To kick off the 3rd annual iSixSigma Live! Summit & Awards, our annual chance to gather as a community and share continuous improvement tips face to face, it felt a bit strange to spend much of the first day discussing ways to train future Belts by way of the internet. But after the three-hour Master Class A workshop on Monday morning, attendees left feeling invigorated about how they can enhance the classroom experience with new “blended learning” online tools that challenge students and may even help create more knowledgable Belts.

The workshop, titled “Real Benefits from Blended Learning – Build More Capable Belts Using Simulation Tools,” featured a presentation by founder Bill Hathaway, who described the evolution of e-learning programs over the last 10 years. Basically, the progression has moved from lecture to quizzes, to interactive exercises, to simulations, to open-ended simulated processes, to actual project work.

Compared with many other disciplines, Hathaway pointed out that the ratio of Six Sigma practice to actual Six Sigma work is surprisingly low. In college football, for example, a typical team plays twelve 60-minute games per year for a total of 12 hours of actual playing time (minus clock stoppages). Yet these teams practice football for about for 380 hours per year, for a ratio of practicing to playing of about 32:1. For most Belts, one audience member said, this ration is more like 0.5:1.

In the beginning, the first generation of e-learning “sucked,” Hathaway said bluntly. “It basically meant taking a lecture and turning into a PowerPoint presentation.” The second generation made some improvements with a practice-oriented e-learning model. Classroom work was used to augment online content, which made up the bulk of the course. Over the last three years, a third generation of blended learning methods with a mix of classroom training, online tools, game and simulations, and social media interaction is becoming standard, Hathaway said. When asked how many attendees in the workshop had used virtual coaching, more than half of the hands were raised.

In the blended model, about 60 percent of a typical course consists of realistic simulation-based practice that is tuned specifically to the context of a particular industry or organization, with only about 40 percent lecture-based. Unlike many other training programs, where it is “difficult to articulate what is not working very well,” blended learning can offer project tracking, mentioring and skills tests to provide quantitative analysis about what is actually being learned.

Training should include open-ended scenarios, encourage students to take risks and allow them to learn from their mistakes, Hathaway said. “Belts live in a very messy world,” he said. “Life is not a multiple choice exam. You have to give them an environement where they can experiment. We’ve always felt that the people who are learning should be doing most of the work, not the instructors.”

The latest online simulations, he said, can closely mimic the real world, but the addition of rules and scorecards, which turn simulations into games, can greatly enhance the interest among participants. Hathaway ran through a few examples of how MoreSteam mixes in a variety of learning tools that emphasize different approaches to learning from simple exercises about building catapults, that let people learn through experimentation, to a full simulation of a coffee brewing operation that can run for more than two days, exploring every aspect of supply chain management at a typical coffee shop.

In the end, the workshop itself became a game, with attendees playing six different MoreSteam games and earning points for the best performance. One attendee with the highest score won the “grand prize” – the choice between a MoreSteam travel mug, a MoreSteam T-shirt or a little wind-up wire toy that bounced around the table but went nowhere, thus illustrating the axiom that “activity does not equal work.”

The winner chose the toy.

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