During 2008-2009, I led an effort to create an in-house Lean Six Sigma training curriculum in our 34-hospital healthcare system. Not only did my organization want the training to be effective and cost-efficient, but it also needed to help standardize the language used in the deployment as well as the program structure – areas that are essential for our long-term success.

The team charged with developing the introductory-level curriculum included Black Belts, Master Black Belts and process improvement experts. Team members had varied backgrounds, including healthcare, manufacturing, information technology and customer service.

The team followed a process based on proven curriculum development principles enumerated by Judith Howard, a professor of education at Elon University:

  1. Determine objectives and categorize them as either define, understand or apply. (These categories determined the level of detail and the complexity of the curriculum. An objective categorized as “define” is less significant than an objective categorized as “apply.”)
  2. Create, design and develop core training materials.Design and develop complementary exercises, games, tests, agendas and supporting media (e.g., videos and sound clips).

In the beginning, the team met weekly to discuss, review and complete the list of objectives. After a period of a year and a half, the team had developed a nine-day curriculum for students to become certified as Lean leaders. The course, which is a prerequisite to Green Belt training, leads each trainee through the DMAIC structure, with an emphasis on Lean concepts. Trainees must work on a project during training and complete an additional project to gain certification.

During the curriculum development process, there were a number of challenges faced and lessons learned that could be applied to other organizations wishing to develop an in-house Lean Six Sigma training program.

Challenge 1: Agreeing on Objectives

The team started developing the curriculum by outlining the objectives and allowing each team member to share what they thought needed to be included. However, the direction later changed. For example, certain items proved to be too complex for the entry-level class, such as failure mode and effects analysis and the Y=f(x) equation. Unfortunately, these conclusions were not made until the material (PowerPoint presentations) was put together and reviewed. At this point, the team began to waver and debate the merits of the original objectives.

In the end, the team removed quite a bit of the objective language and modified the curriculum several times. Of course, these actions created rework and waste, which contradicts the basic principle of Lean teaching.

Lesson learned: Be clear and decisive at the beginning with your objectives. It is helpful to create a detailed outline of the items that will be included in your curriculum. However, to avoid the problem of including too much at once, teams should properly scope the objectives at the outset. The depth, detail and application of the material in your curriculum should be based on two questions: 1) what do you want the trainee to learn? and 2) what do you want the trainee to apply?

Challenge 2: Preparing the Material for Presentation

Deciding on the template, color palette and background of the training presentation became the next debate. Most people are used to putting slide decks together with several bullets on one page, but the team decided that this is not the most effective way to learn and teach. Instead, bullet points would be turned into graphs and pictures that illustrated each concept or point. These graphics would draw attention to one to two points and give the instructor the ability to interject real-life experiences and examples into the presentation.

Although the graphics were determined by the group to be the most effective approach, creating them took considerably more time than first expected and put the team behind on its timeline. In addition to the time constraint, the team did not always agree on the colors, graphs, pictures and font style. Like the first challenge, the template was not chosen until after the materials were put together. The presentation then required additional modification and updates.

Lesson learned: Review and agree on a presentation template prior to putting materials together. Include color, style, font and shading. This will save a lot of time by avoiding rework. As a rule of thumb, try to use graphs instead of bullet points so that the trainer can communicate the important items of the concept rather that read the slides. If bullets are used in the material, be sure to have the trainer interact with and engage the audience. The trainee can always reference the slides later.

Challenge 3: Ensuring an Effective Curriculum

From past experience with teaching adult learners, team members knew the curriculum needed to cover concepts several times and in different ways for the students to remember them. According to Howard, the interaction should accomplish three things:

  1. Reinforce the concept
  2. Give the trainees the ability to practice
  3. Give the trainees the ability to apply the concept to their own projects

For example, the trainees could be broken up into teams and assigned a set of exercises with real-life project information (i.e., project charters, process maps, etc.). Obvious choices to include in the curriculum were exercises that required the teams to work on applying concepts immediately.

However, having little experience in putting a curriculum together, the team found that the most demanding task was creating interactive, fun, thought-provoking games that helped the team learn at the same time. At first, there was no plan, because we had very little experience with inventive material. The original exercises were example-based applications. For instance, a poor business case was provided and the trainee was asked to rewrite the example to improve it.

Recently, curriculum additions were made emphasizing entertaining and inventive games. For material review purposes, we found that a “Jeopardy”-style quiz game was popular. We also use a match game, to pair concepts with answers; a coin toss game, to measure the number of heads-or-tails flips and graph the data; and “The Beer Game,” which teaches workflow optimization by having participants assume the roles of a beer distributor supply chain.

Lesson learned: Do your research. There are plenty of resources that provide ideas for games and exercises, such as BMGI Training, or The Big Book of Humorous Training Games (McGraw-Hill, 2000), by Doni Tamblyn and Sharyn Weiss. Make sure the training is interactive and fun. This will make a better impression on the students and keep them engaged, so the team will learn more.

Keeping the Curriculum Fresh

Even after a curriculum is developed, it will need occasional review and adjustment. Trainees are a good source of information that will help keep the program fresh. Capture their feedback by keeping a “parking lot” on any suggestions or recommendations during class so the feedback is documented and understood.

Then, review materials annually to ensure exercises, videos and examples are relevant and fresh. Consider the parking lot recommendations and suggestions, and solicit feedback on the curriculum from trainers, team members and Champions.

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