6 Tools from the World of Quality for Improving and Solving Almost Anything

First, there exists a world of capital-Q Quality

For an antidote to such news as millions of tainted vaccines, driverless cars causing fatal accidents, and condo towers collapsing unexpectedly, let me tell you about a wide and diverse field wonderfully known as “Quality.” If you didn’t know it existed before, be prepared to breathe a little easier and appreciate that despite the kind of tragic disasters that populate headlines, there are highly committed, capable people everywhere making sure our world and its systems run as best they can.

Quality practitioners are the hundreds of thousands of our fellow humans across the globe concerned with quality and excellence — in business, industry, government, healthcare, and more. They are engineers, auditors, inspectors, managers, leaders, and others responsible for such things as automotive and aviation safety; robust and secure supply chains; auditing the food, drug, and medical devices industries; refining and systematizing standards and best practices; cybersecurity for the power grid; employee health and engagement; environmental protections; government transparency, etc.

Much of the power of this group of unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes comes from their tools. Do they have tools! Sure, some are complicated and statistics-based, but most are not. Most are quite simple and accessible for all of us to use in our work and day-to-day lives. You may even be familiar with some of these words and concepts without realizing how effective they can be in addressing problems and improving outcomes. Below are just six of dozens.


Five Whys

Summon your inner toddler. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? The Five Whys tool pushes you to delve into what’s at the root of a problem or solution you’re exploring, by…asking why five times. It doesn’t literally have to be five; it could be four or seven. The idea is to keep probing until you hit the core, something insightful you can work with. (Each why? may produce several answers, each of which can then branch off with its own new trail of additional whys.)


  • Why are our expenses higher this month? Because we spent a lot more on groceries than we typically do.

  • Why did we spend more on groceries? Because we went shopping without a list all month.

  • Why did we go shopping without a list? Because we were too busy to make a list.

  • Why were we too busy to make a list? Because we worked so much overtime the last few weeks.

  • Why did we work so much overtime this month? Because a key co-worker was out unexpectedly.

  • Conclusions: 1) This was an unusual situation, not an ongoing problem. 2) When co-workers are out unexpectedly, consider workarounds in advance to maintain spending norms.


Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle

PDCA is a tool for ongoing continuous change and improvement as in your business processes, products, or services, or even in your personal habits and relationships. When you identify a situation that could benefit from iterative upgrades, you first plan your approach; you then do something small scale towards your goal; you then check and assess your results; and finally you act or adjust your behavior, the system, the product/service based on what you learned. And then you go back to plan and start all over.

It seems basic — and it is — and its systematic discipline is used daily around the world for everything from optimizing safety and efficiency of manufacturing lines to improving employee morale to making sure planes stay in the air as they should.


Check Sheet

Tick marks are a tool. You knew that and you didn’t, right? A check sheet is a structured way of using tick marks on a chart to observe, collect, and ultimately analyze data on a problem.


  • Start with a problem: Constant interruptions while working from home.

  • Create a chart with days of the workweek as the horizontal headers and reasons for interruptions (add as you discover them) as the vertical headers.

  • Choose a length of time, say three weeks, then add a tick mark in the proper day of the week/reason for interruption box every time you experience an interruption while working from home.

  • At three weeks, analyze your data to come up with fitting solutions.


Cause-and-Effect Diagram

Also called a fishbone diagram, for its shape, or the Ishikawa diagram, for its inventor, the cause-and-effect diagram is a brainstorming tool that helps identify, categorize, and analyze the causes of a problem.


  • Draw a line with an arrow at the end through the center of your piece of paper or whiteboard.

  • At the end of the arrow write your problem, or the effect of the causes you’ll be investigating.

  • Draw three lines stemming from the center line above and three below creating a basic fish skeleton look.

  • Label each of the six lines with different categories of causes that fit your problem or use the default ones: Methods, Machines, Materials, Measurement, People, Environment.

  • Begin brainstorming on why this problem occurs, perhaps using the Five Whys, filling out each category with reasons that fall underneath it.

  • When you can’t go further, analyze what you’ve learned, particularly noting causes that fall under multiple categories, and categories with the most and least reasons listed.


Pareto (80/20) Chart

The Pareto (80/20) principle suggests that roughly 80% of consequences come from the top 20% of causes. A Pareto chart uses a combined bar graph and line graph to apply to this principle in the analysis of the frequency of a problem or causes in a process. It’s helpful for such things as determining the primary causes of customer dissatisfaction, which subset of products or customers are responsible for most of your revenue, what topic/s your most read Medium articles are about. Here’s the easiest Pareto chart explanation for us lay people. (For my own business, I like to combine the 80/20 rule with the lesson of 30–40 I learned from the book Influencer*.)


Decision Matrix

A decision matrix is a category of tool that helps users make decisions based on criteria deemed important that are also weighted by degree of importance. It’s a little more complicated than the first four on this list, but it’s one of my favorites and the most helpful when making tough, complicated decisions. I’ll use a modified real example from my own life in which one type of decision matrix helped my husband and me tremendously.

  • Clarify the decision you want to make. In our case, it was should we move our son in 5th grade to a school closer to our home?

  • Decide which criteria are important to you in making this decision. We had 10–12 things on our list, such as: convenience, ability to walk to school, separation from friends, quality of education, long-term benefits, extracurricular options, and availability of after school childcare.

  • Weight each of your criteria by degree of importance, assigning a multiplier to each. There are various options and ways of thinking about this if you want to explore further, but we used a scale of 1 (lesser importance) through 5 (greater importance). We then rated criteria like quality of education and separation from friends 5s, walkability and long-term benefits 4s, childcare options 3, and extracurriculars 2.

  • Rate each of your options according to each of your criteria. We had two options (current school, closer school) that we rated 1 through 5 for every factor on our list.

  • Use the multiplier for each criterium to derive a weighted score in each category. For instance, if we rated the schools 2 and 5 on the issue of separation from friends (5x), their respective weighted scores would be 10 and 25 for that criterion.

  • Finally, tally up the weighted scores for each option. The highest score should indicate your best choice. In our case, our higher score still left us uncertain that it was the right decision. We re-did the whole process again with our son’s input on criteria and extent of importance and came up with the same winner. That addressed our ambivalence, and we chose to move him to the new school. His first year there was virtual due to the pandemic, hardly ideal, but even with this major rift in the plan, we all still agree it was the right decision.

What I love about the decision matrix is that the systematic, quantified process often yields a result that matches my initial gut instinct. This really boosts my confidence that I’m making a good decision. Sometimes I’ll re-run the process with different weighting systems to see if it produces the same or different results. It’s also instructive when the result of the decision matrix process produces a different answer than gut instinct or personal preference. That usually indicates conflicting values that require additional investigation, lack of objective knowledge in one or more areas, or even that important considerations may have been omitted from the original matrix.


Most of these tools are quite simple, even intuitive, aren’t they? The fact that they’re used by Quality professionals worldwide to achieve excellence, solve thorny business problems, ensure maximum safety, and the like should tell us something about the power of clear thinking, measurement, reflection, and processes of improvement for all of us and the mundane and significant things we face day in and day out.

Your one-stop shop for all things related to the field of quality is the website of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), where you can learn more about these and other quality tools and resources.

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