Of all the new and innovative applications for Six Sigma, none may be as interesting as one being used in the state of Colorado – applying Six Sigma to all aspects of a public school system. And “all aspects” includes the heart of every school district – the classroom.

In 2008, businessman Jim Weigel, who was president of the school board for Adams County School District 12 in Thornton, Colo., USA, gave his fellow board members an unusual holiday gift. Each of them received a copy of the book The Six Sigma Way (McGraw-Hill, 2000) by Peter Pande, Robert Neuman and Roland Cavanagh. Their assignment for the holiday break was to read it and be ready to discuss it at the first school board meeting in the new year.

Wiegel’s company manufactured granite countertops, and as a Six Sigma practitioner he was familiar with the methodology’s potential for improving production processes. But he knew he had a tough sell convincing the school board and the faculty of Six Sigma’s value to them. Although many of them agreed in theory that the methodology could be applied to any process, when it came to education, they were less sure. They agreed, however, to investigate training programs and consultants who might take on this challenge.

The task was not a small one. The objective was to apply Six Sigma to everything in the school district. The first hurdle was to find a consultant who would work with a public school system. After a few inquiries and false starts, consultant Peter Pande agreed to work with the district. He did leadership training and showed school leaders how Six Sigma could work for the district.

Turning Teachers’ Skepticism into Interest

The most important thing the consultant did for school personnel, including teachers, was to turn their skepticism into interest. Using the case study of a radio broadcasting company, he demonstrated how a system with many flaws could be improved by a careful, thorough application of Six Sigma. Faculty and staff saw how the radio company helped itself by using a step-by-step method to look at all aspects of a process, from identifying and quantifying problems, to analyzing, improving and finally controlling a process. To this day, district teachers remember the radio company case study, and how a messed-up system was fixed by applying the principles they learned.

In the meantime, enter Brian Hodges. An assistant principal who wanted to solve some issues within the school system, Hodges had had statistics training and was familiar with Six Sigma. He seemed a natural fit for a new school district position – quality improvement process evaluator. His job would be to implement Six Sigma, in easy areas and not-so-easy areas. Simplest applications would be on non-educational issues – heating/ventilation of buildings, ordering materials, lawn and building maintenance. The toughest would be on the curriculum side – teachers, textbooks, testing materials and courses.

Hodges received Six Sigma training, advancing to Black Belt status, and began the process of implementation.

“The biggest difficulty,” said Hodges, “was the H factor: The human side of things.” Those who have participated in a Six Sigma deployment, or any other change of culture in an organization, know there is a certain amount of shock, or resistance, which comes with change. In schools, that shock seems a bit more intense than in many other institutions. Issues peculiar to teachers also had to be dealt with as Hodges pursued his mission.

Teachers Good at Jumping to Solutions

Teachers, according to Hodges (who is one), are great at solutions. Often before they have even identified the problem, they have a solution – or two or three solutions. So, Hodges began every meeting with teachers by asking these questions:

  1. What’s the problem? (“Often, I’d get two or three problems they had thought were only one.”)
  2. How do you know?
  3. What are some of the root causes?
  4. What treatment can we apply?
  5. What are the results likely to be?

After many repetitions of this process, the teachers began to see the value of identifying the problem before tackling how to fix it, Hodges said. One story in particular illustrated how understanding a complaint requires an understanding of the real problem:

Many of the teachers frequently complained among themselves about the poor air quality in the classrooms. Poor air quality led to increased absences, more asthma attacks and labels of “sick building syndrome.” The problem was examined carefully using a Six Sigma approach. An environmental specialist was involved, and data was gathered and analyzed by a team consisting of a teacher and a custodian. What they found surprised everyone. Some of the teachers kept animals in their classrooms, with no protocol for caring for them or cleaning the cages or other husbandry issues. Some teachers, for lack of appropriate space, had placed books, papers and other materials on top of ventilators, thereby blocking effective air circulation in those rooms.

Once the factors were identified and analyzed, curative measures could be discussed, chosen and implemented. The result of the Six Sigma project was clean air. Plus, the teachers were thrilled that their grievances had been listened to, and that a solution had been found. To top it off, the school district was honored with an indoor air quality award.

Educational Issue: A Textbook Example

Of course, the air issue was a building problem – not in the strictest sense an educational concern. Using Six Sigma on an educational issue was another matter. But the district had many educational problems that needed investigation. For example, high schools within the district, Hodges explained, were not all teaching the same curriculum. That was a problem in the face of the increased accountability being required of the district, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s “leave no child behind” quality initiative. Since course outlines and the choice of textbooks were left up to individual schools, it was going to be impossible for the district to assess students with a standardized test. Students at each school were learning a different body of knowledge.

“We had the teachers apply Six Sigma tools,” Hodges said. With careful use of the methodology, the teachers analyzed every aspect of the problem, and began to see that it was quantifiable. The result was to pilot one textbook through the ninth and tenth grade levels (and advanced eighth grade) in all schools in the district. At the end of that period, with all students literally “on the same page,” they would be able to test on a particular core of knowledge. Test results would be quantifiable, and there would be the added benefit of a cost savings. With all the schools buying the same textbooks, a larger discount could be negotiated.

“The key,” Hodges said, “was taking us out of the way we were used to thinking.” Forcing a different pattern of thinking brought a newer, clearer vision of what could be done.

Six Sigma for the Future

Hodges is full of ideas for new projects and issues that he has long wanted to explore, both on the business side and the educational side. Among these are:

  • Using a web-based system (which already exists) to assess what the students actually know.
  • Employing an Internet resource to order textbooks, so that one person, and not four, can order books for the coming school year, and then check the distribution of those books as they are shipped to the various schools.
  • Finding out why teachers are hired to perform one function, and end up doing something entirely different. This happens quite frequently, Hodges noted.

A workable online system for applications for teaching positions is one of Hodges’ pet projects. The district had one, “but no one used it,” he said. A new system is now under development. It is being designed with data gathered from analyzing and testing the old system which had multiple deficiencies. The concept – to eliminate some of the paperwork in job applications – was admirable. “But there was no customer satisfaction in the program,” Hodges said. The old online system was difficult to use, cumbersome and tended to quit on users before they had finished the application.

The best thing about Six Sigma in the schools, according to Hodges, is that, with help from his colleagues, he has been able to effect change in areas that everyone agreed needed serious overhauling. Six Sigma is now so integral to how things are done in this school system that Hodges teaches it in his classes. “I teach students to follow the same methodology I’ve had their teachers use.”

With that background, those students will be way ahead of their classmates in college – not to mention the workplace.

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