Lai Kow Chan, an IMS Fellow with expertise in statistical quality control and a visionary academic leader, died in Hong Kong on December 23, 2020, aged 80.
Lai was born in Hong Kong on November 5, 1940. His first university degree was from Hong Kong Baptist College in 1962, after which he obtained an MA and a PhD in statistics from the University of Western Ontario in 1964 and 1966, respectively. He was then a lecturer at the University of Toronto for one year before returning to Western, where he rose to the rank of Full Professor. He had worked with M.M. Ali for his thesis and, over the next 15 years, contributed regularly to distribution theory and studied both finite- and large-sample properties of estimation methods for various classes of models. He published in top statistics journals such as Biometrika and The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, but also in more applied venues and actuarial journals.
In 1980, Lai was recruited as Head of the Department of Statistics at the University of Manitoba. This was a turning point in his career. Seeking to unite the group around a common cause, he identified statistical quality control as a research area and invested himself fully in the subject. Under his headship, which lasted 14 years, the department became a center of excellence in quality management. His 1988 article proposing a new process capability index, coauthored by his colleague Smiley Cheng and their joint PhD student Fred Spiring, is one of the most cited papers in the Journal of Quality Technology. Over the years, department members gave more than 100 workshops on statistical process control, total quality, and industrial experimental design to local firms, generating funds to support students and research.
While becoming an expert in statistical quality control, Lai helped the Canadian statistical community in many ways, serving on the Board of Directors of the Statistical Society of Canada (1985–87), supporting the Society’s 13th Annual Meeting in Winnipeg (1985), serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Canadian Journal of Statistics (1992–94), contributing to the creation of the Canada Award for Excellence in Quality, and chairing/sitting on national grant and award selection committees. He also served as a Council member of the International Statistical Institute (ISI).
In 1994, Lai returned home to become Professor and Chair of Applied Statistics and Operational Research at City University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Research-wise, this was perhaps his most fruitful period, supervising many PhD students and coauthoring, notably with Ming-Lu Wu, highly impactful work on quality function deployment.
Under Lai’s leadership, the CUHK College of Business rose to the forefront of business education and research. Various new programs were launched and he spearheaded the school’s effort in achieving AACSB accreditation in 2005. In this period, Lai was an advisor on statistics teaching material for China’s State Statistical Bureau, he sat on the Statistics Advisory Board for the Commissioner for Census and Statistics of the Hong Kong SAR, and he served on the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies Panel of Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council.
At the age of 66, Lai joined upper management in the forming years of the Macao University of Science and Technology. He soon became an advisor for the sustainable economic development strategy and the Pearl River Delta Region development plan for several departments in the Macao SAR Government. Also noteworthy is his involvement in the construction of economic indices such as the Hong Kong Consumer Satisfaction Index (1998) and the Macao Consumer Confidence Index (2008).
In recognition of his contributions to research and his service towards the development of statistics and total quality in Canada and in China, Lai was elected a member of the ISI in 1979 and he was made a Fellow of several associations, including the ASA (1981), IMS (1985), the American Society for Quality (1990), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1991).
In addition to his talents as a scientist and an administrator, Lai was a conscientious and kind-hearted man who cared for people around him, and inspired trust. His level of energy and passion was difficult to match. He drew inspiration from, and strove to emulate, the famous American statistician W. Edwards Deming and Hong Kong’s visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Gordon Wu, who started his engineering studies at the University of Manitoba and received an honorary degree from this institution in 2012.
Lai is survived by his wife Fung-Yee, their children Bertha, David, and Leo, as well as five grandchildren whom he loved to spoil. We were fortunate to have known him. He will be missed dearly but never forgotten.
Written by Christian Genest, McGill University, and John F. Brewster, University of Manitoba