Control charts are really two timebased charts plotted on the same form. For simplicity’s sake, we will focus on control charts for variable individual readings because this chart is usually most useful in understanding and improving business processes.
The most typical among control charts is the process average and range Control Chart, commonly called the Xbar and R chart. This type of data is measured or variable data, as opposed to attribute type of data. Please note that there are other types of Control Charts for attribute data.
Average and Range Control Charts
To plot the process average (Xbar) and range (R) Control Chart, samples of product are obtained, usually at specified intervals, and measured. The sample size should be predetermined and then maintained. Typical sample sizes are subgroups of 3, 4, 5, or 6 pieces, with 5 being the optimal. As the process is running, the samples, of either inprocess or finished product, depending on what you are interested in controlling, are randomly obtained and then measured for the required characteristics. These measures are entered into the company SPC data collection system. This activity is repeated at the specified sample interval, say hourly, for as long as the process is running. Control charts produced from such data would be called an XBar and R chart. XBar is the average of the ten measurements within the sample and R is the range between the highest and lowest individual readings within the sample. The purpose of this one of the control charts is to measure the variations within the sample of ten specimens and compare those variations to the variations between samples. If the within sample variations are consistent with the between sample variations, the process is in control and the variability is predictable.
There are many types of software programs available for recording data and creating Control Charts, or for those eccentrics out there, one can calculate their own data points, process averages, ranges, and so forth. However, most of us will use software, which will calculate our subgroup average, subgroup range, process average, process range, control limits, standard deviation and process capability. “Wow! The software can provide a lot of information, but how is it used,” you may ask?
Control Charting Software
As the subgroup measures are entered into the system, a whole lot of calculations are performed and plotted or listed on the Control Chart. The chart and data is not very useful until a sufficient number of data points (subgroups) have been entered into the system and plotted. 25 subgroups will start to give one a good “picture” of their process, but as time passes and hundreds, and then thousands of subgroup data points have been entered and calculated, the “picture” of the process becomes even more accurate and clearer. One of the nice things about SPC software programs is that one can isolate any period of time, such as a specific shift, and display that time period’s specific Control Chart and other data.
Once a sufficient amount of data has been entered and a good picture is obtained, several pieces of very useful information are available. First of all there is a graphic “picture”. Even an SPC novice or untrained operator will be able to tell from the “picture” if there has been an event with an assignable cause or possible trends. The more experienced and trained operator, manager, or engineer will be able to exam the process spread, as identified by the Control Limits and the standard deviation or sigma, to determine if the process is “in control.” Then Control Chart graph can be observed for any subgroup trends to see if there is a high possibility of going “out of control.”
Continuous Improvements
The Continual Improvement team will look at these Control Limits and process variation to see if there may be opportunities for reducing this routine or common cause variation. As for myself I like to first glance at the picture, and then focus on the Process Capability Index or Cpk, which is a numerical index displayed to the side of the Control Chart Cpk for the process is calculated each time data from a process is entered into the system.
If I were to call my friend Mike and ask him how his production line #3 is doing today and his answer were; “we’re currently running a Cpk of .63.” My response would be; “Mike, you’ve obviously got some work to do; I’ll give you a call next week!” However, if Mike’s answer was; “Line #3 is running at a Cpk of 1.4,” my response would be; “Great! Let’s meet for lunch today and you’re buying!”
One thing to know is that there is a lot of misunderstanding of Cpk. Simply put, it is a measure of the processes capability of meeting the product specification that is being measured. Another way to look at it is, are the processes calculated control limits inside or with in the specification limits?
Regardless of your level of SPC understanding or your understanding of process variation, SPC and Control Charts will provide you with valuable information on your processes. If you are not sure if you’d be interested in better understanding your process variation and using SPC consider these statistical charts on the right.
Statistical Process Control Training
If you do not have a thorough understanding of what is depicted in each figure, and you want to understand and control your process variation, then you should consider taking a Statistical Process Control (SPC) class. In this class you will receive a quick basic review of Quality Control, followed by the development of a mini factory.
In this factory you will produce product in reallife scenarios, complete with problems and management interference. Through the measurement of your product and the accumulation of data, the concept of product and process variation will be explored and understood. Then the data from the mini factory product will be used to understand the various SPC terms and a Control Chart will be developed. The capability of the mini factory process to meet specification, Cpk, will be calculated.
Finally, to fully understand SPC and variation, problems are worked through in class to calculate the Control Limits, standard deviation, Cp, and Cpk. Upon completion, the student will have a basic understanding of process variation and process control. Additionally, the student will understand when to and not to take action on a process, as well as to identify opportunities for improvement. This class is suited for the process operator, engineers, and managers. As a prerequisite, prospective students should understand how to convert fractions to decimals, how to use a ruler to measure at least to eighths, and how to use basic calculator functions.
Control Charts for Individuals
Control charts for individuals are used when a sample size of one is the only sample available. Examples are daily sales numbers, monthly earnings reports, daily site traffic, or other metrics for which a multiple sample size is not available. This is in contrast to a manufacturing process where one can randomly choose ten representative products from the production stream, measure them all, and average the results.
An individuals chart does not allow a sample size of more than one. How do we then calculate a “range”, R. An individuals chart uses the measured value of the variable at interval “t” as the X measurement, and the absolute value of the difference between X_{t} and X_{t1} the previous interval as the range R. Let’s see how we can calculate the data necessary to plot an example of individuals control charts. The following data is derived from actual weekly sales data for an online business.
Weekly Sales X and R chart
Week

Weekly Sales X

1

104,679

2

115,537

3

134,696

4

177,393

5

205,437

6

184,038

7

105,863

8

163,746

9

183,134

10

205,348

11

265,599

12

197,901

13

113,093

14

219,758

15

192,949

16

174,363

17

80,148

18

212,387

Process Average

168,671

For the previous 18 weeks, the weekly sales has varied from a high of 265,599 to a low of 80,148. The average weekly sales, or XBar, is 168,671. With this data we can calculate the moving ranges between readings. Remember that the range is the absolute value (always positive) of the difference between successive readings. This calculated moving range data looks like:
Weekly Sales X and R Chart
Week

Weekly
Sales X 
Moving
Range R 
1

104,679

–

2

115,537

10,858

3

134,696

19,159

4

177,393

42,697

5

205,437

28,044

6

184,038

21,399

7

105,863

78,175

8

163,746

57,883

9

183,134

19,388

10

205,348

22,214

11

265,599

60,251

12

197,901

67,698

13

113,093

84,808

14

219,758

106,665

15

192,949

26,809

16

174,363

18,586

17

80,148

94,215

18

212,387

132,239

Process Average

168,671

52,417

For the period of the analysis, the average range, RBar, has been 52,417. Clearly, this process is highly variable, but is it in control? In order to determine that, we must calculate some control limits. In this case, control limits are an approximation of the statistical observations of a normal distribution. Any data point more than three standard deviations, designated +/ 3 sigma from the process average is out of control, and the process is not predictable. The 3sigma limits are approximated by:
UCL = XBar + 2.66 x RBar
and
LCL = XBar – 2.66 x RBar
With the data at hand, the upper control limit is 168,671 + 2.66 x 52,417 or 308,100.
The lower control limit is 168,671 – 2.66 x 52,417 or 29,241.
When plotted on a chart this looks like the one on Fig. 1. We can immediately see that the process is in control based on the three sigma rule, but is that sufficient? Shewhart later modified his control scheme to account for other types of nonnormal distribution such as time series trends, process shifts and other special causes of variability that did not violate the three sigma rule.
To conduct a more refined analysis we need to divide the area between the control limits into six control zones, limited by +/ 1sigma, +/ 2sigma, and +/ 3sigma. Since we already have the +/ 3sigma limits, we can obtain the +/ 1sigma limits by dividing the difference between the process average and the control limits by three
XBar + 2.66 x RBar – XBar = 2.66x RBar/3 = 46,476
Adding the plus and minus 1 and 2sigma lines to our control charts looks like:
Shewhart’s modification (Fig. 2) added a set of control rules, violation of any of which would constitute an out of control condition. These rules are:
 Rule 1 – any point outside the control limits (more than 3 sigma)
 Rule 2 – two out of three successive points more than 2 sigma away from the process average on the same side
 Rule 3 – four out of five successive points more than 1 sigma away from the process average on the same side
 Rule 4 – eight successive points on the same side of the process average
Even with these more detailed guidelines, we can not find any rule violations in this process, thus the process is in control.
Control charts are a good way to determine if a test change to a process, say a promotional offer, has a statistically significant effect on the process. To show how this might work, look at the following data from the end of the period analyzed above.
wk19

246,644

wk20

233,876

wk21

301,726

wk22

181,823

wk23

208,339

wk24

189,499

wk25

156,770

wk26

265,408

wk27

205,144

wk28

167,705

wk29

213,889

wk30

128,115

wk31

211,445

wk32

182,777

wk33

236,409

wk34

237,402

wk35

252,436

wk36

192,923

wk37

320,541

wk38

240,444

Add this data to the control charts data used above, plot the control chart using the process average and control limits already calculated plot the X and R individuals chart and answer the following questions:
 Is the process in control?
 If not, what are the rule violations?
 Is this a good or a bad situation?