsors (business leaders) who are chartering projects and driving business performance.

While there is some overlap between the two categories, they are more complimentary than competitive. In fact, they should readily share data. Data should be especially portable from a Real-time Enterprise SPC solution to the Advanced Statistics Solution. That way BBs and MBBs can readily tap into the enterprise data sources to support their efforts.

So here are the additional criteria that you should look for when you’re selecting a Real-time Enterprise SPC System.

Criteria 5: What does it take to get new data into the system?

Advanced Statistical Analysis Packages begin with an assumption that data are in a file, in rows and columns. In this view, data are static: generated once, analyzed in some way and then saved in a folder somewhere. Real-Time Enterprise SPC Packages assume that we are tapping into a live stream of data. Each new data point contributes to our understanding of the process. (Some of the Advanced Stats Packages are beginning to recognize this, but their core competency is in analyzing a static data set.)

The ability to readily incorporate new data is what makes Real-time Enterprise software so effective in the Control Phase. Users set up automatic data collection once and then monitor the results for exceptions.

Keep in mind too that the system should collect data at all levels of the organization. Good systems will make it easy to collect and manage data from the shop floor to the executive suite. This makes it easy to capture high levels of business metrics which can be used to help prioritize projects.

When selecting a statistical package, be sure to ask:

  • Can the system tap into any data source, including a front-line process owners, gages, a wide variety of text files and database, PLCs, PDAs, cell phones, and so forth?
  • Can the data entry process be controlled so that only valid data can be entered into the system, in a reliable and repeatable way?
  • Can data be collected automatically and without human intervention?
  • Is it easy to set up and manage these data collection processes to meet all the various needs across my business?


  • Criteria 6: Does the system automatically test new data for real-time process shifts?

    Real-time doesn’t just refer to the process of connecting to data sources and readily incorporating new data. It also refers to the statistically evaluating all new data for expected variation. This is an essential tool for understanding processes. If the system does detect a change or shift, it needs to automatically communicate that to people and systems that can do something about it.

    When selecting a statistical package, be sure to ask:

  • Does the system automatically detect process changes using appropriate statistical tools?
  • Does the system automatically let me know there is a shift through email, pagers, on-screen displays, or other appropriate means?


  • Criteria 7: Are Data Stored in a Robust Relational Database?

    The word “Enterprise” in our category name (Real-time Enterprise SPC Solutions) tells us that we’re not looking for a point solution. There are some fine packages out there that do SPC with Excel spreadsheets. But these programs can create a data management nightmare when you are managing all the data in your business (not to mention the risk of defects being introduced in a spreadsheet environment).

    An enterprise system builds a data warehouse in a relational database. This makes it possible to tap into a rich data set for selecting and prioritizing new projects. It also makes it easier to share data (and best practices) across the organization.

    When selecting a statistical package, be sure to ask:

  • Are data stored in a robust relational database structure with a flexible hierarchy?
  • How fast are retrievals on large data sets?
  • How easy is it to group or segment data?


  • Criteria 8: How Easy is it to Slice and Dice the Data?

    A good Real-time Enterprise SPC System will collect data at multiple levels of the organization. It shouldn’t be confined to the down and dirty shopfloor data. By capturing this data - along with information about the data - think of it as demographic information - you can slice and dice the data to find opportunities to improve the system.

    At high levels it might mean viewing Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) by Line, and then drilling down into various machines or sliced across all shifts. In a transactional environment it might mean tracking cycle times across all offices, or within offices by customer service rep. Being able to easily slice and dice the data makes it easier to understand the relationship of all the parts.

    When selecting a statistical package, be sure to ask:

  • How easy is it to drill into various subsets of the data?
  • Are automatic analysis wizards available to help prioritize and focus your attention on the critical variables?
  • Can you data be rolled up into dashboards and other high level summary views for easy monitoring?
  • Can data be easily tagged with demographic information?

    These additional four criteria are a good starting point for rounding out your tool box of statistical software for Six Sigma.

    To read more from Evan Miller, visit www.hertzler.com/blog/dataheads
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