Typical Histogram Shapes and What They Mean

Normal. A common pattern is the bell–shaped curve known as the “normal distribution.” In a normal distribution, points are as likely to occur on one side of the average as on the other. Be aware, however, that other distributions look similar to the normal distribution. Statistical calculations must be used to prove a normal distribution.

Don’t let the name “normal” confuse you. The outputs of many processes—perhaps even a majority of them—do not form normal distributions, but that does not mean anything is wrong with those processes. For example, many processes have a natural limit on one side and will produce skewed distributions. This is normal — meaning typical — for those processes, even if the distribution isn’t called “normal”!

Skewed. The skewed distribution is asymmetrical because a natural limit prevents outcomes on one side. The distribution’s peak is off center toward the limit and a tail stretches away from it. For example, a distribution of analyses of a very pure product would be skewed, because the product cannot be more than 100 percent pure. Other examples of natural limits are holes that cannot be smaller than the diameter of the drill bit or call-handling times that cannot be less than zero. These distributions are called right – or left–skewed according to the direction of the tail.

Right-Skewed Distribution

Double-peaked or bimodal. The bimodal distribution looks like the back of a two-humped camel. The outcomes of two processes with different distributions are combined in one set of data. For example, a distribution of production data from a two-shift operation might be bimodal, if each shift produces a different distribution of results. Stratification often reveals this problem.

Bimodal (double-peaked) Distribution

Plateau. The plateau might be called a “multimodal distribution.” Several processes with normal distributions are combined. Because there are many peaks close together, the top of the distribution resembles a plateau.

Plateau Distribution

Edge peak. The edge peak distribution looks like the normal distribution except that it has a large peak at one tail. Usually this is caused by faulty construction of the histogram, with data lumped together into a group labeled “greater than…”

Edge peak distribution

Comb. In a comb distribution, the bars are alternately tall and short. This distribution often results from rounded-off data and/or an incorrectly constructed histogram. For example, temperature data rounded off to the nearest 0.2 degree would show a comb shape if the bar width for the histogram were 0.1 degree.

Comb Distribution

Truncated or heart-cut. The truncated distribution looks like a normal distribution with the tails cut off. The supplier might be producing a normal distribution of material and then relying on inspection to separate what is within specification limits from what is out of spec. The resulting shipments to the customer from inside the specifications are the heart cut.

Truncated or Heart-Cut Distribution

Dog food. The dog food distribution is missing something—results near the average. If a customer receives this kind of distribution, someone else is receiving a heart cut, and the customer is left with the “dog food,” the odds and ends left over after the master’s meal. Even though what the customer receives is within specifications, the product falls into two clusters: one near the upper specification limit and one near the lower specification limit. This variation often causes problems in the customer’s process.

Dog Food Distribution

Excerpted from Nancy R. Tague’s The Quality Toolbox, Second Edition, ASQ Quality Press, 2004, pages 292–299.

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