Six Sigma Failures: Why Does Six Sigma Training Fail?

Kevin McManus

Ineffective Six Sigma Training

If I had to pick one systemic flaw that results in Six Sigma training being ineffective—no wait, let’s make that essentially any training for that matter—it's the fact that most training contains too little time for practice. Think about it—what percentage of your training course time is spent on practice versus lecture or large group discussion? What percentage of the skills that you need to learn to be an effective Six Sigma Black or Green Belt can be remembered—let alone learned, refined and possibly mastered—if you only sit there, listen to the lecture and possibly take notes? How many times do you get to practice using your skills and tools?

Six Sigma Training that Puts You to Sleep and Not to Practice

Good lecture creates a high level of concept awareness, and it stimulates one to think. Bad lecture encourages you to think about things other than the concept being taught—if it doesn’t put you to sleep. Most work skills require practice in order to increase the probability that those skills will be retained and applied. These same skills can also be enhanced over time if the proper application of the skill is repeatedly practiced. Bad practice, however, actually results in the development of "less than effective" skills over time. When you lead a team meeting, are you doing so as taught? How are you using this time—these practice sessions—to consciously improve as a team leader over time?

Even Six Sigma Experts Need Practice to Remain Expert

I have been practicing the seven basic quality tools on a regular basis for the past 20-plus years. I first began applying statistical process control (SPC) on the job over 18 years ago, but I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet—I am still learning things as I use SPC on different processes. I have been facilitating groups for almost 20 years and teaching facilitation skills to others for 15 years, but I still feel that I can improve my public speaking, and more importantly, facilitation skills. I’ve led over 100 teams through a formal problem solving project and done many more individual projects, but I know that I can still improve how I apply the skills needed to effectively lead a process improvement team.

Putting Six Sigma Theory to Practice

In order to first learn about process improvement skills, I did attend several hours of lecture on their theory and application. I have sat through a lot of training courses—some were 100 percent lecture and others constituted as much as 50 percent of the course time. I remember a lot of these courses, but I don’t remember the specifics of what was covered in many cases. I do know what I have practiced, and I am conscious of the results that different approaches give me. I think it is unreasonable, and illogical, to expect three days of Six Sigma training to give you the skills needed for avoiding mistakes, wasting time or building high levels of ownership. If we don’t have time in the course to practice, where are our practice fields and how will we know if we are practicing the right things right or not?

Effective Six Sigma Training Retention Requires a Practice-driven Approach

If you don’t expect your Six Sigma team leaders and members to forget some key things, misapply some skills and make some costly mistakes the first few times they lead a team or develop a Six Sigma project, you are expecting much more than a lecture-based, limited practice time-per-skill training session can provide. You are also wasting a high percentage of your limited Six Sigma training time and investment. If you want to increase the ratio of key concepts retained per hour, a practice-based approach is highly recommended. Can we expect our Six Sigma leaders to be competent when they leave the course? How many Six Sigma projects does a person need to lead in order to be considered a competent Six Sigma project team leader?

Effective Six Sigma Implementation and "Practice" Go Hand in Hand

"A lack of skill practice time" is probably the primary factor of the four that can compromise Six Sigma training, and subsequent individual or team-based project development effort, effectiveness. The other three factors I have touched on here relate to 1) failing to practice the right things when we do practice, 2) practicing the right things wrong with minimal coaching feedback and 3) failing to view post-training application as practice in itself. Our typical approach is to attend Six Sigma training and then hopefully give it our best shot in the weeks, months and years that follow, rarely questioning how well we are applying a given skill and even more rarely receiving feedback from others as to how well we did. I don’t feel that I began learning how to become a better Six Sigma facilitator or leader until I actually started trying to facilitate and lead groups with the help of feedback from others.

The bottom line is this: Don’t expect the Six Sigma training course to do all of the work. Build sufficient time for practicing the right key skills into the course, and use your limited skill time wisely. Ask yourself this question: If I only have 40 hours of training time a year, and 50 percent of that time must be practice-oriented, what skills should I focus on? Also, focus on improving the skill development process that your Six Sigma team leaders will experience.

Effective Six Sigma Requires a Learning and Practice Strategy

Each Six Sigma training course is a process that requires the effective investment of time to get the desired results, so each course should have a process map that details both the time required and the learning results that are expected (in a balanced set of areas). Each process execution—each course taught—should be evaluated and improved. How do you measure Six Sigma training course and skill development process effectiveness? How do you gauge the change in team leader competence following each Six Sigma project completed, each process cycle?

In Six Sigma There are No Immediate Experts

If we can break ourselves from the tendency to want "immediate skill proficiency," we can learn to make better use of our "on the job" practice time. We can redesign our formal Six Sigma training courses to mesh more effectively with and better prepare people for this "on the job" practice. We will learn to appreciate the fact that good team leadership and project development skills take many cycles of execution to learn well, even when you practice doing things right and receive usable performance feedback. With these new models in place, we can focus on improving the skill development process that our Six Sigma team and project leaders will go through over the coming years. How much time do you have for practice?

First published on Six Sigma IQ.