Ellis R. Ott
Educator of a generation of quality control professionals
"The problem of developing statistical quality control professionals in kind and in quantity is a major assignment; it warrants top priority in our efforts and should be approached by every promising method." With those words, Ellis R. Ott capsulized a major part of his life work—work that earned him the status of ASQ Honorary member. Ott devoted his career to providing American industry with a stream of high caliber statistical quality control professionals.
Ott began his career thinking that he would be a pure mathematician. After receiving a bachelor's degree at Southwestern College in Kansas, a master's degree from the University of Kansas, and a doctorate from the University of Illinois, he worked at the University of Arkansas as a mathematics instructor. He was a professor of mathematics at the University of Buffalo from 1934 to 1946.
Ott's career reached a turning point in 1946, when he took a job with the National Union Radio Corp. in Newark, NJ. There he was in charge of applying statistical quality control methods to the production of guided missiles. "Once he started in quality control, he knew that would be his field of endeavor," Virginia Ott, his wife, said. When he was offered the chairmanship of the mathematics department at Rutgers University College in 1946, he accepted on the condition that he could also teach and consult in quality control. "The mathematics department considered that 'Ott's Folly,' " Mrs. Ott said, "but they agreed."
From this tenuous beginning came some of the promising methods that Ott used to educate much-needed statistical quality control professionals for industry. At Rutgers, Ott developed statistics courses that led to bachelor and master of science degrees—a fairly rare commodity at the time. He started the annual All-Day Conference on Quality Control and Statistics in Industry, also known as the Rutgers All-Day Conference. The Rutgers faculty included Harold Dodge, Martin Wilk, and Horace Andrews. Ott more than held his own in this impressive line-up, according to Mason E. Wescott, an ASQ Honorary member and former Rutgers professor. "Ellis was the spark plug that kept the team together and always headed in the direction of turning out genuine professionals to serve the needs of the quality control field."
The program became so popular that in 1959 a formal Statistics Center was founded as a part of Rutgers' Graduate School with Ott as director. In addition to programs leading to master of science degrees in applied and mathematical statistics, the new center offered courses leading to a doctorate. The next year, Ott received the Shewhart Medal for his outstanding contributions to the quality control field. In his acceptance address, he warned, "ASQ and industry can have an influence in an expanding and improving series of university programs, especially at the graduate level. The need for increased numbers of Ph.D.s is critical. It isn't a question of whether industry can afford it—it is a question of whether it can afford not to."
Further recognition of Ott's efforts came in 1968, when he received ASQ's Grant Award. He was eventually appointed professor of applied and mathematical statistics at Rutgers, and on his retirement in 1972 was named professor emeritus.
Behind the growth in the Rutgers program lay Ott's conviction that students be taught not only the theory of statistics, but also their application. "Theory and application must be coupled from the very beginning if we are to develop logical processes of reasoning and decision making," he said in his Shewhart acceptance address. Students had to be active in industry while they were participating in the Rutgers program. This helped them relate what they learned in class to the real world.
Ronald Snee, a former student of Ott's, said in accepting the Metropolitan Section's 1980 Ellis R. Ott Award, "The graduates of the Rutgers Statistics Center have had an impressive impact on the statistics profession. They have made contributions in many segments of industry, government, and academia and in many different subject matter areas. These graduates have provided, and will continue to provide, leadership in the quality, statistics, and related professions."
In addition to his academic contributions, Ott provided statistical quality control and statistics consulting in the United States and other countries. His U.S. customers included General Electric, Bristol Myers, and Aberdeen Proving Ground. He headed a team recommended to the United Nations by Walter Shewhart that in 1952 and 1953 taught statistical quality control to government and industry leaders in India. He returned to India in 1957 and 1962, and made similar trips to Mexico and Japan. Ott was a superb salesman in his consulting, according to Mason Wescott. "He had a unique ability to teach and enthuse mixed groups including foremen, engineers, factory employes, and management personnel."
Ott's talent as a teacher also came through in his many papers, perhaps the most popular of which was "Analysis of Means (ANOM)—a Graphical Procedure," which won Ott the 1968 Brumbaugh Award. The result of his research into process troubleshooting, the ANOM technique provides an understandable way to plot the data when analyzing experiments.
The importance of the ANOM procedure is that it provides the kind of objective data most managers require before they will implement corrective action on a process, Ronald Snee wrote in the January 1983 issue of Journal of Quality Technology, which was devoted to Ott's memory. "[Ott] liked to emphasize that improvements can be made in almost any process where there is clear evidence of assignable causes. Ott felt strongly about this philosophy, promoting it throughout his career in his courses, lectures, seminars, his book Process Quality Control, and in his latest papers."
Process Quality Control was based on Ott's consulting experiences in problem solving. First published in 1975, the book was revised by Edward G. Schilling, who received his doctorate under Ott.
Beyond his teaching, consulting, and writing, Ott made time for many contributions to ASQ, of which he was a founding member. He was on the first editorial board of Industrial Quality Control magazine. From 1949 to 1965, he was the editor of IQC's "Practical Aids" column, a how-to statistical series that was compiled into a book by ASQ's Quality Press. He was an ASQ vice president from 1956 to 1960.
As an ongoing tribute to Ott's contributions to the quality control profession, several of his colleagues formed the Ellis R. Ott Foundation after his death in 1981. The goal of the foundation is to "honor his memory by advancing the goals to which he devoted decades of tireless effort: Applying statistical quality control to maximize industrial productivity and introducing statistical quality control to a broad spectrum of people." The Foundation is a fitting honor to a man remembered as a teacher, student, and source of inspiration. Countless Rutgers students remember scenes such as this:
Ott to class at the end of the semester: "I wonder if you've all gotten the point I've been trying to make this semester."
Voice from the back of the class: "Plot the data!"
Ott: "No, I have tried to teach you to think."
Second voice: "Think. Then plot the data."