The appearance of “quality” topics originated as early as the 1950s when Deming’s teachings surfaced. In the 1980s, major corporations like Motorola, Digital Equipment, Boeing and Xerox rallied around the quality concept of Six Sigma. In recent years, popularized by General Electric, Allied Signal, Sony, DuPont and others that tell a tale of dramatic quality improvement and change, Six Sigma is at the forefront of quality initiatives commanding CLOs’ attention and learning resources.
Because of the rigorous methodology imposed by Six Sigma, learning and training organizations become heavily involved with preparing employees for Six Sigma. Employees are utilizing Six Sigma skills to drive quality improvement in functions ranging from manufacturing and engineering to purchasing and human resources. What does this enterprise-wide methodology demand from corporate learning organizations?
Six Sigma Defined
Six Sigma is a data-driven, methodical program of continuous and breakthrough improvement focused on customers and their critical requirements. Sigma refers to the Greek symbol (s) that represents the amount of variation in a process. The lower the variation in a process, the fewer defective parts or service transactions are produced, and the higher the Sigma number. The ultimate goal is to eliminate defects and errors and the costs associated with poor quality. After defining which performance measures represent Critical to Customer (CTC) requirements, data are collected on the number of defects and then translated into a sigma number. A sigma of 6 translates to 3.4 defects per million opportunities. (See Table 1.) It is common to find 3 to 4 sigma levels in many manufacturing processes, and or 3 sigma in transactional businesses. Moving from 3 to 4 sigma could be classified as continuous improvement. The breakthroughs occur when a process is improved to the 6 sigma level, almost perfect quality. For example, U.S. daily mail delivery at the 4 sigma level would result in the loss of 0,000 pieces of mail each hour. If mail delivery were at the 6 sigma level, the result would be the loss of seven pieces of mail each hour.
Table 1: Sigma Capabilities
Defects per Million Opportunities (DPMO)
Yield (no defects)
To ensure that the process works, a series of steps is undertaken in every Six Sigma project: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control, commonly referred to as DMAIC. (See Table .) Six Sigma requires training of key personnel involved in the projects and oversight management of the program. Training activities have evolved to a set of generally accepted levels known as Yellow Belts, Green Belts, Black Belts, Master Black Belts and Champions, defined later, who all contribute increasingly complex levels of capability in Six Sigma process and management.
Learning and Training Implications
Two areas of concern will be the cost and the amount of learning and training. Should an organization train all employees or start slower with targeted employees? One danger of the top-down, full-training approach is that by the time it reaches the Green Belts actually doing the project work, middle and upper managers may be discouraged by the lack of progress. A blended approach starts with an executive overview to encourage top-level commitment. Along with the executive preparation, selected Green Belt and Black Belt training for those who are involved in an initial project will allow a greater chance of success with the first set of projects. On the other hand, many successful implementations have launched an enterprise-wide training plan. This has the benefit of signaling to all organization members that top-level commitment exists and executives expect all employees to be on board and embrace the new initiative.
Six Sigma preparation spans a broad range of learning and training topics. Organizations often begin with an overview of Six Sigma that generates understanding of the concept, strategy and targeted results. In addition to the methodology training, learning topics that enable the organization to use Six Sigma to its fullest capability include change management, teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, project management, statistics, process improvement and design of experiments. The project management component of this process is particularly important. The five DMAIC process steps of any Six Sigma Project add the discipline and common language that propels the process forward.
Table . DMAIC Steps
Determines the scope and purpose of the project and includes a Project Charter, a process map of the problem to be investigated and an analysis of customers to determine the Voice of the Customer (VOC), resulting in Critical to Quality variables, or CTQs (sometimes CTC, Critical to Customer).
The collection of information on the current situation. Baseline data on defects and possible causes are collected and plotted, and the sigma capability levels are calculated.
Determines the root causes of defects and explores and organizes potential causes.
The development of solutions that are implemented to remove the root causes and then measured and evaluated for desired results.
Standardizes the improvement process to maintain the gains. The new standard practices are documented, and performance is monitored.
Six Sigma Training Levels
Once committed to Six Sigma methodology, learning can be organized by degree of employee involvement:
- Yellow Belt
- Green Belt
- Black Belt
- Master Black Belt
Yellow Belt is a relatively new level, not yet widely accepted. A three- to five-day quick overview gives participants a basic understanding of the Six Sigma methodology, including DMAIC and simple statistical methods. It is often done on-site, given the large number of employees who can participate. Many organizations have gone directly to Green Belt training for all those working on projects. Other approaches may include one-day overviews delivered on-site for upward of $585 per person, followed by Green Belt training.
Green Belt is the role of project participant. Training is typically two weeks, separated by about a month so that the learner can participate in a Six Sigma project. Training consists of the application of DMAIC, project planning, process analysis and statistical analysis. Certification as a Green Belt requires work on a project with a reasonable bottom-line improvement, e.g., $75,000 as quoted by one training supplier. A typical program could cost $5,000 if accessed though open enrollment, not including travel and accommodations. This training is more often done on-site to accrue substantial savings per participant. Some organizations have used successful Green Belts as project leaders.
Black Belt plays the role of project leader and sometimes as coach for a number of projects. Considered the key change agent, the Black Belt must be technically oriented, a master of the advanced tools and a project leader. Training is delivered over four weeks separated so that the learner can lead a Six Sigma project. Training consists of advanced statistical methods, project leadership and advanced Six Sigma methods. Certification as a Black Belt requires leading a project with a higher bottom-line improvement, possibly $150,000. A typical program could cost upward of $0,000 if done as an open enrollment, often the preferred training since an organization would need only about one Black Belt per 50 employees.
Master Black Belt has the role of senior leader, manager of Black Belts, internal consultant and in-house trainer. Training lasts four weeks at minimum, often more depending on additional content. The weeks are separated so that the learner can lead a Six Sigma project. Training consists of advanced statistical methods, project leadership, Six Sigma methods, training capabilities and leadership and communication skills. Certification as a Master Black Belt requires work on three successful projects as a Black Belt. A typical program could cost more than $40,000. Open enrollment is the preferred delivery since an organization would only need one per major business site or unit.
The Champion role is the senior management leader of the Six Sigma implementation. Training of three to four days includes the basics of Six Sigma and is designed to prepare the Champion to give leadership to the Six Sigma team. A typical program could cost upward of $3,000. Open enrollment is the preferred method since an organization would only need one per major business site or unit.
The Executive Overview is offered to leaders and managers who should gain an understanding of “why” and “how” before embarking on a Six Sigma implementation. Training is completed in one day, typically at a cost of $350 per person. Open enrollment, often in major cities, and on-site delivery are available.
Master Black Belt Tom Riley, DuPont’s Global Services Business, shared some learning from the enterprise-wide Six Sigma training effort, which boasts great success: “Don’t start if you are not committed! Pick your best people to be Black Belts, Master Black Belts and Champions. Don’t let statistical purists run the process, and be sure to reward and recognize Black Belts who drive culture change.”
Leadership Expectations for the CLO
The chief learning officer becomes a primary leader of change in the Six Sigma Process. While the methodology may be readily championed by manufacturing, IT or the executive for “quality,” the CLO must ensure that the organization’s employees are ready to undertake this initiative with the right skills and understanding. Six Sigma efforts have failed in some organizations because of the lack of adequate preparation of the workforce. At times, the technique was relegated to the “process specialists” who emphasized the tools and not the change in mindset and culture. In other instances, employees were inundated with statistical training, which was unnecessary for many. Some companies provided good technique training but failed to prepare employees for the project and change management skills necessary to apply the tools.
Robert Blaha, CEO of Human Capital Associates and an architect of strategic change, challenges CLOs to find the right internal levers to accelerate corporate change and break the inertia that can weaken the success of Six Sigma. He promotes the use of e-learning to rapidly broaden the Six Sigma knowledge base among corporate leaders. “It is up to the CLO to drive Six Sigma faster and deeper in order to create capability to execute change,” he said.
The broad perspective of the CLO can help gauge the readiness of an organization to undertake this expansive improvement process. Since Six Sigma is not an event but a transformation, it takes the seasoned approach of a CLO to continue the dedication to the effort. Debbra M. Buerkle, manager of Corporate HR Programs for Fluke Networks, captures the essence of the dual responsibility of HR and learning managers: “You have to teach Six Sigma and also practice it. Six Sigma is all about communication and collaboration. It is not just another quality tool, but is a way of thinking about work.”
Application of Six Sigma to the Learning Organization But can learning organizations find a way to “practice what they teach?” Service functions such as training have high variation in customer satisfaction due the difficulty in defining quality to individuals, all of whom may have different definitions of a successful training experience. Here are some suggestions for using the DMAIC framework to improve the quality of the learning process:
- Define: The development of a CTQ tree is vital to ensure that the proper critical processes are measured and that improvements are made that have an impact on customers. A learning and training organization’s customers may be interested in the usefulness of learning activities, delivery timing, delivery methods, the match between courses demanded and delivered or the immediate applicability of learning. Ask customers what is important!
- Measure: Once the key CTQs have been developed, determine measurable metrics and collect data from customers to determine how effective learning and training activities have been. Calculate the number of defects per million opportunities and find the sigma capability level.
- Analyze: Are there certain topics, locations, trainers, materials or methods that are more or less effective than others? Delve deeply to determine the root causes of customer dissatisfaction.
- Improve: Find solutions. This is often the most difficult part of the process since “ways of doing things” will be challenged. Can training be provided on-site, or would central locations help keep the costs down? Would blended e-learning and classroom training be more cost-effective yet provide similar learning satisfaction?
- Control: Once new procedures are in place, work on controlling the process to prevent sliding back to the old way of doing things. New incentives? Central control of vendor sourcing and training expenditures?
And the Quality Winner Is…?
The implementation of Six Sigma is no trivial matter, involving the commitment of training expenditures and participation of all employees. Enterprise-wide success with Six Sigma will take a concerted effort by the CLO to ensure that the proper foundation is in place and that training and learning funds are wisely invested. Organizations that have remained committed to this journey provide strong testimony that Six Sigma is worth the effort!
Maryann G. Billington, engagement director for The Concours Group (www.concoursgroup.com), specializes in performance consulting and strategy, learning and e-learning and executive coaching. She is also the founder of Spectra Performance Services and can be reached at email@example.com.
Peter J. Billington, Ph.D., is the MarTec Professor of Operations Management at Colorado State University-Pueblo. His research and teaching interests have linked operations, quality and lean on several dimensions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.