U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings
  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • HHS Author Manuscripts

Logo of hhspa

Know It When You See It: Identifying and Using Special Cause Variation for Quality Improvement

In this month’s Hospital Pediatrics , Liao et al 1 share their team’s journey to improve the accuracy of their institution’s electronic health record (EHR) problem list. They presented their results as statistical process control (SPC) charts, which are a mainstay for visualization and analysis for improvers to understand processes, test hypotheses, and quickly learn their interventions’ effectiveness. Although many readers might understand that 8 consecutive points above or below the mean signifies special cause variation resulting in a centerline “shift,” there are many more special cause variation rules revealed in these charts that likely provided valuable real-time information to the improvement team. These “signals” might not be apparent to casual readers when looking at the complete data set in article form.

Shewhart 2 first introduced SPC charts to the world with the publication of Economic Control of Quality of Manufactured Product in 1931. Although control charts were initially used more broadly in industrial settings, health care providers have also recently begun to understand that the use of SPC charts is vital in improvement work. 3 , 4 Deming, 5 often seen as the “grandfather” of quality improvement (QI), saw SPC charts as vital to understanding variation as part of his well-known Theory of Profound Knowledge, outlined in his book The New Economics for Industry Government, Education . Improvement science harnesses the scientific method in which improvers create and rapidly test hypotheses and learn from their data to determine if their hypotheses are correct. 6 This testing is central to the Model for Improvement’s plan-do-study-act cycle. 3 Liao et al 1 nicely laid out their hypotheses in a key driver diagram, and they tested these hypotheses with multiple interventions. In the following paragraphs, we will walk through some of their SPC charts to demonstrate how this improvement team was gaining valuable knowledge about their hypotheses through different types of special cause variation long before they had 8 points to reveal shifts. We recommend readers have the charts from the original article (OA) available for reference.

A fundamental concept in improvement science is understanding the difference between common cause and special cause variation. By understanding how to apply these concepts to your data, you will more quickly identify when a change has occurred and whether action should be taken. The authors’ SPC charts reveal examples of both common cause and special cause variation.

Common cause variations are those causes that are inherent in the system or process. 4 Evidence of common cause variation can be seen visually in the OA’s Fig 3, from January 2017 to October 2017, because the data points vary around the mean but remain between the upper and lower control limits (dotted lines). In contrast, special cause variations are causes of variations that are not inherent to the system. 4 Although there are different rules that signify special cause variation in SPC charts, some of the most common rules that we will focus on here include (1) a single data point outside of the control limits, (2) 8 consecutive points above or below the mean line, and (3) ≥6 consecutive points all moving in the same direction, termed a “trend.” 4 When any of these occur, it is paramount to identify when and why the special cause occurred, learn from the special cause, and then take appropriate action. By quickly detecting special cause variation, improvement teams can more readily assess the impact of interventions by validating whether their hypothesis for improvement is correct.

An example of special cause variation can be seen in the OA’s Fig 2, noted by the shift in the centerline in May 2018 from a baseline of 70% of problem lists revised during admission to a new centerline of 90% of problem lists reviewed during admission. Notice that this new, stable process represented by the new centerline starts after the team tested 3 separate interventions that were directly testing hypotheses related to their key drivers. Although the shift began in May 2018, the first special cause signal the improvement team would have seen is the first point outside of the upper control limit in January 2018, which comes immediately after their first 2 interventions. As more months go by, each month after continues to represent special cause variation because they are outside of the control limits. Finally, when the data point in May 2018 is plotted, it is apparent that an upward trend started in December 2017, with 6 consecutive data points increasing through May 2018. Therefore, the authors recognized special cause variation (a trend) by having 6 consecutive increasing points. Given their interventions were grounded in theory and the temporal relationship of the trend beginning in December 2017, with the preceding interventions in November and December 2017, there is a high degree of belief that the interventions are driving these results. In other words, their hypothesis that the EHR enhancements, the dissemination of a protocol, and the designation of a bonus would improve the percentage of times that the problem list is “reviewed” was confirmed as early as December 2017, long before the eventual centerline shift in May 2018.

Figure 3 in the OA is an SPC chart of one of the team’s process measures revealing the percentage of discharges with duplicate codes on the problem list. The authors demonstrate that the November 2017 EHR impacted the process, reducing the mean from 12% to 7%. The data contained in our Fig 1 are the same data as those shown in Fig 3 of the authors’ OA but without the first centerline shift, which reveals what the authors would have seen in real time during the course of their improvement efforts. With the November 2017 data point (labeled point 1 in Fig 1 ), the authors immediately have evidence of special cause variation, with a point outside of the lower control limit after their intervention. This continues with points 2 through 5, each below the lower control limit. Statistically speaking, any one of these is unlikely to happen by chance (which is why they are considered special cause), but the fact that the team is seeing this month after month reinforced their hypothesis. With the eighth consecutive point below the mean line occurring in June 2018 (circle), the team was able to finally shift the centerline. Looking at this from the perspective of the improvement team, the immediacy and consistency of feedback that they witnessed with points outside of the control limits from November 2017 through March 2018 were likely much more informative to their improvement efforts than the moment when they finally were able to shift the mean line. The authors highlight that the EHR enhancement was chosen for its higher reliability design concept, 7 making it easier for the providers to complete the intended behavior. The immediacy of special cause signal in November 2017 would indicate that their hypothesis was correct.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is nihms-1665931-f0001.jpg

OA Fig 3 re-designed to represent data visualization prior to centerline shift.

Finally, viewing charts in combination provides further support of the team’s overall improvement theory. Notice that the special cause shift in Fig 3 of the OA (a process measure) occurs at the same time as the beginning of the special cause that is noted in Fig 2 of the OA, which is their outcome measure. In this case, a driving change in their process was temporally associated with recognizable change in their outcome. Similarly, the OA’ Fig 4, viewed in combination with its Figs 2 and 3, provide our final example of how revealing special cause variation across measures relates to the broader theory of the team’s improvement. Special cause variation is evident in Fig 4 of the OA, with points outside of the control limits associated with interventions in both November and December 2019. A similar pattern is seen in the authors’ other process measure chart, Fig 3 of the OA, during those same months associated with those interventions. Here, a couple of associations are addressed in the data. First, a high degree of belief that those two interventions affect those measures is provided in the data, as the authors hypothesized. Second, with such data, the authors also confirm the hypothesis that underlies the entire article: simply “reviewing” the problem list is also associated with active management of the problem list, and improvements to their process measures help drive their outcome. After >1.5 years of a fairly stable outcome measure (mainly common cause variation), the team’s use of these two interventions not only improved their process measures but also were associated with the December 2019 data point being outside of the control limits in the outcome measure in Fig 2 of the OA. In these situations, the team’s use of SPC charts provided the ability to understand relationships between process and outcome measures, in addition to rapidly testing hypotheses.

As revealed in the work by Liao et al, 1 we can improve the care we provide to patients every day with QI methodology. When researchers use SPC charts to report QI in scholarly venues such as this, readers often focus on centerline shifts. Although improvement teams take great joy in shifting a centerline, experienced teams much more commonly work to detect other types of special cause variation quickly to test their hypotheses and work through plan-do-study-act cycles. By understanding the rules of special cause variation and applying them to data in real time, teams will be provided with information that will inform hypotheses testing, bolster knowledge about a system, and ultimately accelerate improvement work.


FUNDING: Supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (grant T32HS026122). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.

POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.


  • Skip to primary navigation
  • Skip to main content
  • Skip to footer

[email protected]

OpexLearning Logo

OpEx Learning Resources

Lean Six Sigma Articles, Guides, Insights, and more!

Common Cause vs. Special Cause: The Basics of Process Variation

By OpEx Learning Team , Last Updated April 26, 2018

special cause examples

When dealing with process variation, you’ll need to learn to recognize the two general types of it, and the ways they impact the operation of your business. In most cases, some level of variance to a process is inevitable: the question is whether the factors that cause this variation are controlled and predicted, and if you can account for that variation in your output projections. If you’re able to work around it, there’s usually no big issue but things tend to get messier once special cause variation is introduced to the mix.

Common Cause Variation

Common cause variation is variation resulting from factors that may or may not be known, but the final impact they have on your output is predictable and controllable, and you would usually know to expect some variation in specific areas when looking at your final reports. As we said above, some level of variation is inevitable for most types of processes, and this is usually the kind you want to have if you want to be sure that you’re in control of the current situation.

Note that in some cases, common cause variation can still be quite high, and this might cause issues in your production. Take steps to reduce it if you are able to identify the root causes, but don’t stress too much if you can’t get to the bottom of the situation.

Special Cause Variation

On the other hand, special cause variation occurs when something out of the ordinary happens in a process. This might be a one-time occurrence, or it can develop into a repeating effect, in which case it might eventually be categorized as common cause variation depending on the circumstances. It’s important to understand that sometimes you will simply not be able to avoid special cause variation, either because the nature of a process is prone to it, or because of external factors in your environment that are beyond your control.

When you’ve identified special cause variation though, it’s important to take prompt steps to deal with it. It may not be such a problematic factor right now, but if you leave it unattended for a long time, this might be a real problem that can bring down some parts of your operations. There are some tools that can help you figure out where some issues are coming from, but you may need to come up with some solutions of your own in some cases, depending on the complexity of the situation.

Identifying Both with the Appropriate Tools

This brings us back to the most important point you need to be aware of what tools are available in your area of work for dealing with problems like that, and know how to apply them to your current situation in order to figure out where different types of variation are coming from, and develop an adequate solution. Special cause variation is typically easier to uncover as it will deviate from the norm more strongly, but there might be some exceptions. On the other hand, when dealing with common cause variation, you might have access to more historic data that can give you a better idea of what’s going on with the help of some statistical analysis.

Once you’ve learned what common cause and special cause variation both are, and how they relate to your line of work, you should be more prepared to identify and deal with them, and you will find them less problematic in the long run as impact on your operations will be minimized and kept to a controllable state where you can drive things in the right direction.

Become a Lean Six Sigma professional today!

Start your learning journey with Lean Six Sigma White Belt at NO COST

Use coupon code:

Related posts:.

Common Cause vs. Special Cause Variation

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox. We do not spam you and you can always unsubscribe later any time.

Reader Interactions

Leave a reply cancel reply.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed .

Volume 8 Supplement 1

Proceedings of Advancing the Methods in Health Quality Improvement Research 2012 Conference

  • Proceedings
  • Open access
  • Published: 19 April 2013

Understanding and managing variation: three different perspectives

  • Michael E Bowen 1 , 2 , 3 &
  • Duncan Neuhauser 4  

Implementation Science volume  8 , Article number:  S1 ( 2013 ) Cite this article

27k Accesses

3 Citations

11 Altmetric

Metrics details


Managing variation is essential to quality improvement. Quality improvement is primarily concerned with two types of variation – common-cause variation and special-cause variation. Common-cause variation is random variation present in stable healthcare processes. Special-cause variation is an unpredictable deviation resulting from a cause that is not an intrinsic part of a process. By careful and systematic measurement, it is easier to detect changes that are not random variation.

The approach to managing variation depends on the priorities and perspectives of the improvement leader and the intended generalizability of the results of the improvement effort. Clinical researchers, healthcare managers, and individual patients each have different goals, time horizons, and methodological approaches to managing variation; however, in all cases, the research question should drive study design, data collection, and evaluation. To advance the field of quality improvement, greater understanding of these perspectives and methodologies is needed [ 1 ].

Clinical researcher perspective

The primary goal of traditional randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (ie a comparison of treatment A versus placebo) is to determine treatment or intervention efficacy in a specified population when all else is equal. In this approach, researchers seek to maximize internal validity. Through randomization, researchers seek to balance variation in baseline factors by randomizing patients, clinicians, or organizations to experimental and control groups. Researchers may also increase understanding of variation within a specific study using approaches such as stratification to examine for effect modification. Although the generalizability of outcomes in all research designs is limited by the study population and setting, this can be particularly challenging in traditional RCTs. When inclusion criteria are strict, study populations are not representative of “real world” patients, and the applicability of study findings to clinical practice may be unclear. Traditional RCTs are limited in their ability to evaluate complex processes that are purposefully and continually changing over time because they evaluate interventions in rigorously controlled conditions over fixed time frames [ 2 ]. However, using alternative designs such as hybrid, effectiveness studies discussed in these proceedings or pragmatic RCTs, researchers can rigorously answer a broader range of research questions [ 3 ].

Healthcare manager perspective

Healthcare managers seek to understand and reduce variation in patient populations by monitoring process and outcome measures. They utilize real-time data to learn from and manage variation over time. By comparing past, present, and desired performance, they seek to reduce undesired variation and reinforce desired variation. Additionally, managers often implement best practices and benchmark performance against them. In this process, efficient, time-sensitive evaluations are important. Run charts and Statistical Process Control (SPC) methods leverage the power of repeated measures over time to detect small changes in process stability and increase the statistical power and rapidity with which effects can be detected [ 1 ].

Patient perspective

While the clinical researcher and healthcare manager are interested in understanding and managing variation at a population level, the individual patient wants to know if a particular treatment will allow one to achieve health outcomes similar to those observed in study populations. Although the findings of RCTs help form the foundation of evidence-based practice and managers utilize these findings in population management, they provide less guidance about the likelihood of an individual patient achieving the average benefits observed across a population of patients. Even when RCT findings are statistically significant, many trial participants receive no benefit. In order to understand if group RCT results can be achieved with individual patients, a different methodological approach is needed. “N-of-1 trials” and the longitudinal factorial design of experiments allow patients and providers to systematically evaluate the independent and combined effects of multiple disease management variables on individual health outcomes [ 4 ]. This offers patients and providers the opportunity to collect, analyze, and understand data in real time to improve individual patient outcomes.

Advancing the field of improvement science and increasing our ability to understand and manage variation requires an appreciation of the complementary perspectives held and methodologies utilized by clinical researchers, healthcare managers, and patients. To accomplish this, clinical researchers, healthcare managers, and individual patients each face key challenges.


Clinical researchers are challenged to design studies that yield generalizable outcomes across studies and over time. One potential approach is to anchor research questions in theoretical frameworks to better understand the research problem and relationships among key variables. Additionally, researchers should expand methodological and analytical approaches to leverage the statistical power of multiple observations collected over time. SPC is one such approach. Incorporation of qualitative research and mixed methods can also increase our ability to understand context and the key determinants of variation.

Healthcare managers are challenged to identify best practices and benchmark their processes against them. However, the details of best practices and implementation strategies are rarely described in sufficient detail to allow identification of the key drivers of process improvement and adaption of best practices to local context. By advocating for transparency in process improvement and urging publication of improvement and implementation efforts, healthcare managers can enhance the spread of best practices, facilitate improved benchmarking, and drive continuous healthcare improvement.

Individual patients and providers are challenged to develop the skills needed to understand and manage individual processes and outcomes. As an example, patients with hypertension are often advised to take and titrate medications, modify dietary intake, and increase activity levels in a non-systematic manner. The longitudinal factorial design offers an opportunity to rigorously evaluate the impact of these recommendations, both in isolation and in combination, on disease outcomes [ 1 ]. Patients can utilize paper, smart phone applications, or even electronic health record portals to sequentially record their blood pressures. Patients and providers can then apply simple SPC rules to better understand variation in blood pressure readings and manage their disease [ 5 ].

As clinical researchers, healthcare managers, and individual patients strive to improve healthcare processes and outcomes, each stakeholder brings a different perspective and set of methodological tools to the improvement team. These perspectives and methods are often complementary such that it is not which methodological approach is “best” but rather which approach is best suited to answer the specific research question. By combining these perspectives and developing partnerships with organizational managers, improvement leaders can demonstrate process improvement to key decision makers in the healthcare organization. It is through such partnerships that the future of quality improvement research is likely to find financial support and ultimate sustainability.

Neuhauser D, Provost L, Bergman B: The meaning of variation to healthcare managers, clinical and health-services researchers, and individual patients. BMJ Qual Saf. 2011, 20 (Suppl 1): i36-40. 10.1136/bmjqs.2010.046334.

Article   PubMed Central   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Neuhauser D, Diaz M: Quality improvement research: are randomised trials necessary?. Qual Saf Health Care. 2007, 16: 77-80. 10.1136/qshc.2006.021584.

Article   PubMed Central   CAS   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Eccles M, Grimshaw J, Campbell M, Ramsay C: Research designs for studies evaluating the effectiveness of change and improvement strategies. Quality and Safety in Health Care. 2003, 12: 47-52. 10.1136/qhc.12.1.47.

Olsson J, Terris D, Elg M, Lundberg J, Lindblad S: The one-person randomized controlled trial. Qual Manag Health Care. 2005, 14: 206-216.

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Hebert C, Neuhauser D: Improving hypertension care with patient-generated run charts: physician, patient, and management perspectives. Qual Manag Health Care. 2004, 13: 174-177.

Download references

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

VA National Quality Scholars Fellowship, Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, Nashville, Tennessee, 37212, USA

Michael E Bowen

Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas, 75390, USA

Division of Outcomes and Health Services Research, Department of Clinical Sciences, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas, 75390, USA

Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 44106, USA

Duncan Neuhauser

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael E Bowen .

Rights and permissions

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 ), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article.

Bowen, M.E., Neuhauser, D. Understanding and managing variation: three different perspectives. Implementation Sci 8 (Suppl 1), S1 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-8-S1-S1

Download citation

Published : 19 April 2013

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/1748-5908-8-S1-S1

Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Statistical Process Control
  • Clinical Researcher
  • Healthcare Manager
  • Healthcare Process
  • Quality Improvement Research

Implementation Science

ISSN: 1748-5908

  • Submission enquiries: Access here and click Contact Us
  • General enquiries: [email protected]

special cause examples

Book cover

Encyclopedia of Production and Manufacturing Management pp 717 Cite as


  • Reference work entry

161 Accesses

W Edwards Deming elaborated on Walter A. Shewhart's argument that variability in manufacturing and service processes can be traced to either common causes or special causes of variations (Shewhart's assignable causes). Special causes variability is beyond the natural variability of the process. Special cause variability can be identified and addressed by operators. Examples of special causes are operator error, faulty setup, or incoming defective raw material. Deming believed that only about 15% of the variation in a process is due to special causes. Deming relied on control charts to describe both the natural variability of the system, and to detect the existence of a special causes of variation. A process that is operating with special causes of variation is said to be “out of statistical control.”

See Quality: The implications of W. Edwards Deming's approach ; Statistical process control using control charts ; Total quality management .

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution .

Buying options

  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Deming, W. Edwards (1982). Out of the Crisis, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Massachusetts.

Google Scholar  

Deming, W. Edwards (1982). Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Download references

Editor information

Editors and affiliations, rights and permissions.

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers

About this entry

Cite this entry.

(2000). SPECIAL CAUSES OF VARIATIONS . In: Swamidass, P.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of Production and Manufacturing Management. Springer, Boston, MA . https://doi.org/10.1007/1-4020-0612-8_905

Download citation

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/1-4020-0612-8_905

Publisher Name : Springer, Boston, MA

Print ISBN : 978-0-7923-8630-8

Online ISBN : 978-1-4020-0612-8

eBook Packages : Springer Book Archive

Share this entry

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Find a journal
  • Publish with us


Common Cause & Special Cause Variation Explained with Examples

Editorial Team

Common Cause & Special Cause Variation pmp

In any business operation, it is important to ensure consistency in products as well as repeatable results. Managers and workers alike have to be aware of the processes and methods on how to produce consistent outcomes at all costs. However, we cannot deny that producing exactly identical products or results is almost impossible as variance tends to exist. Variation is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is within the standard of the critical to qualities (CTQs) specification limits.

Process variation is the occurrence when a system deviates from its fixed pattern and produces a result which differs from the usual ones. This is a major key as it concerns the consistencies of the transactional as well as the manufacturing of the business systems. Variation should be evaluated as it portrays the reliability of the business for the customers and stakeholders. Variation may also cost money hence it is crucial to keep variation at bay to prevent too much cost spent on variation. It is crucial to be able to distinguish the types of variance that occur in your business process since it will give the lead on what course of action to take. Mistakes in coming up with an effective reaction plan towards the variance may worsen the processes of the business.

There are two types of process variation which will be further elaborated in this article. The variations are known as common cause variation and special cause variation.

Common Cause Variation Definition

Common cause variation refers to the natural and measurable anomalies that occur in the system or business processes. It naturally exists within the system. While it is true that variance may bring a negative impact to business operations, we cannot escape from this aspect. It is inherent and will always be. In most cases, the common cause variant is constant, regular, and could be predicted within the business operations. The other term used to describe this variation is Natural Problems, Noise, or Random Cause. Common cause variance could be presented and analysed using histogram.

What is Common Cause Variation

There are several distinguishable characteristics of common cause variation. Firstly, the variation pattern is predictable. Common cause variation occurring is also an active event in the operations. it is controlled and is not significantly different from the usual phenomenon.

There are many factors and reasons for common cause variation and it is quite difficult to pinpoint and eliminate them. Some common cause variations are accepted within the business process and operations as long as they are within a tolerable level. Eradicating them is an arduous effort unless a drastic measure is implemented towards the operation.  

Common Cause Variation Examples

There is a wide range of examples for common cause variation. Let’s take driving as an example. Usually, a driver is well aware of their destinations and the conditions of the path to reach the destination. Since they have been regularly using the same road, any defects or problems such as bumps, conditions of the road, and usual traffic are normal. They may not be able to precisely arrive at the destination at the same duration every time due to these common causes. However, the duration to arrive at the destination may not be largely differing day to day.

In terms of project-related variations, some of the examples include technical issues, human errors, downtime, high trafficking, poor computer response times, mistakes in standard procedures, and many more. Some other examples of common causes include poor design of products, outdated systems, and poor maintenance. Inconducive working conditions may also result in to common cause variants which could comprise of ventilation, temperature, humidity, noise, lighting, dirt, and so forth. Errors such as quality control and measurement could also be counted as common cause variation.

Special Cause Variation Definition

On the other hand, special cause variation refers to the unforeseen anomalies or variance that occurs within business operations. This variation, as the name suggests, is special in terms of being rare, having non-quantifiable patterns, and may not have been observed before. It is also known as Assignable Cause. Other opinions also mentioned that special cause variation is not only variance that happens for the first time, a previously overlooked or ignored problem could also be considered a special cause variation.

What is Special Cause Variation

Special cause variation is irregular occurrences and usually happens due to changes that were brought about in the business operations. It is not your mundane defects and may be very unpredictable. Most of the time, special cause variation happens following the flaws within the business processes or mechanism. While it may sound serious and taxing, there are ways to fix this which is by modifying the affected procedures or materials.

One of the characteristics of special cause variation is that it is uncontrolled and hardly predictable. The outcome of special causes variation is significantly different from the usual phenomenon. Since the issues are not predictable, it is usually problematic and may not even be recorded in the historical experience base.

Special Cause Variation Examples

As mentioned earlier, special cause variations are unexpected variants that occur due to factors that may affect the business system or operations. Let’s have an example of a special cause using the same scenario as previously elaborated for common cause variation example. The mentioned defects were common. Now, imagine if there is an unexpected accident that happens on the same road you usually take. Due to this accident, the time for the driver to arrive at the same destination may take longer than normal. Hence this accident is considered as a special cause variation. It is unexpected and results in a significantly different outcome, in this case, a longer time to arrive at the destination.

The example of special cause variation in the manufacturing sector includes environment, materials, manpower, technology, equipment, and many more. In terms of manpower, imagine a new employee is recruited into the team and still lacking in experience. The coaching and instructions should be adapted to consider that the person needs more training to be able to perform their tasks efficiently. Cases where a new supplier is needed in a short amount of time due to issues faced by the existing supplier are also unforeseen hence considered a special cause variation. Natural hazards that are beyond predictions may also be categorized into special cause variation. Some other examples include irregular traffic or fraud attack. An unexpected computer crash or malfunction in some of the components may also be considered as a special cause variation.

Common Cause and Special Cause Variation Detection

Control chart

One of the ways to keep track of common cause and special cause variation is by implementing control charts. When using control charts, the important aspect to be considered is firstly, establishing the average point of measurement. Next, establish the control limits. Usually, there are three standard deviations which are marked above and below the average point earlier. The last step is by determining which points exceed the upper and lower control limits established earlier. The points beyond the limits are special cause variation.

Before we get into the control chart of common cause and special cause variation, let’s have a look at the eight control chart rules first. If a process is stable, the points displayed in the chart will be near the average point and will not exceed the control limits.

However, it should be noted that not all rules are applicable to all types of control charts. That aside, it is quite tough to identify the causes of the patterns since special cause variation may be related to the specific type of processes. The table presented is the general rule that could be applied in most cases but is also subject to changes or differences. Studying the chart should be accompanied by knowledge and experiences in order to pinpoint the reasons for the patterns or variations.

A process is considered stable if special cause variation is not present, even if a common cause exists. A stable operation is important before it could be assessed or being improved. We could look at the stability or instability of the processes as displayed in control charts or run charts .

special cause examples

The points displayed in the chart above are randomly distributed and do not defy any of the eight rules listed earlier. This indicates that the process is stable.

special cause examples

The chart presented above is an example of an unstable process. This is because some of the rules for control chart tests mentioned earlier are violated.

Simply, if the points are randomly distributed and are within the limit, they may be considered as the common cause variation. However, if there is a drastic irregularity or points exceeding the limit, you may want to analyse more into it to determine if it is a special cause variation.

Histogram is a type of bar graph that could be used to present the distribution of occurrences of data. It is easily understandable and analysed. A histogram provides information on the history of the processes done as well as forecasting the future performance of the operations. To ensure the reliability of the data presented in the histogram, it is essential for the process to be stable. As mentioned earlier, although affected by common cause variation, the processes are still considered stable, hence histogram may be used on this occasion, especially if the processes undergo regular measurement and assessment.

The data is considered to be normally distributed if it portrays a “bell” shape in the histogram. The data are grouped around the central value and this cluster is known as variation. There are several other examples of more complicated patterns, such as having several peaks in the histogram or a shortened histogram. Whenever these examples of complex structures appear in the histogram, it is fundamental to look into the data and operations more deeply.

special cause examples

The above bar graph is an example of the histogram with a “bell” shape.

However, it should be noted that just because the histogram displays a “bell” shaped distribution, that does not mean the process is only experiencing common cause variation. A deeper analysis should be done to investigate if there were other underlying factors or causes that lead towards the pattern of the distribution displayed in the histogram.

Countering common cause and special cause variation

Once the causes of the variation have been pinpointed, here comes the attempt to combat and resolve it. Different measures are implemented to counter different types of variation, i.e. common cause variation and special cause variation. Common cause variation is quite tough to be completely eliminated. Drastic or long-term process modification could be used to counter common cause variation. A new method should be introduced and constantly conducted to achieve the long-term goal of eliminating the common cause variation. Some other effects may happen to the operations but as time passes, the cause may be gradually solved. As for special cause variation, it could be countered using contingency plans. Usually, additional processes are implemented into the usual operation in order to counter the special cause variation.

  • What To Do If You Have “A Perfect Student” Syndrome?
  • How to Effectively Find and Use the Best Possible Suppliers in 2022
  • 5 Reasons to Screen Potential Employees 
  • Why It’s Important to Hire an InventHelp Patent Attorney?

Leave a Comment

Most recent.

Top Safety Tips For Truck Drivers

Tips & Guides

Top safety tips for truck drivers.

Innovative Tools That Will Help You Achieve Your Goals Faster

7 Innovative Tools That Will Help You Achieve Your Goals Faster

When Should You Register A Trademark For Your Business

When Should You Register A Trademark For Your Business?

Top SEO Challenges for Emerging SaaS Companies

Top SEO Challenges for Emerging SaaS Companies and How a Trusted SaaS SEO Agency Can Solve Them

Logo Design For E-Commerce

Logo Design For E-Commerce: Best Practices And Examples

A Short Guide to Saving Money Spending less and budgeting can be difficult, as something always comes up along the way. Whether it is a flat tire, a leaky roof, medical emergencies, or Black Friday supersales, there is always something that prevents you from saving money. Tired of spending too much money? Here are the best tips that will help you cut down on unnecessary expenses and start saving money today. 1. Deal with your debt There is no doubt that credit card loans can be a financial burden that prevents you from saving money. The debt snowball method is among the best ways to reduce debt. Start by paying off your smallest debts, such as payday or personal loans from companies like Payday Depot, before tackling your larger debts. By paying as much as possible on your smallest debts, you will be able to quickly reduce the number of your loans and start saving money. 2. Take up a side hustle There are a lot of ways to generate additional income. Whether it’s babysitting, walking someone’s dog, or getting an additional shift at a restaurant, the possibilities are limitless. If you’re working a 9 to 5 job, your hours will be more limited, so consider monetizing your hobby by selling your work on Etsy, creating courses, or getting freelance gigs. 3. Cancel unused subscriptions Do you really need to subscribe to Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Spotify, and a plethora of other services? The majority of people don’t use even one of those regularly. Therefore, by canceling your unused subscriptions, you will be able to start saving money. 4. Control your grocery budget While perusing the aisles, the essential foods are often accompanied by a pack of chips, chocolates, and other goodies. Your monthly budget might be significantly impacted by those small daily purchases. Try to plan your meals and stick to a grocery list when out shopping. Additionally, make an effort to only shop for groceries when necessary. 5. Create a separate account It’s wise to have two accounts: one for daily expenses and bills, and the other designated solely for saving money. This division will help you divide your funds, reduce the risk of using your savings account, save money for your short- and long-term financial objectives, and stick with your daily budget. 6. Cut back on rent and utility bills This option depends on your current living situation and the tariffs on the market. For instance, if you’re living alone, you can find a roommate to pay half your rent. Starting with looking for cheaper accommodations and moving into a smaller room, ending with avoiding the real estate agents — there are multiple ways that you can save money. If you’re looking to cut back your expenses on utilities, you can choose cheaper tariffs and change your provider, adjust the temperature in your house to no overpay, or invest in more energy-efficient devices. To sum up, there are multiple ways to save money. The above-mentioned list is just a shortlist of the most common advice. By implementing good money habits into your life, creating a separate savings account, and staying consistent, you will be able to save money and meet your financial goals.

A Short Guide to Saving Money

© 2023 Copyright ProjectPractical.com

Using control charts to detect common-cause variation and special-cause variation

In this topic, what are common-cause variation and special-cause variation, what special-cause variation looks like on a control chart, using brainstorming to investigate special-cause variation, don't overcorrect your process for common-cause variation.

Some degree of variation will naturally occur in any process. Common-cause variation is the natural or expected variation in a process. Special-cause variation is unexpected variation that results from unusual occurrences. It is important to identify and try to eliminate special-cause variation. Out-of-control points and nonrandom patterns on a control chart indicate the presence of special-cause variation.

Examples of common-cause and special-cause variation

A process is stable if it does not contain any special-cause variation; only common-cause variation is present. Control charts and run charts provide good illustrations of process stability or instability. A process must be stable before its capability is assessed or improvements are initiated.

special cause examples

This process is stable because the data appear to be distributed randomly and do not violate any of the 8 control chart tests.

special cause examples

This process is not stable; several of the control chart tests are violated.

A good starting point in investigating special-cause variation is to gather several process experts together. Using the control chart, encourage the process operators, the process engineers, and the quality testers to brainstorm why particular samples were out of control. Depending on your process, you may also want to include the suppliers in this meeting.

  • Which samples were out of control?
  • Which tests for special causes did the samples fail?
  • What does each failed test mean?
  • What are all the possible reasons for the failed test?

A common method for brainstorming is to ask questions about why a particular failure occurred to determine the root cause (the 5 why method). You could also use a cause-and-effect diagram (also called fishbone diagram).

While it's important to avoid special-cause variation, trying to eliminate common-cause variation can make matters worse. Consider a bread baking process. Slight drifts in temperature that are caused by the oven's thermostat are part of the natural common-cause variation for the process. If you try to reduce this natural process variation by manually adjusting the temperature setting up and down, you will probably increase variability rather than decrease it. This is called overcorrection.

  • Minitab.com
  • License Portal
  • Cookie Settings

Log in using your username and password

  • Search More Search for this keyword Advanced search
  • Latest content
  • Current issue
  • BMJ Journals More You are viewing from: Google Indexer

You are here

  • Volume 20, Issue Suppl 1
  • The meaning of variation to healthcare managers, clinical and health-services researchers, and individual patients
  • Article Text
  • Article info
  • Citation Tools
  • Rapid Responses
  • Article metrics

Download PDF

  • Duncan Neuhauser 1 ,
  • Lloyd Provost 2 ,
  • Bo Bergman 3
  • 1 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
  • 2 Associates in Process Improvement, Austin, Texas, USA
  • 3 Centre for Health Improvement, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • Correspondence to Charles Elton Blanchard Professor Duncan Neuhauser, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Medical School, Case Western Reserve University, 10900 Euclid Ave, Cleveland Ohio 44106-4249, USA; dvn{at}case.edu

Healthcare managers, clinical researchers and individual patients (and their physicians) manage variation differently to achieve different ends. First, managers are primarily concerned with the performance of care processes over time. Their time horizon is relatively short, and the improvements they are concerned with are pragmatic and ‘holistic.’ Their goal is to create processes that are stable and effective. The analytical techniques of statistical process control effectively reflect these concerns. Second, clinical and health-services researchers are interested in the effectiveness of care and the generalisability of findings. They seek to control variation by their study design methods. Their primary question is: ‘Does A cause B, everything else being equal?’ Consequently, randomised controlled trials and regression models are the research methods of choice. The focus of this reductionist approach is on the ‘average patient’ in the group being observed rather than the individual patient working with the individual care provider. Third, individual patients are primarily concerned with the nature and quality of their own care and clinical outcomes. They and their care providers are not primarily seeking to generalise beyond the unique individual. We propose that the gold standard for helping individual patients with chronic conditions should be longitudinal factorial design of trials with individual patients. Understanding how these three groups deal differently with variation can help appreciate these three approaches.

  • Control charts
  • evidence-based medicine
  • quality of care
  • statistical process control

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ and http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode .


Statistics from Altmetric.com

Request permissions.

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


Health managers, clinical researchers, and individual patients need to understand and manage variation in healthcare processes in different time frames and in different ways. In short, they ask different questions about why and how healthcare processes and outcomes change ( table 1 ). Confusing the needs of these three stakeholders results in misunderstanding.

  • View inline

Meaning of variation to managers, researchers and individual patients: questions, methods and time frames

Health managers

Our extensive experience in working with healthcare managers has taught us that their primary goal is to maintain and improve the quality of care processes and outcomes for groups of patients. Ongoing care and its improvement are temporal, so in their situation, learning from variation over time is essential. Data are organised over time to answer the fundamental management question: is care today as good as or better than it was in the past, and how likely is it to be better tomorrow? In answering that question, it becomes crucial to understand the difference between common-cause and special-cause variation (as will be discussed later). Common-cause variation appears as random variation in all measures from healthcare processes. 1 Special-cause variation appears as the effect of causes outside the core processes of the work. Management can reduce this variation by enabling the easy recognition of special-cause variation and by changing healthcare processes—by supporting the use of clinical practice guidelines, for example—but common-cause variation can never be eliminated.

The magnitude of common-cause variation creates the upper and lower control limits in Shewhart control charts. 2–5 Such charts summarise the work of health managers well. Figure 1 shows a Shewhart control chart (p-chart) developed by a quality-improvement team whose aim was to increase compliance with a new care protocol. The clinical records of eligible patients discharged (45–75 patients) were evaluated each week by the team, and records indicating that the complete protocol was followed were identified. The baseline control chart showed a stable process with a centre line (average performance) of 38% compliance. The team analysed the aspects of the protocol that were not followed and developed process changes to make it easier to complete these particular tasks. After successfully adapting the changes to the local environment (indicated by weekly points above the upper control limit in the ‘Implementing Changes’ period), the team formally implemented the changes in each unit. The team continued to monitor the process and eventually developed updated limits for the chart. The updated chart indicated a stable process averaging 83%.

  • Download figure
  • Open in new tab
  • Download powerpoint

Annotated Shewhart control chart—using protocol.

This control chart makes it clear that a stable but inferior process was operating for the first 11 weeks and, by inference, probably before that. The annotated changes (testing, adapting and implementing new processes of care) are linked to designed tests of change which are special (assignable) causes of variation, in this case, to improvement after week 15, after which a new better stable process has taken hold. Note that there is common-cause (random) variation in both the old and improved processes.

After updating the control limits, the chart reveals a new stable process with no special-cause variation, which is to say, no points above or below the control limits (the dotted lines). Note that the change after week 15 cannot easily be explained by chance (random, or common-cause, variation), since the probability of 13 points in a row occurring by chance above the baseline control limit is one divided by 2 to the 13th power. This is the same likelihood that in flipping a coin 13 times, it will come up heads every time. This level of statistical power to exclude randomness as an explanation is not to be found in randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Although there is no hard-and-fast rule about the number of observations over time needed to demonstrate process stability and establish change, we believe a persuasive control chart requires 20–30 or more observations.

The manager's task demonstrates several important characteristics. First is the need to define the key quality characteristics, and choose among them for focused improvement efforts. The choice should be made based on the needs of patients and families. The importance of these quality characteristics to those being served means that speed in learning and improvement is important. Indeed, for the healthcare manager, information for improvement must be as rapid as possible (in real time). Year-old research data are not very helpful here; just-in-time performance data in the hands of the decision-makers provide a potent opportunity for rapid improvement. 6

Second, managerial change is holistic; that is, every element of an intervention that might help to improve and can be done is put to use, sometimes incrementally, but simultaneously if need be. Healthcare managers are actively working to promote measurement of process and clinical outcomes, take problems in organisational performance seriously, consider the root causes of those problems, encourage the formation of problem solving clinical micro-system teams and promote the use of multiple, evolving Plan–Do–Study–Act (PDSA) tests of change.

This kind of improvement reasoning can be applied to a wide range of care processes, large and small. For example, good surgery is the appropriate combination of hundreds of individual tasks, many of which could be improved in small ways. Aggregating these many smaller changes may result in important, observable improvement over time. The protocol-driven, randomised trial research approach is a powerful tool for establishing efficacy but has limitations for evaluating and improving such complex processes as surgery, which are continually and purposefully changing over time. The realities of clinical improvement call for a move from after-the-fact quality inspection to building quality measures into medical information systems, thereby creating real-time quality data for providers to act upon. Caring for populations of similar patients in similar ways (economies of scale) can be of particular value, because the resulting large numbers and process stability can help rapidly demonstrate variation in care processes 7 ; very tight control limits (minimal common-cause variation) allow special-cause variation to be detected more quickly.

Clinical and health-services researchers

While quality-management thinking tends towards the use of data plotted over time in control-chart format, clinical researchers think in terms of true experimental methods, such as RCTs. Health-services researchers, in contrast, think in terms of regression analysis as their principal tool for discovering explainable variation in processes and outcomes of care. The data that both communities of researchers use are generally collected during fixed periods of time, or combined across time periods; neither is usually concerned with the analysis of data over time.

Take, for example, the question of whether age and sex are associated with the ability to undertake early ambulation after hip surgery. Clinical researchers try to control for such variables through the use of entry criteria into a trial, and random assignment of patients to experimental or control group. The usual health-services research approach would be to use a regression model to predict the outcome (early ambulation), over hundreds of patients using age and sex as independent variables. Such research could show that age and sex predict outcomes and are statistically significant, and that perhaps 10% of the variance is explained by these two independent variables. In contrast, quality-improvement thinking is likely to conclude that 90% of the variance is unexplained and could be common-cause variation. The health-services researcher is therefore likely to conclude that if we measured more variables, we could explain more of this variance, while improvement scientists are more likely to conclude that this unexplained variance is a reflection of common-cause variation in a good process that is under control.

The entry criteria into RCTs are carefully defined, which makes it a challenge to generalise the results beyond the kinds of patients included in such studies. Restricted patient entry criteria are imposed to reduce variation in outcomes unrelated to the experimental intervention. RCTs focus on the difference between point estimates of outcomes for entire groups (control and experimental), using statistical tests of significance to show that differences between the two arms of a trial are not likely to be due to chance.

Individual patients and their healthcare providers

The question an individual patient asks is different from those asked by manager and researcher, namely ‘How can I get better?’ The answer is unique to each patient; the question does not focus on generalising results beyond this person. At the same time, the question the patient's physician is asking is whether the group results from the best clinical trials will apply in this patient's case. This question calls for a different inferential approach. 8–10 The cost of projecting general findings to individual patients could be substantial, as described below.

Consider the implications of a drug trial in which 100 patients taking a new drug and 100 patients taking a placebo are reported as successful because 25 drug takers improved compared with 10 controls. This difference is shown as not likely to be due to chance. (The drug company undertakes a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to promote this breakthrough.) However, on closer examination, the meaning of these results for individual patients is not so clear. To begin with, 75 of the patients who took the drug did not benefit. And among those 25 who benefited, some, perhaps 15, responded extremely well, while the size of the benefit in the other 10 was much smaller. To have only the 15 ‘maximum responders’ take this drug instead of all 100 could save the healthcare system 85% of the drug's costs (as well as reduce the chance of unnecessary adverse drug effects); those ‘savings’ would, of course, also reduce the drug company's sales proportionally. These considerations make it clear that looking at more than group results could potentially make an enormous difference in the value of research studies, particularly from the point of view of individual patients and their providers.

In light of the above concerns, we propose that the longitudinal factorial study design should be the gold standard of evidence for efficacy, particularly for assessing whether interventions whose efficacy has been established through controlled trials are effective in individual patients for whom they might be appropriate ( box 1 ). Take the case of a patient with hypertension who measures her blood pressure at least twice every day and plots these numbers on a run chart. Through this informal observation, she has learnt about several factors that result in the variation in her blood pressure readings: time of day, the three different hypertension medicines she takes (not always regularly), her stress level, eating salty French fries, exercise, meditation (and, in her case, saying the rosary), and whether she slept well the night before. Some of these factors she can control; some are out of her control.

Longitudinal factorial design of experiments for individual patients

The six individual components of this approach are not new, but in combination they are new 8 9

One patient with a chronic health condition; sometimes referred to as an ‘N-of-1 trial.’

Care processes and health status are measured over time. These could include daily measures over 20 or more days, with the patient day as the unit of analysis.

Whenever possible, data are numerical rather than simple clinical observation and classification.

The patient is directly involved in making therapeutic changes and collecting data.

Two or more inputs (factors) are experimentally and concurrently changed in a predetermined fashion.

Therapeutic inputs are added or deleted in a predetermined, systematic way. For example: on day 1, drug A is taken; on day 2, drug B; on day 3, drug A and B; day 4, neither. For the next 4 days, this sequence could be randomly reordered.

Since she is accustomed to monitoring her blood pressure over time, she is in an excellent position to carry out an experiment that would help her optimise the effects of these various influences on her hypertension. Working with her primary care provider, she could, for example, set up a table of randomly chosen dates to make each of several of these changes each day, thereby creating a systematically predetermined mix of these controllable factors over time. This factorial design allows her to measure the effects of individual inputs on her blood pressure, and even interactions among them. After an appropriate number of days (perhaps 30 days, depending on the trade-off between urgency and statistical power), she might conclude that one of her three medications has no effect on her hypertension, and she can stop using it. She might also find that the combination of exercise and consistently low salt intake is as effective as either of the other two drugs. Her answers could well be unique to her. Planned experimental interventions involving single patients are known as ‘N-of-1’ trials, and hundreds have been reported. 10 Although longitudinal factorial design of experiments has long been used in quality engineering, as of 2005 there appears to have been only one published example of its use for an individual patient. 8 9 This method of investigation could potentially become widely used in the future to establish the efficacy of specific drugs for individual patients, 11 and perhaps even required, particularly for very expensive drug therapies for chronic conditions. Such individual trial results could be combined to obtain generalised knowledge.

This method can be used to show (1) the independent effect of each input on the outcome, (2) the interaction effect between the inputs (perhaps neither drug A or B is effective on its own, but in combination they work well), (3) the effect of different drug dosages and (4) the lag time between treatment and outcome. This approach will not be practical if the outcome of interest occurs years later. This method will be more practical with patient access to their medical record where they could monitor all five of Bergman's core health processes. 12

Understanding variation is one of the cornerstones of the science of improvement

This broad understanding of variation, which is based on the work of Walter Shewart in the 1920s, goes well beyond such simple issues as making an intended departure from a guideline or recognising a meaningful change in the outcome of care. It encompasses more than good or bad variation (meeting a target). It is concerned with more than the variation found by researchers in random samples from large populations.

Everything we observe or measure varies. Some variation in healthcare is desirable, even essential, since each patient is different and should be cared for uniquely. New and better treatments, and improvements in care processes result in beneficial variation. Special-cause variation should lead to learning. The ‘Plan–Do–Study’ portion of the Shewhart PDSA cycle can promote valuable change.

The ‘act’ step in the PDSA cycle represents the arrival of stability after a successful improvement has been made. Reducing unintended, and particularly harmful, variation is therefore a key improvement strategy. The more variation is controlled, the easier it is to detect changes that are not explained by chance. Stated differently, narrow limits on a Shewhart control chart make it easier and quicker to detect, and therefore respond to, special-cause variation.

The goal of statistical thinking in quality improvement is to make the available statistical tools as simple and useful as possible in meeting the primary goal, which is not mathematical correctness, but improvement in both the processes and outcomes of care. It is not fruitful to ask whether statistical process control, RCTs, regression equations or longitudinal factorial design of experiments is best in some absolute sense. Each is appropriate for answering different questions.

Forces driving this new way of thinking

The idea of reducing unwanted variation in healthcare represents a major shift in thinking, and it will take time to be accepted. Forces for this change include the computerisation of medical records leading to public reporting of care and outcome comparisons between providers and around the world. This in turn will promote pay for performance, and preferred provider contracting based on guideline use and good outcomes. This way of thinking about variation could spread across all five core systems of health, 12 including self-care and processes of healthy living.

  • Bergman B ,
  • Lifvergren S ,
  • Gremyer I ,
  • Hellstrom A ,
  • Neuhauser D
  • Neuhauser D ,

Competing interests None.

Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Read the full text or download the PDF:

❄️ Black Friday Sale: $100 off Green Belt (includes free Black Belt) ➔ Dismiss


What Is An Example Of Special Cause?


Trending now

How hard is the pmp exam unraveling the challenges and strategies, pmp certification cost and price breakup explained: a certification guide for beginners, free ebook: guide to the ccba and cbap certifications, pmp certification salary: job and salary scope in 2023 - complete guide, how to get pmp certified, product manager v/s project manager: all you need to know, feasibility study and its importance in project management, financial risk and its types, powerful asana alternatives for project management in 2024, project scope management and its importance in 2024, common cause variation vs. special cause variation.

Common Cause Variation Vs. Special Cause Variation

Table of Contents

Every piece of data which is measured will show some degree of variation: no matter how much we try, we could never attain identical results for two different situations - each result will be different, even if the difference is slight. Variation may be defined as “the numerical value used to indicate how widely individuals in a group vary.” 

In other words, variance gives us an idea of how data is distributed about an expected value or the mean. If you attain a variance of zero, it indicates that your results are identical - an uncommon condition. A high variance shows that the data points are spread out from each other—and the mean, while a smaller variation indicates that the data points are closer to the mean. Variance is always nonnegative.

Are you looking forward to making a mark in the Project Management field? If yes, enroll in the PMP Certification Program now and get a step closer to your career goal!

Types of Variance

Change is inevitable, even in statistics. You’ll need to know what kind of variation affects your process because the course of action you take will depend on the type of variance. There are two types of Variance: Common Cause Variation and Special Cause Variation. You’ll need to know about Common Causes Variation vs Special Causes Variation because they are two subjects that are tested on the PMP Certification  and CAPM Certification exams. 

Common Cause Variation

Special cause variation, 6% growth in pm jobs by 2024 - upskill now.

6% Growth in PM Jobs By 2024 - Upskill Now

Common Cause Variation, also referred to as “Natural Problems, “Noise,” and “Random Cause” was a term coined by Harry Alpert in 1947. Common causes of variance are the usual quantifiable and historical variations in a system that are natural. Though variance is a problem, it is an inherent part of a process—variance will eventually creep in, and it is not much you can do about it. Specific actions cannot be taken to prevent this failure from occurring. It is ongoing, consistent, and predictable.

Characteristics of common causes variation are:

  • Variation predictable probabilistically
  • Phenomena that are active within the system
  • Variation within a historical experience base which is not regular
  • Lack of significance in individual high and low values

This variation usually lies within three standard deviations from the mean where 99.73% of values are expected to be found. On a control chart, they are indicated by a few random points that are within the control limit. These kinds of variations will require management action since there can be no immediate process to rectify it. You will have to make a fundamental change to reduce the number of common causes of variation. If there are only common causes of variation on your chart, your process is said to be “statistically stable.”

When this term is applied to your chart, the chart itself becomes fairly stable. Your project will have no major changes, and you will be able to continue process execution hassle-free.

How to Successfully Ace the PMP Exam?

How to Successfully Ace the PMP Exam?

Common Cause Variation Examples

Consider an employee who takes a little longer than usual to complete a specific task. He is given two days to do a task, and instead, he takes two and a half days; this is considered a common cause variation. His completion time would not have deviated very much from the mean since you would have had to consider the fact that he could submit it a little late.

Here’s another example: you estimate 20 minutes to get ready and ten minutes to get to work. Instead, you take five minutes extra to get ready because you had to pack lunch and 15 additional minutes to get to work because of traffic. 

Other examples that relate to projects are inappropriate procedures, which can include the lack of clearly defined standard procedures, poor working conditions, measurement errors, normal wear and tear, computer response times, etc. These are all common cause variation.

Special Cause Variation, on the other hand, refers to unexpected glitches that affect a process. The term Special Cause Variation was coined by W. Edwards Deming and is also known as an “Assignable Cause.” These are variations that were not observed previously and are unusual, non-quantifiable variations.

These causes are sporadic, and they are a result of a specific change that is brought about in a process resulting in a chaotic problem. It is not usually part of your normal process and occurs out of the blue. Causes are usually related to some defect in the system or method. However, this failure can be corrected by making changes to affected methods, components, or processes.

Characteristics of special cause variation are:

  • New and unanticipated or previously neglected episode within the system
  • This kind of variation is usually unpredictable and even problematic
  • The variation has never happened before and is thus outside the historical experience base

On a control chart, the points lie beyond the preferred control limit or even as random points within the control limit. Once identified on a chart, this type of problem needs to be found and addressed immediately you can help prevent it from recurring.

Earn 60 PDUs: Pick from 6 Courses

Earn 60 PDUs: Pick from 6 Courses

Special Cause Variation Example

Let’s say you are driving to work, and you estimate arrival in 10 minutes every day. One day, it took you 20 minutes to arrive at work because you were caught in the traffic from an accident zone and were held up.

Examples relating to project management are if machine malfunctions, computer crashes, there is a power cut, etc. These kinds of random things that can happen during a project are examples of special cause variation.

One way to evaluate a project’s health is to track the difference between the original project plan and what is happening. The use of control charts helps to differentiate between the common cause variation and the special cause variation, making the process of making changes and amends easier.

Learn new trends, emerging practices, tailoring considerations, and core competencies required of a Project Management professional with the PMP Certification course .

Choose the Right Program

Unlock your project management potential with Simplilearn's comprehensive training. Gain the skills and knowledge needed to lead successful projects, boost efficiency, and exceed goals. Choose the right project management course today and advance your career with confidence.

Program Name PMP® Certification Training Course PMP Plus Post Graduate Program In Project Management Geo All Geos All Geos All Geos University PMI Simplilearn University of Massachusetts Amherst Course Duration 90 Days of Flexible Access to Online Classes 36 Months 6 Months Coding experience reqd No No No Skills you wll learn 8+ PM skills including Work Breakdown Structure, Gantt Charts, Resource Allocation, Leadership and more. 6 courses including Project Management, Agile Scrum Master, Implementing a PMO, and More 9+ skills including Project Management, Quality Management, Agile Management, Design Thinking and More. Additional Benefits Experiential learning through case studies Global Teaching Assistance 35PDUs Learn by working on real-world problems 24x7 Learning support from mentors Earn 60+ PDU’s 3 year course access Cost $$ $$$$ $$$$ Explore Program Explore Program Explore Program

This article has explained special cause variation vs common cause variation which are the two important concepts in project management when it comes to data validation. Simplilearn offers multiple Project Management training courses like the Post Graduate Program in Project Management and learning paths that can help aspiring project managers get the education they need to pass not only exams like the PMP certification and CAPM® but also real-world knowledge useful for any project management career.

PMP is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

Find our PMP® Certification Training Online Classroom training classes in top cities:

About the author.

Avantika Monnappa

A project management and digital marketing knowledge manager, Avantika’s area of interest is project design and analysis for digital marketing, data science, and analytics companies.

Recommended Programs

PMP® Certification Training

Post Graduate Program in Project Management

*Lifetime access to high-quality, self-paced e-learning content.

How to deal with Assignable causes?

How to deal with Assignable causes?

Recommended resources.

Four Proven Reasons Why Gamification Improves Employee Training

Four Proven Reasons Why Gamification Improves Employee Training

10 Major Causes of Project Failure

10 Major Causes of Project Failure

A Comprehensive Comparison of NFT Vs. Crypto

A Comprehensive Comparison of NFT Vs. Crypto

Free eBook: Top 25 Interview Questions and Answers: Big Data Analytics

Free eBook: Top 25 Interview Questions and Answers: Big Data Analytics

The Art of Root Cause Analysis: All You Need to Know

The Art of Root Cause Analysis: All You Need to Know

The Holistic Look at Longest Common Subsequence Problem

The Holistic Look at Longest Common Subsequence Problem

  • PMP, PMI, PMBOK, CAPM, PgMP, PfMP, ACP, PBA, RMP, SP, and OPM3 are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

Common & Special Cause Variation

Common & Special Cause Variation

special cause examples

Understanding Common Cause Variation: Managing Process Fluctuation

Updated: July 17, 2023 by Ken Feldman

special cause examples

Variation is a given for every process. Distinguishing between the variation caused by the process inputs and that of special causes is important to understand so you can manage the variation.  

Overview: What is common cause? 

Common cause, in the context of variation, is a term coined by famous statistician Dr. W. Edwards Deming to describe the natural fluctuation in your process caused by the inputs or elements of the process. 

The typical inputs to a process are people, methods, materials, environment and equipment. The combined variation from these individual sources will produce predictable and random variation in the output of the process. This steady state variation is the best you can expect given the variation of the input factors.

Since common cause variation is inherent in your process, any attempt to reduce or eliminate it will require action be taken on the source(s) of the individual input or factor variation. This will require statistical and root cause analyses to determine the source as well as how to reduce or eliminate it. Tools such as the control chart , multi-vari chart , fishbone diagram and hypothesis testing are useful for identifying the possible source of the common cause variation.

An industry example of common cause 

It is not uncommon for organizations to misuse a control chart when trying to react to common cause variation. The control chart below shows an in-control process exhibiting common cause variation. All points are within the control limits and appear to be random.

special cause examples

Unfortunately, the supervisor of the department did not understand how to properly interpret and use a control chart. He praised the team for performing well at point 6 (higher is better) and angrily wanted to know what happened at point 10. The fact is, nothing happened. This would be analogous to asking why a pair of dice threw a 3 or an 11. You would expect 3s and 11s from a fair pair of dice. 

Since the variation is common cause, there is no simple answer. Asking what happened will only send people on a fruitless and frustrating mission to find an excuse rather than a reason. The supervisor must identify the specific source of the variation and then make a fundamental change in the process to alter the variation. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about common cause

How do you determine whether your process is exhibiting common cause variation .

The best tool to use is the control chart. Depending on the type of data you have, you will select the appropriate type of control chart to use. If the process is exhibiting common cause variation, the pattern on the control chart will have all the data points within the upper control limit and lower control limit and show a random pattern over time.

How can you reduce common cause variation? 

Common cause variation is a result of the combined variation of the people, methods, materials, equipment and environment of your process. You must drill down and identify which of the potential sources of this inherent variation is the primary cause of the variation. By changing that factor, you will reduce the common cause variation.

Is all common cause variation good? 

There is no value judgment of “good” or “bad” associated with common cause variation. You might have common cause variation in a process that consistently produces defective products. Saying it is common cause variation only means it is steady state and predictable, not good or bad. 

About the Author

' src=

Ken Feldman


  1. Special Cause Variation

    special cause examples

  2. Common Cause Variation vs Special Cause Variation

    special cause examples

  3. PPT

    special cause examples

  4. PPT

    special cause examples

  5. Common Cause Vs Special Cause Variation [ VARIATIONS ]

    special cause examples

  6. Special Cause (assignable cause)

    special cause examples


  1. English 5 Quarter 4 Week 3 Cause and effect

  2. Identify the condition?

  3. (10 SUB SPECIAL) cause why not? What if USSR came back???

  4. Celebrating Pur Wins As A Team At Cleveland Real Producers!

  5. USING COMPOUND SENTENCE to Show Cause & Effect and Problem Relationship of IDEAS for English 5

  6. Causes and Consequences


  1. Common cause and special cause (statistics)

    Lack of significance in individual high or low values. The outcomes of a perfectly balanced roulette wheel are a good example of common-cause variation. Common-cause variation is the noise within the system. Walter A. Shewhart originally used the term chance cause. [1] The term common cause was coined by Harry Alpert in 1947.

  2. Common Cause vs. Special Cause Variation: What's the Difference?

    One example of a special cause variation would be a task taking exorbitantly longer than typical due to an unexpected crisis. Other examples would be power outages, computer crashes, and machine malfunctions. The Benefits of Special Cause Variation

  3. The Power of Special Cause Variation: Learning from Process Changes

    A cycle or repeating pattern A run: 8 or more points on either side of the average A special cause of variation is assignable to a defect, fault, mistake, delay, breakdown, accident, and/or shortage in the process. When special causes are present, process quality is unpredictable.

  4. Identifying and Managing Special Cause Variations

    Examples of special cause variations include machine faults, power surges, operator absences, and computer faults. 3 drawbacks of special cause variations There are some drawbacks to special cause variations that should be acknowledged: 1. They can be difficult to prepare for

  5. The meaning of variation to healthcare managers, clinical and health

    In answering that question, it becomes crucial to understand the difference between common-cause and special-cause variation (as will be discussed later). Common-cause variation appears as random variation in all measures from healthcare processes. 1 Special-cause variation appears as the effect of causes outside the core processes of the work ...

  6. Know It When You See It: Identifying and Using Special Cause Variation

    An example of special cause variation can be seen in the OA's Fig 2, noted by the shift in the centerline in May 2018 from a baseline of 70% of problem lists revised during admission to a new centerline of 90% of problem lists reviewed during admission.

  7. Common Cause vs. Special Cause: The Basics of Process Variation

    Special Cause Variation. On the other hand, special cause variation occurs when something out of the ordinary happens in a process. This might be a one-time occurrence, or it can develop into a repeating effect, in which case it might eventually be categorized as common cause variation depending on the circumstances. It's important to ...

  8. Understanding and managing variation: three different perspectives

    Special-cause variation is an unpredictable deviation resulting from a cause that is not an intrinsic part of a process. By careful and systematic measurement, it is easier to detect changes that are not random variation.

  9. Knowledge of Variation

    Special cause variations represent a unique event that is outside the system: for example, a natural disaster. Distinguishing the difference between variation, as well as understanding its causes and predicting behavior, is key to management's ability to properly remove problems or barriers in the system.


    Examples of special causes are operator error, faulty setup, or incoming defective raw material. Deming believed that only about 15% of the variation in a process is due to special causes. Deming relied on control charts to describe both the natural variability of the system, and to detect the existence of a special causes of variation.

  11. Common Cause & Special Cause Variation Explained with Examples

    Firstly, the variation pattern is predictable. Common cause variation occurring is also an active event in the operations. it is controlled and is not significantly different from the usual phenomenon. There are many factors and reasons for common cause variation and it is quite difficult to pinpoint and eliminate them.

  12. Using control charts to detect common-cause variation and special-cause

    Examples of common-cause and special-cause variation What special-cause variation looks like on a control chart A process is stable if it does not contain any special-cause variation; only common-cause variation is present. Control charts and run charts provide good illustrations of process stability or instability.

  13. Navigating Special Cause Variation in Quality Control

    An industry example of special cause The company's Six Sigma Black Belt (BB) was helping the manufacturing manager monitor his machine setup time with a control chart. He noticed that at point 65, an upward trend of consecutively increasing times began. This was shown as a series of increasing red data points.

  14. Assignable Cause

    3 benefits of an assignable cause. Assignable causes can be good or bad. They are signals that something unexpected happened. Listen to the signal. 1. Signals something has happened. Special or assignable cause variation signals that something unexpected and non-random has occurred in your process. 2. Specific cause.

  15. The meaning of variation to healthcare managers, clinical and health

    In answering that question, it becomes crucial to understand the difference between common-cause and special-cause variation (as will be discussed later). Common-cause variation appears as random variation in all measures from healthcare processes.1 Special-cause variation appears as the effect of causes outside the core processes of the work ...

  16. What Is An Example Of Special Cause?

    Walter Shewhart, who developed Control Charts at Bell Labs in the 1920s, used those charts to distinguish between 2 types of variation. He saw that all processes showed signs of Common Cause variation, but processes that were not in control also exhibited Special Cause variation. If you think about why you're maybe a few minutes….

  17. Common-Cause vs. Special-Cause

    Six Sigma Terms Common-Cause vs. Special-Cause Common-cause variation is where no one, or combination of factors is unduly affected the process variation (random variation). Special-cause variation is when one or more factors are affecting the process variation in a non-random way.

  18. Common Cause Variation Vs. Special Cause Variation

    Special Cause Variation Example Every piece of data which is measured will show some degree of variation: no matter how much we try, we could never attain identical results for two different situations - each result will be different, even if the difference is slight.

  19. Common & Special Cause Variation

    The common cause variation can only decrease when there are changes made to the system, and they usually imply action from the management. A simple example would be a machine upgrade. The special cause variation occurs when there are specific factors that produce a certain result in the process itself. The special causes can, in most cases, be ...

  20. Understanding Common Cause Variation: Managing Process ...

    Common cause, in the context of variation, is a term coined by famous statistician Dr. W. Edwards Deming to describe the natural fluctuation in your process caused by the inputs or elements of the process. The typical inputs to a process are people, methods, materials, environment and equipment. The combined variation from these individual ...

  21. 15 Words and Phrases for Special Cause

    Synonyms for Special Cause (other words and phrases for Special Cause). Synonyms for Special cause. 15 other terms for special cause- words and phrases with similar meaning. Lists. synonyms. antonyms. definitions. sentences. thesaurus. Parts of speech. nouns. suggest new. particular cause. n. particular reason. n.

  22. Specific cause legal definition of specific cause

    A ground of a legal action. An agent that brings something about. That which in some manner is accountable for a condition that brings about an effect or that produces a cause for the resultant action or state. A suit, litigation, or action. Any question, civil or criminal, litigated or contested before a court of justice.

  23. Specific cause synonyms, specific cause antonyms

    Synonyms for specific cause in Free Thesaurus. Antonyms for specific cause. 107 synonyms for cause: origin, source, agency, spring, agent, maker, producer, root ...