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A Toolbook for Quality Improvement and Problem Solving (contents)

Tool Characteristics

The Quality Toolbook > Tools for Applications > Tool Characteristics

Pictorial tools | Numeric and non-numeric tools | Structure in tools


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Two very evident characteristics of tools are the use of visual techniques and the separate handling of numerical and textual information. A third characteristic is that tools tend to bring a degree of structure to their use.


Pictorial tools

Much of the way people understand and communicate is through the visual sense, as this allows us to rapidly absorb and process large quantities of information. Many tools take advantage of this, using some form of visual display to make them easier to use.

This visual component is particularly helpful when interpreting information, as the first impression of a visual display is as a whole, with the overall shape of the information helping to give an immediate understanding of the 'big picture'. From this, attention may be focused on specific decision points and other areas of interest.

Pictures can also be easier to build, and some tools make use of this, transforming what might otherwise be a dry reporting process into an interesting and productive activity of piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of the problem.

Some situations suit visual methods very well, whilst others are less graphic, and tools range from highly pictorial ones through those that provide some visual organization to those that are not at all graphic.


Numeric and non-numeric tools

Numeric information is usually more desirable when making decisions than non-numeric information, as it shows the relative size of measured items, enabling clear decisions to be made.

Unfortunately, not all information is numeric and, as indicated in the applications identified in the chapter on Applications for Tools, there is a need for tools that can be used with less structured information such as human opinions or named activities.

Several tools introduce the benefit of numeric aspects to situations which are initially non-numeric, although the accuracy of the figures may well vary according to the rigor with which they are derived.


Structure in tools

All tools are structured in some way, in that they contain rules for their own use. They also often help to structure information in a way that enables it to be interpreted and key decisions to be made.

Structure in tools helps the key need for reliability, as a defined structure results in a repeatable process. Assuming the structure is correct, this will also lead to optimum results. Structure also helps usability, as it provides a framework for action which answers the question 'How?' and enable the people to get quickly down to the more immediate 'What?' of the situation.

The degree of structure in a tool may reflect the confidence that can be placed in its results, and tools may be selected on this basis. Some tools, such as Brainstorming, need to break down barriers and minimize structure, leaving only enough control to make the session work.


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