I’m sure all of us experience daily memos, emails, voice mail, procedures, forms, and reports that are nearly meaningless due to lack of context. Some ramble on with obvious passion but fail to explain what the heck they’re talking about. Some are very beautiful with lots of statistical charts and graphs yet without simple contextual statements, these potentially higher order documents (informative beyond normal human perception and thought) are no more than any other type of first order information (i.e., “I think it’s the operator’s fault”).

Every quality document should be fully self-contained or reference applicable context elsewhere. Simple statements of the assumptions made, what the objective of the project was, how the data was taken, how to read the graph, etc., must be included, or the document can be nearly worthless.

“A fact is like a sack – it won’t stand up if it’s empty. To make it stand up, first you have to put in it all the reasons and feelings that caused it in the first place.”
– Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), Italian author, playwright.

Contextual areas important to Six Sigma are as follows, in order of importance: 1) primary: Context that is absolutely necessary for long-term understanding such as the 5 W’s (who, what, why, where, when) or related to subject, object, verb, 2) secondary: Scope or breadth, which might contain important aspects of our projects (i.e. analytic or enumerative studies), applicability, simplified abstracts, etc. and 3) tertiary: Extended background or situation based, which might include important historical, political, cultural, or multilingual information, etc.

The Future of All Science Depends On Context

Recently while sifting through my pile of 63 printed postings from what might be iSixSigma’s longest bulletin board thread ever (see “What is a stable process?“), I began to realize that much of our frustration was contextual. Our goal of saving the future of all science from endless bickering over what process capability, control, and stability are comes down to simple context.

One driving force behind our discussion was a paper by William H. Woodall (see reference below) which just won him the Brumbaugh award for the largest single contribution to the development of the industrial application of quality control. Woodall stated that “the distinction between common causes and assignable causes is context dependent.” As we discussed in the bulletin board thread, depending upon context used, one can say that a process can be stable but not capable or visa versa, both capable and stable producing no good parts, neither and produce good parts, both and be non-normally distributed, and both with either common or special cause variation. One can see the danger here of misleading others without proper context up front.

Walter A. Shewhart defined statistical control as follows: “A phenomenon will be said to be controlled when, through the use of past experience, we can predict, at least within limits, how the phenomenon may be expected to vary in the future.” Note that in order to use this definition one is required to provide context of time and reference.

Context as Applied to Six Sigma

Six Sigma context can be thought of as information allowing an understanding of the circumstances, value of, and or interrelated conditions around work performed, statements made, raw data used, facts discovered, etc., long after it is referenced.

Six Sigma is about virtually eliminating all types of mistakes, waste, and rework. Error-free communication is crucial to Six Sigma, as it directly correlates with producing error in the product, process, or service. Poor communication can in some cases directly produce errors and in others indirectly produce errors as an interaction effect. Therefore, what makes Six Sigma work is not context poor communication.

Six Sigma context needs to be long term applicable. Everyday communication includes mutual situational understanding, verbal, or visual gestures which all become very short term applicable context (i.e., poor context). Such communication containing gestures such as eye contact and voice inflections to show tense, negation, and duration of activity, must be properly converted to written context where applicable.

Documents can and should be assessed in terms of sigma levels and DPMO (defects per million opportunities) to improve CTQ documents in the same way we do other process-related activities.

Exponential Requirements/Exponential Gain

Exponential increases of context needed and gains expected mathematically correspond with increased sigma levels for the following reasons:

  • In accordance with the Pareto principle (80/20 rule), controlling confounding effects most always becomes increasingly more important as our process sigma improves. First order process problems usually are main effects and require no more than the most basic data to solve while higher order/confounded problems often require every bit of information available in order to weed out the confounding factors.
  • Improving context to reduce the number of communication based mistakes also enables us to learn more about our processes. Context aids collective understanding, which in turn aids further individual understanding, and so on, continuously building.
  • Increased process complexity and process technology to improve sigma levels also require increased and or improved context.
  • Many studies indicate that average American employee turnover rates are increasing. This means that either training efforts need to increase or the longevity of documentation and communication (via context) needs to increase.
  • Six Sigma guru Mikel J. Harry outlined the exponential path toward Six Sigma in terms of parts per million (PPM) relative to statistical confidence.

Bogged Down In Context Is Not Good Either

While it’s obvious that increased and or improved long-term context will assist us on our paths toward Six Sigma, one can envision situations where too much use of context could bog us down in paperwork. Fortunately, with today’s technology we can use modern search technology (i.e., keyword in context, context-sensitive help, etc.) and hypertext links to not only negate this possibility but improve our use of context even more. For example, instead of taking an hour to criticize the next context poor document you run across, just send the author the link to this article and you’re done.


One often-overlooked crucial element to any successful path toward Six Sigma is the need for increasingly descriptive and available context surrounding all CTQ related documentation at a minimum. This need grows exponentially as we improve but the gains also increase exponentially.

By increasing the quality, quantity, and accessibility of pertinent context used in our documentation, we will not only improve individually but collectively which is a requirement for enabling Six Sigma Quality levels to be reached.


The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. Columbia University Press. 1995.

Deming, Edwards, W. Out of the Crisis. MIT Press. 1986

Harry, Mikel J. The Nature of Six Sigma Quality. Motorola Publishing. AZ. Pg.2.

Pyzdek, Thomas. The Six Sigma Handbook: A Complete Guide For Greenbelts, Blackbelts, & Managers at All Levels. McGraw-Hill Quality Publishing. New York. 2000.

Shewhart, W.A. Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product. Van Nostrand Co. Inc. New York. 1931. Pp.8-24.

Various. ‘”ASQ News: Honors, Awards Presented at AQC.” Quality Progress. July 2001. pg. 16.

Woodall, William H. “Controversies and Contradictions in Statistical Process Control.” Journal of Quality Technology. Vol.32, No.4. October, 2000. pg.342.

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