exchanging ideas

3月 232011
When you think of statistical process control, or SPC for short, what industry first comes to your mind? In the past 10 or 15 years, diverse industries have begun to standardize processes and administrative tasks with statistical process control. While the top two bars of the industrial Pareto chart are probably still manufacturing and machine maintenance, in North America, SPC is being used in far more types of work than many people realize.

One reason that researchers and process managers turn to Walter Shewhart’s trusty techniques to distinguish between common cause and special cause variation—in other words, variation that represents unimportant bumps on the road and variation that means that the wheels have fallen off the bus—is that they work far better than gut instinct in many cases. Furthermore, they are defensible, because they are based on sound, scientific practice. What might surprise you is the extent to which social science, human subject research, and administrative fields are making use of SPC.

1. Health Care. This is the area I hear the most buzz about for SPC. A great deal of interesting work is being done in monitoring process variables such as late payments, the number of available beds, payments to providers, script-writing rates for high-risk drugs, pain levels during recovery from surgery, and so on. I can only scratch the surface here. The writing is on the wall about health care becoming still more expensive, data are becoming more and more plentiful, and it is especially easy for problems to hide in massive data. Unpredictable problems = cost. Process control = savings.

2. Customer Service How long did you have to wait in line the last time you were in a big box store? When you last called the cable company? Some companies recognize that if customer service is slow, you will take your business elsewhere. Some are even willing to take action on that knowledge. There are plenty of measureable service quality characteristics that can be tapped into to identify times of day or product lines that are inconsistent, which translates to a better customer experience, and to customer loyalty.

3. Survey Research This is the one I’m most excited about right now. SPC interest in survey research has been on the rise for the past 5 or so years, and I think it’s an area ripe for this sort of analysis. If the news tells you that 52% of Americans who eat raw oysters only eat them to be polite, someone had to get that information. Enter the heroes of the survey world. Survey researchers, the people behind all the Things We Know about How We Are, are applying statistical process control methods with variables related to survey data collection, such as interview length, nonresponse rate, interviewer driving distances, and so on.

Continue reading "The Human Side of Statistical Process Control: Three Applications of SAS/QC You Might Not Have Thought About"
12月 092010
At this time of year as fans debate over the best players in college football, quantum mechanics combines with college sports to produce the Heisman uncertainty principal: you cannot know who has won the trophy until it is announced, and so you have to treat it as if every candidate has won and no candidates have won.**

What does the quantum theory of football have to do with a blog about learning SAS? Well, everyone around here is abuzz about Change the Equation and STEM (if you don’t know what this is, check it out and come back to me. It’s OK, I’ll wait for you.) Here is SAS’ contribution to their video contest:

The winner of the viral video contest is also in a quantum state of uncertainty until the contest ends and the winner is announced.

The SAS Training Post writers and all of the Education Division at SAS have reasons to be interested in motivating the next generation to study STEM—after all, they’re our future users!

But my interest in this topic goes further than that of a SAS instructor. The state of education is often on my mind as I consider the future my 1- and 4-year old knee-gnawers can look forward to. Schroediner’s quarterback aside, one thing that is certain: learning does not end with the school day. A well-rounded continuing education at home is part of the solution to the problem of lagging in math and science.

Last week, Michele Reister asked me to blog about how I ended up with a career in statistics. It’s certainly not where I thought I’d end up, trying to pick a major among theatre arts, psychology, English, physics, and computer science. There were dozens of influences that led ultimately to here and now, but one that makes my point about education is this: As strange as it is, I ended up in statistics partly thanks to William Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter fed a love for how numbers and patterns play into everyday life that later bloomed with academic research in human behavior. Sometimes I’d miss the whole point of a sonnet because the grammatical gymnastics producing the rhythm were so gorgeously executed. I wasn’t a very good actor, but I love a play on numbers.

Another influence was my freshman semester statistics professor at (what is now called) Texas State University. She nurtured our interest in statistics, focusing on the theoretical and applied aspects of statistics rather than on the calculations. We never had to memorize a formula. Competing with a fellow student for top score in the class, we both realized that data analysis, as it pertains to research in behavioral sciences, is far more interesting than anything else we might be doing. One thing leads to another, and we each ended up in a quantitative field (he is now on the faculty at Texas State). One topic informs another, and creativity grows from diversity of information.

To think of knowledge as a siloed system of isolated subjects-- math, English, history, physics—is to miss the joy of learning. Learning can be part of everyday life.

In teaching my 4-year old basic math concepts, we play games with the numbers. How many jelly beans do you have if I take 3 away from your handful of 12? What if you give 3 jelly beans to each of 4 kids? How many beans is that? She makes math part of her imaginative play, and it plants the seed of learning that will hopefully serve her for a lifetime.

And just like the quantum state of the Heisman, the quantum state of future STEM professionals requires that we treat it as if we are ahead—and behind—at the same time. Teaching math and science in ways that are fun, and that inform other areas of study, might be the key to motivating students to study STEM, so that future generations can “open the box” in 10 or 20 years to find a “living” in science, technology, engineering and math inside. Now I’m going to play catch in a probability field with my favorite (electron-speed) preschooler.

Thanks for reading!!

** with apologies to my dad, a retired physicist and fair-weather armchair quarterback, who is no doubt shaking his head right now.
11月 192010
You know the old joke,

Q. How can you tell an extroverted statistician from an introverted statistician?

A. The extrovert looks at your shoes when they talk.

Well, the statisticians that I work with every day are a pretty lively bunch, so this joke doesn’t really apply, but it brings up a stereotype that people who work with statistics are dull. Many of us working in the area of applied statistics are expats from other disciplines: psychology, physics, chemistry, education, engineering, mathematics. Something brought each of us together to work in the fields of applied statistics. I think that many cases, the common denominator is a strong desire to tinker. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably a fellow tinkerer.

I was reading this blog post over at Harvard Business Review about the threats to creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind that a work environment that fosters creativity should have some mix of these three key ingredients. To compete in the modern marketplace, creativity is critical.

The key ingredient that strikes a strong chord with me is related to #1: Smart people who think differently. Amabile describes creative thinkers as people who “[have] deep expertise… as well as broad acquaintance with seemingly unrelated fields.” These are people for whom graduation did not spell the end of being a student; these are people who read, learn, and practice new ideas continuously. In other words, tinkerers! Whether in academia or private industry or government research, stale knowledge is a death knell to progress. It’s the reason many universities won’t hire their own graduates as faculty, and why research sabbaticals can be beneficial to all parties. It’s also the reason my boss does not grumble about buying textbooks for the department to stay fresh on statistical and analytical topics. Tinkerers thrive in a supportive work environment.

Among SAS users, the tinkerers are also the ones who have the greatest impact on our statistical courses here at SAS. Students take classes, ask questions, pose suggestions. New ideas form and make their way into the next revision of the class. With feedback from our students, courses remain fresh. The same is true of our software: feedback from users keeps the software releases fresh.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this theme. What are some ways that you have found help you stay creative, at the top of your game, fresh? Tell me all about it—I’m over here, the one in the brown and blue cowboy boots.