Common Cause Variation Vs. Special Cause Variation

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.

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 and Special Causes Variation because they are two subjects that are tested on the PMP Certification and CAPM Certification exams. 

  1. Common Cause Variation
  2. Special Cause Variation

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Common Cause Variation

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.

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 getting 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

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.

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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.

Conclusion

This article has explained special cause variation and 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 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.

About the Author

Avantika MonnappaAvantika 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.

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