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Process Control for Sports Enthusiasts

Posted by Diane Kulisek on June 4, 2007

Hit the TargetDo your eyes glaze over when somebody starts talking about Standard Deviation, Control Limits, Frequency Distribution, Histograms or <gasp> Six Sigma? You’re not alone. Statistics are probably among the most despised business tools in the business bucket. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) has been quoted as having said: “There are liars, DAMNED liars…. and…. Statisticians.” Has anybody ever really had anything nice to say about statistics… or those who use them?

Well, fear not. All one need do to relieve the pain of statistics is turn to the sports world. You may not be a baseball card enthusiast but player stats are prominent features on the back of each card. You might have been handling statistics with gleeful abandon since you were a kid. Team and player statistics are flashed at us from television screens during every sports event I’ve ever observed, as well. Sitting behind home base at a recent Dodger game (yes, I’m a Dodger fan), the scoreboard was one of my favorite diversions while waiting for things to sort themselves out otherwise on the playing field. What was there? Statistics!

There are some other great games that each of us may pursue on a sporting level that bring home the whole concept of process control and statistics for what may offer a much more personal understanding. Do you bowl? Play for the company soccer team or baseball league? How about golf? Play that? My personal favorite, lately, is archery. Because I know not too many people “do” archery, I’ll use that as my example (so as to avoid too much undue criticism from fellow enthusiasts).

I studied archery for about three years as an undergrad in college… which was too long ago for me to admit publicly. While recently chatting with a friend, another engineer, we agreed that he would exchange his fencing lessons for my archery lessons and we would both be able to enjoy these old and new diversions together. His enthusiasm for archery proved to outweigh mine for fencing, however, so archery is what we’ve done the most of (so far).

I’ve been enjoying the outdoor setting for target practice and the diverse group of intelligent people pursuing archery as their sport. An added plus is the fact that more national archery champions have come from our community than any other in the United States (you can check out my club at When I say that the instructors involved with this sport have turned it into a process with parameters as carefully defined and controlled as one might expect for manufacture of a precision aircraft or life-saving medical device, it might be an understatement.

While I have been participating in archery sport for a pleasantly healthful break from my mind-bending weekday work, my companion is there to WIN. I have been watching as he learns which eye is dominant for his best aim, how many inches between arrows constitute an effective grouping, how high to hold his elbow, how far back to move his scapula, where to put his feet relative to the firing line, how far apart and what angle the feet should be at relative to his shoulders, what angle to tilt his head at, and at what point on his face to anchor the bow string when he pulls it back with his arrow. And this was just the beginning. Then came which type of bow to buy (long bow, recurve, compound, take down recurve), a few progressive changes in what arrows to use (straight or helical fletchings, aluminum or carbon shaft, variations in length), what poundage pull to strive for (30 lbs, 35 lbs, 40 lbs), what attachments to consider for the bow (plunger, scope, stabilizer), how to hone the arrow rest most effectively to avoid deflection of the arrow as it passes through it, whether or not to use a bow sling, what type of arm guard, finger tab and quiver to use, how many inches should be between the bow riser and the string, how many twists to put into the string before attaching it to each end of the bow, the benefits of waxing the string…. you get the idea. This isn’t a hobby. This is science predicated upon process parametric trial and error that might most effectively be optimized by design of experiments and analysis of variance. In fact, that’s what I’ve been observing happen, although none of those doing it probably realizes that is what they’re doing. The reward is continually improving process control with reduced variation at performance levels that optimizes outcome. In other words, the target gets hit correctly more often. I’ve been tempted to whip out an X-bar and R chart a few times.

Some might think that the local archery club wins so many championships because it has more “natural talent” than other groups. Others might think that, by divine intervention, some of the local archers were just born to be champions. I would take another position and say… it helps that a bunch of the members are computer scientists and engineers with a pretty firm grasp of scientific method, if nothing else…. and that most are system-level thinkers.

Now…. how many of you have played with process control in relation to your sports? Golf game improving? Is it your skill that is improving or your understanding of the process? Did you identify and control a few new parameters for that great game… or was it just dumb luck? Does practice make perfect… or does it take a bit of thought to figure out what needs to change, as well? Are you focused on optimizing the long term inherent causes for process variation (like your height or vision, for instance) or mitigating the near term assignable causes for variation (where DID that wind come from, anyway)? Chances are, you are probably doing both.

SO… next time your eyes start to glaze over while considering what statistics to apply for optimization of a process within your organization…. think of golf, or archery, or any other sport…. go for the goal… aim for that mark….. and SCORE! May the force (of process control) be with you.

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