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Dan Nelson

Quality Insider

Everything I Needed to Know About Risk-Based Thinking I Learned From Playing Billiards

And scratching on the break

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2015 - 10:52

The game of billiards offers a useful analogy to explain risk-based thinking and “risk to quality” (i.e., the risk to achieving quality objectives). Like any game, billiards involves navigating risk. Survival in an open global marketplace, like billiards, is also a game of risk.

The association between managing risk and the achievement of established objectives assumes a relationship of causality. Our decisions and actions affect our ability to meet our objectives. If this causal connection were not present, why would anyone do anything?

What-causes-what is a topic of philosophical debate in many areas of human experience. For example: “Does human activity cause global warming?” or “Will my smoking cause lung cancer” or “Will mistake-proofing this step in the process improve performance?”

How about a game of billiards, David?

The question of causation (or causal connection) was of great interest to a Scottish philosopher named David Hume (1711-1776). Hume loved the game of billiards, which offered (as it offers today) a very simple, visible representation of causation.

Sure, it’s easy to see that when a cue ball hits an object ball, the force of the cue ball causes the object ball to move, ideally in the desired path and with enough speed to go into a pocket. It looks pretty easy. So why do some play billiards well and others poorly?

The difference in pool playing ability seems to amount to a difference in the ability to combine 1) risk-based thinking in determining which shots to take and how to shoot each, with 2) the ability to effectively implement the planned arrangements.

It sure looks easy . . .

A nonplayer may not appreciate all of the considerations a successful billiards player takes into account before shooting. Although making each shot brings a player closer to the objective of winning the game, a good player thinks well beyond the current shot, considering many potential consequences before shooting. A good player establishes objectives beyond the current shot, and those objectives affect how the current shot is taken.

A good player considers, among other things, “leave” and “shape.” “Leave” is where the cue ball is left for the opponent to shoot, should the player miss the shot. “Shape” is where the cue ball is left for the player to resume shooting after making the current shot. Although each shot carries with it the opportunity to provide good shape to continue shooting, it also carries with it the risk of missing (and leaving the opponent a good shot).

A risky game

So every shot is the result of a player’s ability to apply risk-based thinking to achieve the objective of making the shot

Likewise, in a manufacturing company, risks to achieving quality objectives might include common risks, such as unidentified product, uncontrolled documents, and/or unqualified personnel. ISO 9001 requires these risks to be considered as part of management’s game plan. ISO 9001 also requires management to take into consideration risks and opportunities unique to the organization’s context and objectives—e.g., the use of go-no-go gauges and the use of detailed work instructions, or the non-use of go-no-go gauges and the non-use of detailed work instructions. Risk-based thinking helps management determine the level and extent of controls needed to assure quality.

As with billiards, it requires you to think ahead. Management decides how it wants to play the game and what needs to be done to manage risk in the situation. Will your current decision “shape” you for your next decision or “leave” you in a position of liability? Every effort to systemically assure the achievement of quality objectives is, on the flip side, an effort to manage the risk of failing to achieve quality objectives, or, an application of risk-based thinking.

Live and learn to manage risk

When a novice first encounters a master player, the novice will likely learn to appreciate the lesson of thinking before acting, considering all (conceivable) consequences to achieving the objective of winning the game. A master player understands the risks involved and how to manage them; a master player takes advantage of each opportunity to win (both opportunities left for the player and those created by the player along the way).

This is as true in business as it is in billiards. Those who win most consistently are those who understand the angle, the speed, and spin needed to make shots and leave good opportunities for making subsequent shots—just like competition for survival in a free global market.


About The Author

Dan Nelson’s picture

Dan Nelson

T. D. (“Dan”) Nelson is a quality management consultant and trainer specializing in the process approach of ISO 9001 and related sector schemes. Nelson has 20 years of experience with ISO 9000 and years of experience as an IRCA QMS lead or principal auditor. He has also trained lead auditors in accredited course. Nelson also holds an MA in Business Administration from the University of Iowa. He is the author of The Process Approach of  ISO 9001 (Create Space, 2014, updated for ISO 9001:2015).