The unspoken hero in statistical quality control: Homer Sarasohn

The story of Homer M. Sarasohn is less well known in statistics than it should be. Sarasohn, a gifted American engineer, was the first person to teach the Japanese how to manage a company in post-war Japan and an unspoken hero on statistical quality control. Wiley are this month proud to republish one of his original works in The Road to Quality Control: The Industrial Application of Statistical Quality Control by Homer M. Sarasohn which also includes essays by N. I. Fisher and W. H. Woodall that discuss the historical significance of the American involvement in the evolution of SQC in Japan in the years following World War II. The original 1952 edition, published in Japanese, is largely unknown, even inside Japan.

The book clearly demonstrates the amazing contribution, even by today’s standards, of Sarasohn’s contemporary thinking about the role of Statistical Quality Control in the broader context of Quality Management. In addition, the text debunks the historical misconceptions about who was responsible for helping the Japanese industry revive and shows how General MacArthur was indebted to Sarasohn. This historically important text:

• contains the English version of the historical document that helped Japan learn how to apply SQC in order to manage a company effectively
•includes two essays: one from a world expert in the area of SQC and the other from an acclaimed expert on Quality Management
• reveals Homer M. Sarasohn’s contribution to the field of SQC
• demonstrates the vital role of SQC in helping Japan establish and maintain a competitive position after World War II

Written for statisticians, SPC/SQC practitioners, members of the American Society for Quality and Japanese statisticians, The Road to Quality Control: The Industrial Application of Statistical Quality Control by Homer M. Sarasohn reveals the impo

rtance of Statistical Quality Control when appropriately applied in an industrial setting.

Fran MacMahon talks to Nicholas Fisher about how this project came together.


1. Congratulations upon the publication of The Road to Quality Control – The Industrial Application of Statistical Quality Control by Homer M. Sarasohn. The book details a unique historical document on statistical quality control. How did this project come about?

I got to know Homer Sarasohn very well, in the last few years of his life. After he passed away in 2001, I started working on a memorial article about him, during the course of which I was liaising with his daughter Lisa. Some time afterwards, she sent me a package of books. They were books about Quality, and about Management that he’d used as references over the years. And additionally, there was a surprise: a slim volume in Japanese about Statistical Quality Control (SQC), that had appeared in 1951. Since the year of publication made it a relatively early contribution to the literature, it seemed to be worth translating so that I could ascertain its content. This turned out to be a very slow process, as both I and my Japanese collaborator, Yutaka Tanaka, were busy on other projects.

2. How did the original Japanese version come about?

The book has three contributions.

Firstly, of course, there is the English translation of the text.

Next, there is a reprint of the memorial article I mentioned earlier, which provides the context, namely, that Sarasohn was brought to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur at the end of the Second World War to aid in the post-war construction by setting up a radio communications industry. This led to Sarasohn having to teach leaders of Japanese companies about Quality Management and, once they had acquired sufficient competence, he had intended to teach them Statistical Quality Control. So he wrote the book, to be used in his teaching. As things transpired, he did not get to do this as President Harry Truman transferred MacArthur to Korea to handle the situation there, and MacArthur took Sarasohn with him.

Thirdly, this book was a very early contribution to the SQC literature but is, of course, completely unknown because it had appeared only in Japanese and there is no evidence of its use in courses at the time. However, Bill Woodall has written an original essay positioning and evaluating the work in the SQC context of the time when it appeared.

3. What were your main objectives during the writing process?

We sought to remain as faithful to the original, in terms of language, layout, graphs and tables, to give a sense of what it might have been like to actually read and use it. In particular, graphs were essentially traced over with CorelDraw and then reproduced, and the tables reproduced to be as similar as possible to the originals. Even the publisher’s advertising from the back of the original book of other cognate books they were selling has been included! I was somewhat familiar with Sarasohn’s writing style, so attempted to reproduce this as best I could.

4. If there is one piece of information that you would want your audience to take away from your book, what would that be?

Sarasohn was only 29 years old when MacArthur summoned him to Japan, and so only 33 years old when he wrote the book. His education was as an engineer, not as a statistician, so it is a tribute to the educational system that produced him – and of course to Sarasohn himself! – that he had mastered SQC so well.

5. Who should read the book and why?

Anyone interested in the historical evolution of SQC or in the development of good management practices in post-war Japan would find this invaluable.

6. Why, do you think, this area of study may be of interest now?

Statistical Process Control (SPC) as it is more commonly known remains an area of active investigation to this day, with new forms of data (and masses of it) and every widening areas of application calling for ongoing R&D.

7. Alongside your own text, what other books would you recommend to students looking to learn more about Sarasohn and statistical quality control?

There are numerous references and interviews to be found at Of especial interest is an interview with him by Myron Tribus:

8. What is it about the area of Sarasohn’s work and statistical quality control that fascinates you?

That a young engineer could achieve so much in such a short space of time. He was a quite remarkable individual and it was one of the great privileges of my life to have known him and to have been his friend.

9. What other work are you currently working on or has recently been published?

I read a paper to the Royal Statistical Society in January this year about my research into Performance Measurement over the last 25 years. It was in the course of carrying out this research that I had reason to meet Homer. The paper and the ensuing discussion will appear in JRSS Series A soon. This is primarily a statistical paper.

I’m currently working on the Deming Lecture that I shall present at the Joint Statistical Meetings in July this year. It covers more of the management aspects of my research odyssey, in which Homer features prominently.

10. Whom would you like to thank in bringing Sarasohn’s contribution to attention again?

I would like to acknowledge the superb work done by my two collaborators: Yutaka, for his meticulous work in understanding what Sarasohn had written and providing a very clear translation, and Bill for his very scholarly essay, setting the book in the SQC context. And, very importantly, Alison Oliver at Wiley, who had the vision to encourage this project as soon as she heard about it, and to support it all the way through the editorial and production phases, particularly in terms of our desire to stay as faithful to the original book as possible.

Author Biographies:

N. I. Fisher is a Visiting Professor of Statistics at the University of Sydney, a management consultant, and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Wiley journal Stat.

Y. Tanaka is a Professor Emeritus of Statistics at Okayama University and involved in quality control as a member of the teaching and consulting staff of JSA (Japan Standard Association) seminar in Osaka.

W. H. Woodall is a Professor of Statistics at Virginia Tech and a former editor of the Journal of Quality Technology (2001–2003) and Associate Editor of Technometrics (1987–1995).