Six Sigma training, or any training for that matter, is of no value if it does not result in performance improvement that is quantifiable. And any learning by anyone requires support — the availability of interpersonal resources.

By Robert B. Tripp

A recent article on surveyed a variety of specific Six Sigma tools that when neglected or overlooked, tend to increase the tendency for projects to fail. At the risk of appearing to be obsessed with root causes of project failure (as Six Sigma people often do), this article is continuing that theme, but on a slightly different level – the design and deployment of learning models.

Without being an expert in adult learning techniques or curriculum design, a person can apply one’s years of experience in the Six Sigma arena in scores of different organizations to observe what does and does not work.

What works? Training of course – pretty much any kind of training, as long as the delivery and materials cover a comprehensive tool set, are of sufficient quality to engage participants, and provide a useful reference for future access. The training can be in a classroom or e-learning environment but it must be coupled with timely support from capable practitioners to ensure project completion and appropriate tool usage.

What consistently fails to work well? Training, any kind of training, with limited or no project support. This is an observation and an axiom clung to dearly for an entire Six Sigma career. Traditionally, many Six Sigma training deliveries have been built around the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives by Benjamin Bloom, a noted educational psychologist. And while this action learning model is well-accepted in most curriculum design circles, it is yet just a theory. So it was easy to cautiously cling to what appeared to be a self-evident truth without any evidence beyond anecdote…until now.

Support for the Observed Truth

The recent discovery of an article written in 2005 by Jeffrey Snipes, CEO and founder of Ninth House, Inc., a leadership development firm, has been a revelation. The article, titled “Blended Learning: Reinforcing Results,” summarizes several studies that reveal plenty of empirical evidence concluding the observed truth really is correct.

But before reviewing the conclusions of the article directly, it is important to establish one over-riding principle: Six Sigma training, or any training for that matter, is of no value if it does not result in performance improvement that is quantifiable via some important metric or metrics (generally in financial terms) to the organization. Six Sigma is designed to deliver this performance enhancement through projects which follow DMAIC, DMADV, or some other similar process. The upshot is that if there is training but no measurable result then it is nearly impossible to defend a value proposition for the training. This is consistent with Bloom’s assertion that knowledge transfer, in and of itself, has no value until the knowledge is applied (presumably for the greater good of society).

Clearly much energy has been devoted to detailing the necessary elements for project success including management support, effective project identification and selection, and effective candidate selection. These are three critical organizational elements among several others that must be in place to ensure the highest probability of project success but they all take for granted one vital element – the design of an effective adult learning model which includes training and support.

Two Very Important Themes Introduced

In the article “Blended Learning: Reinforcing Results,” two very important themes were introduced:

1. Learning Is a Process: (Imagine that, another life experience reduced to a process by a Six Sigma junkie.) That is to say, in the words of the author, “…real development occurs over time and any retention from the event itself soon fades. To be successful, organizations must support a consistent development process over time…”. This starts with effective delivery of the right concepts. The trainer must be prepared and knowledgeable enough to clearly convey concepts while he or she develops a rapport with the class, enabling participants to synthesize the new knowledge. In addition, course materials must be designed in a way that enables retrieval of information during the extended learning process beyond the classroom. Bear in mind that while the initial delivery of information is important, no degree of entertaining histrionics will promote retention of knowledge if the training is not delivered as part of a continuing process.

As much as the classroom is important, Bloom’s Taxonomy indicates that the first two levels of learning – knowledge and comprehension – deliver no business value at all. They are nothing more than throwing paint on a canvass. It is only when someone achieves the application level that there is any value created for the business at all.

2. Learning Requires a Relationship: Successful learning “…requires a process of direct interpersonal communication.” (ibid.). This means support, including support from Champions on strategic or political aspects and support from experts who can assist in the appropriate disposition of specific tools. Learners need to know that they have interpersonal resources which can be tapped to resolve the multitude of challenges experienced, particularly in the first few projects. This support does not need to come from external consultants, but in order to be effective it does need to be consistent, informed and accessible at the right time during the learning and application cycle.

There are organizations that have consciously decided to manage cost by either reducing their support infrastructure or stretching that infrastructure so thin that the people trained are unable to access the right assistance at the right time. At best, many projects are severely delayed. At worst the projects are not completed at all. Ultimately the Belt candidates suffer the consequences of delayed or denied certification and the deployment return on investment is significantly devalued.

The deployment approach aimed at trying to train everyone a company can and support anyone a company can is ill-conceived. Only those who can be effectively supported should be trained. When the support is compromised, the retention of knowledge is attenuated and value delivery through performance reduces to practically nothing for those left unsupported.

Key Elements of Any Learning Initiative

In addition to validating the need for an interpersonal support system, the article concludes by listing five key elements which should be considered in the design of any learning initiative. They translate well to the design of a learning system in a Six Sigma deployment:

1. Plan: Select good projects aligned to strategic objectives and select good candidates. Ensure that the right resources are available to deliver the training and support the Belt candidates. Track the project performance to drive mutual accountability of Belts and Champions.

2. Learn: Deliver the training, providing a learning environment that is conducive to the effective transfer of knowledge. Execute the knowledge delivery (DMAIC, DMADV, etc.) utilizing high-quality instructors, materials, simulations and facilities.

3. Apply: Each student must have a project on which to apply the skills and tools learned in the training. Pace the delivery of knowledge in a sequence that allows for the immediate application of relevant concepts to the project. Usually this means a few days of training per DMAIC or DMADV phase separated by at least a few weeks of tool application to the project between phases, but many combinations exist and are effective employed for the learn-apply-learn cycle.

4. Sustain: For Six Sigma, this element has two key components:

a. Support – As mentioned before this includes both technical support from seasoned practitioners and political or strategic support form Champions.
b. Continuing Education – This can involve a variety of means including brief, topic-specific seminars (“lunch and learn” sessions), conferences, e-learning, etc. The point is that opportunities should be available to both refresh old concepts and expand an individual’s body of knowledge as necessary.

5. Measure: One of the features that distinguishes most Six Sigma deployments from traditional quality management training is the way in which measurable project success drives an accountability structure. Deployments should be and often are measured through project return on investment in training and other organizational resources. This is a commonly accepted standard for successful Six Sigma deployments.

Right Support at Right Time for Every Trainee

The article which is referred to throughout this discussion was never intended to support or instruct Six Sigma deployments specifically. It relates to any type of knowledge-delivery effort. But taken in its generic context, the conclusions articulated here validate the effectiveness of interpersonal support as a key component of the traditional Six Sigma learning model. This support optimizes knowledge retention, tool application and project value delivery. Every organization designing a deployment should not underestimate the importance of the right support at the right time for each person trained.

About the Author: Robert B. Tripp is a managing partner at Six Sigma Advantage. He was part of the “original DNA” of AlliedSignal’s groundbreaking Six Sigma program and is an innovator and leader of Six Sigma retail and financial services. He has trained, coached and certified hundreds of business professionals, managers, engineers and senior leaders in Six Sigma. His experience includes Champion, Master Black Belt, Black Belt, Green Belt and process management training as well as mentoring hundreds of projects. Mr. Tripp can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author