We know that asking the right questions is necessary for problem solving. So why are so many training programs focused on using forms rather than asking the right questions to drive toward a solution? We also know that the learning curve depends on how many times students use tools in real-life situations. So why do many training sessions cover an overview of the entire Lean Six Sigma toolbox, when only 5 percent of all the tools will most likely be used repeatedly?

Why not expect more from our Belt training than simply teaching how to use the right tool or chart? Why not base final certification on whether a candidate knows the right questions to aid their team in solving the problem at hand?

The answer to these questions is an approach for training Belts that encourages students to think for themselves rather than follow a form. The vision is to create a change in organization culture – specifically, to guide Belts to become better problem solvers.

No Forms, Only Questions

This new approach for training White, Yellow and Green Belts proposes the use of a workbook with sets of questions – each set for a different tool No forms or templates are used to teach the tool. Instead, the trainer introduces each topic with a slide or two, and then everyone dives into the workbook questions. Each question leads to the next, and each set of questions leads into the next tool. See an example of workbook sheets for teaching the suppliers, input, process, output, customer (SIPOC) diagram in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Workbook Questions Used to Teach SIPOC

High-level Process Mapping, SIPOC

The purpose of this section is to show how you can get an overview of business impact and the team that needs to be involved by using a simple tool.

A. What are the business processes that you expect to see a change?

  • Order entry
  • Accounts payable
  • Returns process
  • New idea generation

B. List in sequence the action steps in your process. Use about six words to describe each process step. Maximum five steps.

  1. _____________________
  2. _____________________
  3. _____________________
  4. _____________________
  5. _____________________

Question #1: What happens when you do the steps out of sequence or the process breaks down?

Question #2: Is there any task that is skipped often? Why?

C. What is the output the selected customer expects from the entire sequence of steps?

D. Who will be impacted if you do not do the process? List them. Pick one who is key to the process.

E. What is the output the selected customer expects from the entire sequence of steps [Refer to Question #1]

F. What are the inputs in your process that are essential to your output? List them.

G. Who are the suppliers of the inputs?

Focus on Power Tools

This approach for teaching Belts takes on another recognized key to culture change: repetition. To become an expert, a Belt needs to be able to repeat the basics. What are these basics? They are tools that are commonly used, easy to train and are applicable to most of the problems that Belts face. The more Belts use these tools, the more they realize how powerful they can be in driving continuous improvement.

The November/December 2009 issue of iSixSigma Magazine featured a research report about tool usage (“The Lean Six Sigma Toolset”). In the survey, when asked, “Which [approach] would you prefer as a means to learn Six Sigma tools?”, 70 percent of the 811 respondents said they would prefer that their training program offered a deep dive into common tools for the level being trained, with just-in-time training for the other tools as needed. Twenty-one percent said they would like a deep dive into all the tools, and 9 percent preferred a shallow overview of all tools at that training level.

At my organization, Smith & Nephew Endoscopy, the most commonly used tools are: SIPOC, voice of the customer (VOC), critical-to-quality trees, RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) diagrams, process maps, waste analysis, affinity diagrams, 5 whys, impact-effort matrix, multi-generational maps, Pugh matrix, piloting and control plans. We call these the “power tools” for their ability to aid the speed of improvement and quick wins whenever they are used. When teaching other tools in the Lean Six Sigma toolbox, we show how those special tools build on the power tools. Again, there are no forms involved.

Figure 2 is an example of how a design failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) may be conducted by simply repeating a specific sequence of the power tools instead of using a form.

Figure 2: Script for Performing DFMEA Using Power Tools


The purpose of this document is to aid the standardization of how we conduct DFMEA.

Prep: Prioritize key parts of the design. For each part, repeat the routine below.


1. Focusing the team. Start with a quick (5 minutes) functionality demonstration.

2. Brainstorm failure modes and place them under predetermined groups.

For example: list of groups and their severity ranking:

  • Patient reaction = 10
  • During surgery: product broke/damage = 9
  • Additional device/re-work during surgery = 8
  • During surgery: Re-work part of the procedure = 7
  • Functionality failure = 6
  • Delay in surgery = 5
  • Other = 2

3. Go through 5 Whys to determine the root cause that can lead to the problem. Place the root cause under the correct common cause category.

For example: list of common causes and their occurence rating:

  • Inadequate surgeon product training = 10
  • Inadequate technique guidelines = 8
  • Inadequate material design tolerance = 7
  • Inadequate manufacturing methods = 5
  • Other = 2

4. Identify and mark where controls exist or can be placed.

For example: list of control locations and their ability to detect:

  • Voice of the customer = 5
  • Design = 6
  • Process design = 7
  • Production = 8
  • Surgery preparation = 9
  • Surgery = 10

5. Calculate risk priority number.

6. Arrange in order of priority and generate action items.

Changing Habits

So, now you might be asking, “What about charts and statistical analysis – the major components of Lean Six Sigma?” This question-based approach seeks to strengthen the use of charts and statistical analysis by first driving the right thought process.

For example, teams meeting to discuss design of experiments (DOE) now collect VOC data first and have process ownership established before discussing how many runs, trials and repeats the DOE should have. This work helps ensure that the right questions will be answered by the statistical analysis.

A New Way of Thinking

The immediate benefit of the new method is to make everyone think and be engaged through the duration of the training. Using a workbook to guide questions in class gives Belts materials they can use as a refresher at any time. This format is especially beneficial if the program wants to standardize a curriculum across multiple trainers. The only caveat would be class size, as the approach may not work as well with more than 12 participants.

To drive a problem-solving culture, it is essential to have a thinking organization. The creative approach to teaching continuous improvement is designed entirely around asking the right questions. The ability to ask the right questions, and be able to do so continuously, is the basis for a process improvement culture.

Perhaps many organizations still use forms and templates because they have learned to live with them, and no longer realize the importance of learning how to ask pertinent questions. But problem-solving methods can exist without the aid of forms, templates and toolboxes. It is a way of continuous thinking that leads to a way of working.

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