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

Minitab Blog Editor 13 August, 2014

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...