Lessons From Billiards For Six Sigma Training

Editor's note: We have adapted Peter F. Drucker's framework for learning and development for this rather unique example. The ideas relating to behavioral learning, the importance of learning groups, and more are derived from Drucker's writings.

If you’re a pocket billiards enthusiast, you’ll relate to this story.

Pocket billiards (i.e., pool) is a game that can be played equally well alone or competitively. Several years ago, a co-worker purchased a top-of-the-line pool table (Gold Crown III), a dozen or more instructional videotapes, "how-to-do-it" books and even a CD-ROM that enabled him to simulate playing a world-class professional.

He viewed, studied and carefully practiced what he learned. Without doubt, he learned the fundamentals, and his level of play improved. But most of his playing was confined to nightly practice sessions in his basement.

Then, one day, he ventured into a New York City billiard establishment populated by the world’s top-ranked professionals. Men and women of all ages were competing in tournaments. Some were actively engaged in professionally-taught clinics designed to improve playing ability. Others (prosperous Wall Street types) were busily engaged in one-on-one instructional sessions with world champions-turned instructors.

In one defining moment, he realized he was an inferior player compared to those he viewed as worthy opponents. He was amazed at the playing ability of those fortunate enough to afford weekly private lessons.

Prior to witnessing all of this, he thought he had progressed and was satisfied with the skills he possessed. Now he knew he had wasted a great deal of time and was not equipped to play competitively against those he would have thought (in his basement, practicing alone) he would unmercifully defeat.

But that’s not all. He also discovered that many of the players were students of the game. They continuously shared "secrets" and newly acquired knowledge in subjects such as making recurrent kinds of rail shots, determining the exact path of the cue ball after contacting the object ball and using the overhead billiard lighting fixture to determine the exact aiming point. None of these "finer points" were to be found in any of the printed or visual materials purchased by our friend.

So he secured an expensive two-hour lesson from the then 12th-ranked player in the world who was an accomplished instructor and a marvelous diagnostician. The instructor's verdict?

Our friend’s skills were deficient (he stunk). In the process of self-instruction, he developed many bad habits. He jumped up too quickly and, thereby, deflected his aim (he missed a lot). He had not acquired the habit of a full backstroke accompanied by a complete follow-through (his stroke was choppy).

The champion player and expert instructor also said: "You understand very little about the basic skill sets that must be mastered before anything else. Self-development is great, and all learning relies on self-development. But, you need the watchful eye of an instructor to make sure there’s no slippage."

Our friend, an Ivy-leaguer all the way, decided to engage his instructor for a series of expensive lessons. The instructor corrected, mentored, coached, demonstrated and provided take-home lessons. Strangely enough, slippage always occurred and more coaching was required to make the lessons taught become firmly ingrained habits.

A Rude Awakening

Initially, our friend was near-certain he could master the game. Why? Because he thought he had the natural attributes reflected by past academic achievements. Granted, he had promise, that is, potential. But the key to success in pocket billiards is practice.

Learning theorists have a fancy name for practicethey call it behavioral learning. Behavioral learning focuses on drill, rote, routine and repetition. Skill building requires training. Training requires a big dose of behaviorial learning.

After much reflection, our friend realized the reason individual promise was so rarely converted into performance was the absence of practice. In short, everything degenerates into work.

He noted that a lot of the Wall Street types, obviously quite brilliant, never learned the fundamental lesson that brilliance was usually irrelevant in terms of behavioral learning development. (In other words, they didn't practice.) He also observed that "the less brilliant," through practice, achieved uncommon performance.

Finally, he understood, in very practical terms, what learning experts have been claiming for decadesthe achievement of sophisticated skills are relentless taskmasters. They demand from the individual a high level of commitment, immense concentration and continual practice with each ascending plateau.

Seasoned performers in any sophisticated skill realize they grow according to the levels of achievement attained once they reach a certain stage. They understand that learning really begins anew with each addition to the repertory. This sense of incessant achievement and reinforcement through the self-discipline of practice is perhaps the real secret of motivation.

Lessons Learned

This story illustrates three easily forgotten learning essentialsnamely: 1) There is a difference between training and education; 2) training requires instructor expertise; and 3) continuous learning and knowledge sharing are an integral part of the training process.

1) There is a difference between training and education. Training, unlike education, requires coaching, mentoring, performance consulting and "learn-by-doing" activities. Simply put, the difference between education and training is like the difference between taking a music appreciation course and spending years learning how to play a musical instrument.

Many of today’s "training courses" — whether in e-learning form, instructor-led or a mixture of instructional methodologies—are not really training courses. They are lecture and reading programs. The development process will always have disastrous results if the role of behavioral learning is neglected.

Training requires drill, repetition, and constant feedback. Most good teacher-lecturers are usually brilliant synthesizers who are capable of organizing a complex subject into a meaningful pattern; they're also capable of engrossing their audience with dramatic wit and sparkling examples.

The lecture method is a valid technique in the hands of skilled practitioners. But the lecture method is at best only a preparation for learning and is not learning itself. In too many instances, the information goes from the instructor's mouth into the employee's notebook without going into his or her head. Similarly, reading is not the same thing as doing.

Action learning, today's newest term for training, rests on the old Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand." Training requires "doing."

If practicing a craft with 30 years of professional experience essentially involves doing the same thing over and over, it probably means the person has never gone beyond the behavioral dimension of learning. There is a difference between "30 years experience" and "one year's experience 30 times."

Learning theorists have a fancy term for the component of learning that spurs learning to a higher level. It's called "cognitive learning." Cognitive learning supplies the role of vision in the development process. In effect, it incorporates insights into behavioral practice, thereby distinguishing the master professional from the pedestrian performer.

2) Training requires instructor expertise. Skill in applying principles of pocket billiards requires the services of a "live instructor." For example, knowing where to strike the cue ball does not mean students actually strike the cue ball at the designated point. The "mechanics" of aiming, applying English, striking the cue ball at its exact center and dozens of other critical-to-success factors must be mastered to successfully apply theoretical knowledge.

We believe many of today’s "on-site learning programs" in subjects like project management, Lean Six Sigma, re-engineering, design for engineering experiments, business process analysis and the like are not really training programs but rather "book" courses. Further, the development of in-house instructional staffs in highly technical subjects has, in our opinion, been detrimental (in many cases) to the successful application of a given methodology.

Take, for example, statistical process control. A professionally trained statistician at the doctoral level spends at least five years on the school bench learning sampling theory, time series analysis, experimental design, regression-correlation analysis and a host of other related topics. Those who receive degrees in engineering or industrial engineering are sometimes required to take several applied statistics courses and a course in statistical quality control.

Industrial engineers or their equivalents in many organizations are recruited to teach statistical process control to internal manufacturing groups. Without the benefit of a master’s degree in statistics, many of these well-meaning instructors oversimplify the job to be done. A misguided sampling plan leads to erroneous conclusions about quality levels.

A professional statistician is required to take at least a one-year course in sampling. Engineers are not trained to tackle complex sampling problems. Indeed, many professional statisticians would "outsource" complex sampling problems to sampling specialists.

Our point? Getting an "A" in an SPC program is next to meaningless if the program is not related to specific internal business processes and if the correct way to monitor quality is not firmly established. Developing magnificently produced e-learning programs on SPC, coupled with self-testing may be a sure-fire recipe for a future product recall. And if this occurs, training groups must be held accountable for end results.

This means training resources must be focused on results. Training costs, after all, do not exist by themselves; they exist to accomplish a desired result.

It is the job of the training department to do the job right if the result is deemed mission-critical. Buying massive amounts of quality management training programs on the basis of price is irresponsible behavior.

It is our observation that many organizations assign quality training activities to internal training groups, but with limited support and budgets. Most in-house training departments do not have the expertise to think through what needs to be done and how to do it.

At best, they hire a statistics professor from a local college to guide their efforts. Sometimes, it turns out that the professor does not have a degree in the subject; he or she just teaches the subject.

Worse, the need for going out on the plant floor with an expert in statistics, collecting process capability measurements, plotting control charts and detecting unstable processes is rarely recognized as a critical-to- success element when training for quality.

In short, most quality training programs degenerate into "music appreciation" courses. Just like the student, a pocket billiards needs an expert instructor to correct deficiencies in the application of clearly understood concepts; employees also need an expert instructor.

Slippage in learning Lean Six Sigma skills almost always occurs. If the subject is important—whether it be in diagnosing a process problem, finding and administrating a remedy or holding and extending gains—the learning program must constantly diagnose "fast forgetting" and reinforce what was previously taught.

Real skill acquisition, after all is said and done, requires showing, doing, correcting, practicing and customizing. This is best done by real experts.

3) Continuous learning and knowledge sharing are an integral part of the training process. The need for continuous learning and knowledge sharing is rapidly becoming understood by training groups. Continuous learning does not replace formal training. It has different aims and satisfies different needs.

The billiard parlor utilized the teaching services of many top-notch instructors. To be sure, individual instructors did not share their teaching methods with other instructors. But students, eager to win tournaments, asked other instructors and their students specific questions related to improving their own performance.

Students of the game happily shared with others "best kept secrets" about solving specific playing problems. Continuous exposure to the experiences, problems and solutions of others produced remarkable gains in the performance capacity of most players/students affiliated with the billiard parlor.

In all likelihood, the management of this billiard establishment did little to create a "learning group." But, at least, they did not discourage its emergence. Training departments would be well advised to create formal and informal learning groups and encourage the sharing Lean Six Sigma success tactics.

The growth of social media (and other Web 2.0) technologies now enables the sharing of best internal practices.


Training groups must take a high view of their function, set high standards for their objectives and accept the notion that there is a difference among training programs, education courses and continuous learning. Whatever deterioration there has been in the quality of employee training has resulted from the acts of senior management and internal training groups.

Senior management puts an emphasis on minimizing training cost per employee and refuses to take the purpose of the training seriously, thus bringing about a conscious downgrading of expectations. Then training groups attempt to lower costs by developing staff instructors to teach highly technical subjects best taught by world class experts who can solve thorny problems and provide required performance consulting.