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Walter A. Shewhart

This post was written by John on November 22, 2005
Posted Under: Statistical Thinking
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Biography of Walter A Shewhart

Shewhart was born in New Canton, Illinois, USA on 18th March 1891. His
schooling in physics at the Universities of Illinois and California led him
to his doctorate and a brief spell as an academic.

In 1918, Shewhart joined the Western Electric Company, a manufacturer of
telephone hardware for Bell Telephone. Bell Telephone’s engineers had been working to improve the reliability of their transmission systems. Because amplifiers and other equipment had to be buried underground, there was a business need to reduce the frequency of failures and repairs. Bell Telephone had already realised the importance of reducing variation in a manufacturing process, the basis of all lean production. Moreover, they had realized that continual process-adjustment in reaction to non-conformance actually increased variation and degraded quality.

In 1924, Shewhart framed the problem in terms of variation, differentiating “assignable-cause” and “chance-cause” variation and introduced the “control chart” as a tool for distinguishing between the two. Shewhart stressed that bringing a production process into a state of “statistical control”, where there is only chance-cause variation, and keeping it in control, is necessary to predict future output and to manage a process economically. Shewhart worked to advance the thinking at Bell Telephone Laboratories from their foundation in 1925 until his retirement in 1956, publishing a series of papers in the Bell System Technical Journal.

During the 1930s, Shewhart’s work led him to fundamental scientific and
philosophical issues, particularly those concerned with operationalism. It
was this work that led him to his review of the measurement of the speed of light.

In 1932 E S Pearson read a paper to an Ordinary meeting of the Royal
Statistical Society in London, England describing Shewhart’s ideas in
mathematical terms. This, together with Pearson’s paper of the following
year, started a long tradition of misunderstanding and obfuscation of
Shewhart’s ideas in the UK.

Shewhart’s charts were adopted by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) in 1933 and advocated to improve production during World War II in American War Standards Z1.1-1941, Z1.2-1941 and Z1.3-1942. It was during this period that W Edwards Deming founded a systematic critique of data-based management, premised on Shewhart’s insights. Additionally Deming was instrumental in forming a group (Eugene Grant, Holbrook Working, Leslie Simon and others) who spread the use of Shewharts ideas throughout the wartime industrial base.

Following the war. Deming went on to champion Shewhart’s methods, working as an industrial consultant to Japanese, and later US, corporations from 1950 to 1993. Deming’s systematic strategy for business improvement was responsible for a dramatic increase in Japanese productivity over that period. It was based on capturing markets using a combination of ever improving quality at ever-decreasing price.

Shewhart received many awards including the Holley Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Statistical Society and American Society for Quality. For twenty years he was editor of the Wiley Series in Mathematical Statistics. He died at Troy
Hills, New Jersey, USA on 11th March 1967.

Based in part on material from A. Cutler

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