Establishing an Effective Process Excellence Training Program (transcript)

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Rob Stewart


As many process excellence leaders know, one of the key aims of a process improvement program is not to deliver merely technical results, but to change the way that people in an organization think, so that improvement becomes something that everyone does on a daily basis. But instilling a “continuous improvement mindset” - as many call it - does not happen overnight and establishing an effective process excellence training program is a critical factor for success. So what are the key elements to a successful program?

In this interview, Rob Stewart, CEO and Founder of OpusWorks®, formerly The Quality Group shares over 3 decades of experience in training and offers some of his top advice to companies. He also explains why he feels that the blended learning model – that is using both online and offline tactics in your training – generates the most powerful results. 

Editor’s note: this is a transcript of a recent podcast. It has been edited for readability. Listen to the original podcast here.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: When you co-founded The Quality Group nearly 25 years ago, in July of 1992, I've heard you say that your core mission has stayed the same: helping organizations to implement blended learning for process improvement. What's changed since 1992 and what's stayed the same, in your opinion?

Rob Stewart: A lot has changed and yet a lot has stayed the same. One of the things that really hasn't changed, surprisingly, is that organizations today talk a lot about engagement and alignment and culture change. Those were many of the same issues that went into our founding and, as you know, we originally launched from IBM and our original product was a blended learning system that was, looking in hindsight, way ahead of its time.

It didn't seem like that back then, but IBM had spent several million dollars producing this course to teach SPC - Statistical Process Control - to plant floor operators, and they found that the six-day class wasn't working in getting the engagement, the alignment, and the culture change, and the consistency. So everybody throughout the company on all the plant sites would implement the same way.

And that's when they turned to technology to teach the basics, to teach the foundational principles in an engaging and motivational way so when people came together in teams, they were all on the same page, and they were ready to go to work.

And this was able to be implemented by frontline management because they didn't have to be the teachers. The system was the teachers. So, really, what we were doing is automating the manual parts of doing the training. And any time you do automation, you improve productivity.

I may be getting ahead of myself in the interview later on, but we were getting results like 30% to 50% less time to teach the basics than the traditional class approach. And so, really, for our 24 years, we've been really arguing that, by applying technology to learning, you're improving learning productivity. Arbitrary hours, in terms of length of time to deliver training, are really kind of meaningless when you apply the technology.

Anyway, those are the things that have stayed the same. What's quite different is, of course, the delivery platform itself. Then, we got started on interactive video disks. Many of the people listening to this podcast or reading this transcript will find that, may never even have heard of an interactive video disk! We then moved to CD-ROM.

Then in the 2000s, along came the internet. Now, what's interesting is, in the 90s, we didn't have a sustainable delivery system. It was all on CD or Laserdisc. That was really when the best e-learning was created, because all kind of multimedia attributes and interactivity were built in.

In the 2000s, we now had a delivery system in its infancy called the Internet, and everybody jumped to this new technology, except it was still in its infancy and so the “quality of the e-learning,” (quote unquote), that was produced then was really also in its infancy and very much e-reading rather than e-learning. Everyone thought the Internet was going to take over education, so all training would be e-learning, and people really didn't embrace the concept of blended.

Now, in the 2000s, 2010s, this decade, people recognize there is a high variability in the quality of the e-learning, and blended is the way to go. Teach the basics using the technology so that when people come together in teams to apply it, they're all on the same page.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: You speak a great deal about the importance of blended learning for companies focusing on quality initiatives. Is this something more than just skills training? What does it actually entail and how does it add value over time as the company invests in it?

Rob Stewart: It is more than skills, and it's really a recognition that skills aren't enough. What we've done is invested an awful lot of human resource in skills training, and so by the time we get to the application of the knowledge, the behavior change, the bottom line results, we've expended a lot of human energy already just to get to that point. What would be great is if that could be the starting point for the human energy, because companies don't invest in Lean Six Sigma in order to build skills. They invest in the skills in order to deliver results.

For some, blended means the combination of various mediums. So I'm going to use this AV system, I'm going to use this podcast, I'm going to use this article, I'm going to combine that within the structure, so you're bringing lots of different mediums. To us, it's really very simple. You've got the self-paced training that is technology-powered, and you have the human-powered training, which is the behavior change and the application.

So yes, it's more, and it's doing more with less. It's scaling that training. It's having an automated system that's definable, repeatable, predictable, consistent, and it's the wise application of technology so that organizations can really scale their training on a global enterprise.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: How important is it for companies to be able to customize their quality tools and training initiative?

Rob Stewart: Great question. We get asked this question about customization all the time. I think the question really should be is how important is it for the companies themselves to be able to customize their quality initiative? Can you go read a book or get a cookie cutter, a quality or operational excellence approach that says, do this, do this, do this, and apply it to your business? The training simply follows the deployment. If the deployment is not customized the training doesn't need to be customized necessarily other than the cosmetic customization. If the deployment is customized, which is the way we find most deployments, then certainly the training and the deployment strategy itself need to be customized.

The word customization needs an operational definition. It could range anything from putting a customer's logo onto the main portal to actually changing the words on the screen that take place within the module. So it's important to know what you're talking about in customization, and one of our original design points with our OpusWorks® platform has been the ability to customize content and customize look and feel and the way you can take our modular content and put it together in modular pieces so that it is customized with a few clicks.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: And are you finding that customization is, say, becoming more common? And what kind of trends, for instance, could you see in the types of requests you're getting?

Rob Stewart: We're finding that it [customization] is becoming more common and more requested. As operational excellence principles spread to many other industries - healthcare, retail, certainly services, government, and well beyond - and each one of those industries has a base strategy, a core strategy that is successful for them. And even within the same company, there are different divisions that have different maturity levels in the way they apply the principles.

So even in the midst of that extensive customization, it is really important to have a common foundational core around which you build the customizations. Now, that core may vary by industry to industry or even from company to company, but within an organization, it's really important to have that common core as people move around from place to place within an organization.

And it's important to have a system that will allow you to manage that common core and yet provide distributed flexibility for how that common core, common foundation, is utilized across the organization, which gets into why we, at The OpusWorks Company, also known as The Quality Group, have invested so much in building and developing this OpusWorks® learning deployment platform so you can have central control over the things that are important and common across the whole organization and yet have a systems approach to providing that distributed flexibility.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: Moving onto some of the practical considerations that companies may need to take into account: How much should companies be prepared to invest in skills development and training once they commit to an operational excellence program? How long do they need to do it? Is it relative to the size of their workforce? And any other considerations that you might recommend companies think about?

Rob Stewart:  Just as there is variation and customization about how each organization drives their deployment, we believe so also should the skills training and development and behavior training be a part of that process. So the skills development strategy, of course, needs to align with the deployment strategy.

We often say that our purpose at The Quality Group is to deliver a strategic solution to what's perceived as a tactical problem. A tactical problem is building the skills and the behavior change for the organization. The strategic aspect of that is taking that learning and organizational learning and having a system to apply it across the organization so that the deployment leader has the levers that they need to strategically deploy learning in order to accomplish specific business outcomes.

So everybody needs to be aligned with whatever the training is. You may not need to train everybody, but everyone who is involved, from the executive to the Black Belt to the team member, they need to be drawing from a common body of knowledge, a common delivery, with very low variation so that all of them are on the same page.

Now, the other thing is that often people think that there is one blended approach that's going to work for an organization. Not true. It may be dozens or even hundreds of blends that are needed for an organization. What's the business problem? What are the actions that the team needs to take in order to solve that problem? And what learning is needed to provide the skills necessary to solve that problem? And so that is going to vary from team to team, and so the ability to mix and match modules and have a curriculum that is modular so you can pull the pieces out that you need and put them in whatever order that you need becomes increasingly important.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: You've been a pioneer in blended learning. What have you found are the keys to success in deploying blended learning specifically for operational excellence?

Rob Stewart: As you know, Diana, there are some fun parts to being a pioneer and there are some not so fun parts about being a pioneer. So one of the fun parts is you get to think about this stuff for a long time, and over the years we would come up with five keys to success.

The first is, and by the far the most important, but not the only one, is the quality of the e-learning itself. Fortunately, today, people are in a much better position to discern quality and recognize that there is high variation in the quality of the e-learning. And one type of e-learning may work well for one type of audience and not work well for another type of audience.

So it's not saying that necessarily this e-learning is good and this e-learning is bad. Our design point, from the beginning, has been the operator, the frontline worker, building that common foundation of skills, and that takes a different instructional design.

It's almost an interactive movie-like design than if you were trying to teach experts and engineers by training into what is Lean and Six Sigma and operational excellence. And for ones that might be a PhD expert, online reading might be a perfect instructional design and they'll be bored to tears with something that's designed for the frontline worker.

So making sure that the quality of the e-learning meets the audience and the outcomes is number one, and we often say that if the e-learning does not set up better human interaction, it's not good, or at least it's not good for your audience.

Number two is what you do in the human interaction event has to be complementary, not redundant. If you're just being redundant with the e-learning, why do the e-learning in the first place? What you need to do in the human interaction events, in the classes, the team meetings, the Kaizen events, is apply the learning and focus on how you're going to improve the business, move the needle.

Number three says, your instructors have to be bought in and understand what training has occurred in the e-learning. So they, too, are not redundant, and they're bought in to the fact that they are not the wise imparter of knowledge, the sage on the stage - to use an old cliché - but more the guide on the side. They need to embrace a role of being a facilitator and enabler, and their measure of success is not how well somebody does on a post test, but how well the student and the team are able to apply the knowledge to improve the business.

Number four, and this is one that people are challenged with the most, and that is managing expectations - the expectations of the student. You must do the pre-work or don't bother coming to class. Different organizations struggle with how they're going to apply that principle.

It's communicating with management. We're making a bargain here. We're going to cut your class time in half, so we're going to minimize that disruption and furthermore, we're going to cut your student time by a quarter. Now, how do we accomplish that?

Think of it in terms of general rule of thumb, we're going to cut class time in half and student time by a quarter, and the way we do that is that good e-learning should be able to teach the same amount of material in half the time or less. So that's how we get that benefit, but if management does not provide the space and the time for the student to do their pre-work, then the model breaks down. So expectations are critically important.

Number five is a deployment system we call the learning deployment platform that allows you to manage all the pieces that are related to delivering a blended class. One of my good friends, Chris McGill at Cintas said: “your Lean Six Sigma operational excellence classes should be the best ones offered by your organization.” They also happen to be the most complex with all the materials and the tools and templates that are needed. And trying to keep all that stuff in one place up to date, organized for potentially a global audience, is no small feat, and that's why the quality of your system to drive the deployment is so essential.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: Moving on to the technology aspect of all this;  a lot of your experience has been on the online module or website side of the business. Are you having to address requests and demands from clients that they want training and apps that are optimised for mobile? What's happening in that space?

Rob Stewart: I'm really glad you asked this question. We have seen mobile coming for a number of years, and we think it is now upon us, and we are using this as an opportunity, once again, not only to move to mobile but also make sure our curriculum is optimized for mobile and as efficient in the mobile delivery process as it possibly can be.

So, as we’ve discussed, our base is creating engaging and rich interactive online learning experiences. We know that PowerPoint page turners are not going to get the job. So over the years, we have embraced what has been the most powerful learning platform of its time, and that's Flash.

However, as we are all aware, the world, mostly led by Apple, has turned away from Flash. And so, while Flash is a strong desktop contender, it is not sufficient for the mobile environment of today's learner. So, recognizing the trends that are out there, we know that we need to make the move to mobile, but we need to do it in a responsible and high-quality way.

And so, first of all, what's important is it must be HTML-5 based. Our content must continue to be engaging, rich and interactive. It's got to be optimized for cross-platform capability, meaning you could go to the module on your tablet or your smartphone and then pick it up later on your computer and pick up right where you left off. And of course, as always, the delivery of the content is to prepare the learner for the class or human interaction instruction, be that live or virtual. And of course, you still have to build in the testing along with the interactivity.

So we're excited that we've cracked this code. The Yellow Belt versions of our modules are now complete into the new curriculum. The team is working feverishly on the Green Belt and the Black Belt. Well before next January at PEX Week, we're going to be fully converted. And yet, then we'll be positioned for the next great technology, which is really also what has changed, as we've continuously improved our content, our delivery and our platform.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: Of course, one of the impacts of all this new technology is it's really changed the way that the workforce is organized, and today's workforce in particular is much more mobile and decentralized than it ever has been before. How do you find that this affects the quality initiative? For instance, should companies consider specific types of training and mentoring for employees who might be spread across many locations and time zones?

Rob Stewart: Well, at this juncture I have to give PEX organization a lot of credit in the work that we've done over the past three years together with the PEX Institute in seeing that the all brick-and-mortar model of doing training was not sustainable for today's audience.

And so, together, we have pioneered an all-virtual blended learning model that has been universally embraced by students who've experienced it and who have been enthusiastic about its flexibility and increased engagement of the learner over geographical boundaries. And the interest to this is increasing almost at an exponential rate as companies struggle with how do they accomplish the engagement, the foundational skill-building, the culture change, the custom teams and classes, and fight the travel cost, the disruption to the workplace, and not step back in quality of learning experience but step forward.

And the PEX Institute model of the all-virtual blend, the hands-on aspect, the fact that people from different continents are working together real-time in a virtual breakout room to do a project, is really a tremendous breakthrough that's of increasing interest to companies.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: We've talked a lot about strategies and concepts in this interview. Do you have any customer experiences that you might be able to share to really help illustrate some of the approaches?

Rob Stewart: Sure. Several come to mind. One might be a diversified manufacturer that has a variety of different types of businesses and yet wants to have that consistent approach for applying Lean on the frontline. And having this system enable the organization to put all of the pieces together in one place is certainly a competitive advantage that, frankly, had not been envisioned by this customer prior to beginning his deployment. He began with the traditional Green Belt training and that Green Belt training was more statistics-heavy, and so the ability to customize by adding more statistical rigor to this Green Belt course was a key attribute for him.

Another one, a very large organization, with many, many divisions; the strategy was to have a master learning deployment and then sub-learning platforms - portals, if you will - that are interconnected so that the executive can provide central control over the content and then provide the various divisions and business units with their own sub-portal so that they have the flexibility they need. And further, there could be even a series of sub-portals under that to provide that close-to-home flexibility that we're talking about.

So central control and distributed flexibility are two kinds of examples that come to mind whether you're a smaller organization or a large, complex, global organization.

Diana Davis, PEX Network: Moving from now to start thinking about the future, what excites you about where we're going? What trends do you see happening that all companies will have to address in their quality program, including yours?

Rob Stewart: The good news is that process improvement, whatever you call it, isn't going to go away, because the basic aspects of business, about taking something, adding value to it and receiving a return from it, are basically the foundational principles.

So how can we innovate those processes? That innovation is constantly changing, and we're continuing to see more choice, more need for flexibility, more need for variation, and yet at the same time, that is juxtaposed upon the drive for standard work, consistency of execution, just-in-time learning, all of which add to the challenge of deployment leaders to say, “what should I control and what should I let go?”

And that may be one way in 2016; it might be a totally different structure in 2017, so how can the deployment leader react and read information coming from the deployment and respond quickly to achieve the outcomes that are wanted at the speed of business?

So centralized systems don't necessarily support speed to results. The learning deployment strategy, learning and execution toolset, in the hands of the deployment leader, are what can be that strategic game changer. So I'm excited about how our company is aligned to serve the deployment leader in an increasingly strategic way.