Taking the Training Wheels Off: Rethinking How Lean Six Sigma is Taught

Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for any kid, so much so that we even use the expression "taking the training wheels off" for all kinds of situations. We say it to mean that we are going to let someone perform an activity on their own after removing some safeguard, even though we know they will likely experience failures before becoming proficient at it.

You see, riding a bike requires one to learn three skills—how to pedal the bike, how to brake, and how to balance on the bike—and training wheels allow the child to master two of those three without the dangers associated with failing at the third.  

But at some point the training wheels must come off and the child must learn to balance on their own, and inevitably this ends with some scraped knees and tears and in some cases a general desire to never touch a bike again. We hope the child eventually learns and discovers what a great joy riding a bike is, but this isn't about the end of the process but rather how one gets there.

A few years ago, someone rethought this frustrating process and started selling "balance bikes," a two-wheeled bike with no pedals and a seat that sits low enough to the ground that a child can put their feet down without getting off the seat. In fact, they HAVE to put their feet down to propel themselves forward and to brake!  Here is an example:

Kazam Balance Bike

That's the one our son used, starting when he was two years old.

Now, here's what is so effective about a balance bike: while it still separates learning to balance from learning to pedal and brake, it requires the child to first learn the hard part—balancing—while still providing a safety net (the ability to put feet down to avoid tipping over).  When the child is old enough for a pedal bike, you can leave the training wheels in the box...the child already mastered balancing while riding on two wheels, so learning to pedal and brake is simple and knees remain unscathed.

In my role at Minitab, I work with numerous organizations that train belts in Lean Six Sigma. There are two primary models that are virtually universal:

  1. A student either selects to become a Green Belt or Black Belt, and in the respective class they learn to execute DMAIC projects by going in order of phase (first they learn Define, then Measure, etc.) and learning the tools appropriate for each phase as they go.
  2. All students start in a Green Belt course (that typically lasts two weeks), which teaches DMAIC in the manner outlined above, and then those seeking to become Black Belts continue for an additional two weeks to learn more advanced tools that they can use.

In my experience, understanding statistics is the most challenging part of becoming a belt. So what if we let the balance bike inspire us and rethought how we teach belts?  What if belts spent some time first learning some fundamental statistical concepts and tools and became comfortable applying those before we taught them the rest?

I think we might avoid many skinned knees and ensure everyone gets to experience the joy of riding alone...


Name: Roger Ellis • Saturday, August 16, 2014

As a Master Black Belt who develops and teaches Belt certification courses at all levels, I currently have my feet firmly in both camps. Our Green Belt course is structured by the phases of DMAIC. I recently revised our Black Belt course (for which the Green Belt is a prerequisite) so that the first half of the course covers the statistical tools and techniques, and the second half is the planning and execution of a Black Belt project. Early indications are that the Black Belt students are doing a better job overall in the course as a result. One of our other instructors has suggested that we do the same thing with the Green Belt course - i.e. separate out the statistical tools and techniques to provide more focus for the students.

Name: Craig Tickel • Saturday, August 16, 2014

Interesting starting point for a discussion, but the problem Isee wih your proposal of first teaching statistical tools and concepts, is that people don't understand how it applies to their everyday environment. To continue with your analogy, it would be like teaching your son the pedaling part first.. until he understands the balancing part, the pedaling doesn't connect. Now I will give you there are higher level statistical concepts that people need to "get" but not sure quick exposure to the tools helps... they need to get the understanding (reference Bloom's taxonomy) before getting caught in the application of the tools. Just my opinion... but like the discussion.

Name: Chet Haibel • Sunday, August 17, 2014

There may be a danger in the student using less rigor in the disciplines of Define and Measure to get to the fun stuff they have already mastered -- Statistics in Analyze.

Name: Joel • Monday, August 18, 2014

Roger - Thanks for the comments! It seems to me that the "2+2" model does seem to result in better performance and satisfaction, and students enter the black belt portion better prepared to just learn tools. Although is sounds a little cold, it also gives you the ability to not allow students to move on to black belt unless they have demonstrated that they "get it" and are able to take on more advanced tools.

Craig - I think we agree more than you think. By no means would I suggest quick exposure to statistics, and in my experience anyone who learned statistics without learning how it applies to real problems either hates it or finds it a useless subject. I only got into statistics because of a professor with lots of real-world experience who tied every tools to examples he experienced where companies actually learned something. Seeing the value in even basic tools was incredibly engaging! Minitab training courses are structured this way and would be incredibly valuable for anyone to attend prior to a Six Sigma course.

Chet - Always good to hear from you! That's a valid concern and one you'd certainly have to be mindful of. I think it would be flipping the tables some - currently many students lack rigor in the statistics because it's more difficult. My personal experience was getting trained in Lean Six Sigma having already mastered the statistical tools, and I actually found the remainder very interesting as it gave not only new tools but also a structure for tackling big problems where the data analysis portion was not always obvious ahead of time. But it is easy to see how someone could get so excited with the statistics that it becomes a hammer and their too busy pounding "nails" to bother learning the rest!

Name: Roger Ellis • Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hi Joel. You are absolutely correct about screening Green Belts to see who has the chops to be a Black Belt. One of the stated course objectives for our Green Belt program is to help students figure out if the Black Belt is right for them. Most students self select - they may start the Green Belt thinking that they want the Black, and then find out that the Green was as much as they need or want (or can handle). After certifying over 500 Green Belts I have a very good sense of who will be successful at the Black Belt level. I would not call the process cold - simply realistic.

Our Green Belt completion rate is 96%. Our Black Belt success rate is 50% despite my best efforts to screen students, set realistic expectations as to how much work there is to do, and mentor them individually through the program. Only one out of nine Green Belts attempts the Black Belt. This is clearly indicative that not everyone is cut out to be a Black Belt. Only the strong survive:))

Name: Joel • Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Roger - Glad to hear of the success! Out of curiosity, when you say your black belt success rate is 50% are you referring to the percentage of trained BB's that actually complete a project? Or the % that choose to stay as BB's? Are your BB's full-time?

Often times I would see those percentages reversed as the GB's are not doing Six Sigma full time and even if they are interested they are not given the time or resources to actually do a project. If the BB's are full time they do a project even if they hate LSS because it's their job and they'll get fired otherwise! Sounds like you have a good funnel going so I'm curious about the nature of black belt success being so low.

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