Each year millions of people attend a huge range of professional training sessions, including various continuous improvement, Lean Six Sigma, change management, TRIZ, creativity, project management, leadership, strategy and many other courses related to performance improvement. Add to those, the plethora of functional training sessions in finance, HR and other topics and you have an enormous amount of money and time spent on training and education in various forms.
As performance improvement professionals, simply improving the effectiveness of corporate and not for profit training is itself a massive opportunity for impact not to mention the possibility of applying performance improvement principles to how grade schools, high schools, universities and colleges teach.
But beyond these obvious areas is the issue of how new skills are developed as part of performance improvement itself. Almost every project, whether a Lean Six Sigma project or any other kind of improvement effort, has at some point assumptions, plans, or intentions about “skill building,” “competence building,” or some sort of “training” of various people in an organization as part of the “change management,” “organization development,” or “implementation execution” approach of the company.
If things like Lean Six Sigma are to be effective at all, or more effective, it is my perspective that the approach of Black Belts and similar practitioners of performance improvement towards the design and execution of training and education efforts related to their project implementation and execution needs to be as fact-based, rigorous and well-considered as any aspect of process analysis.
In other words, the tremendous energy and exactitude devoted to the design and analysis of an experiment, or the mapping of a process, or analysis of customer needs, is also required in how new skills are defined, described, “taught”, coached or otherwise imparted, adopted and practiced successfully by the people who need to do new things better or the same things better as part of the improvement implementation. Black Belts need, therefore, a sound understanding of the fundamentals of how different people learn, of the various approaches, tactics and tools of learning, of the taxonomy of skills and learning. In many cases they may need these skills much more so than the number-crunching tools that are usually the focus of traditional Lean Six Sigma training.
Clearly specialists in other areas, such as HR, can and should also have this knowledge alongside Black Belts, just as in organizations there are engineers, scientists, marketers and other experts who should (although they often do not) understand control charts, design of experiment, or value stream mapping. But most organizations simply do not have enough of these functional specialists to make a dent in the overall performance of an organization. Which is why the original logic of the Six Sigma deployments at GE, Allied Signal and others placed great emphasis on a critical mass of Black Belts trained in a common methodology (such as DMAIC) and using a robust toolbox. My point is simply that the toolbox should also include those related to training and learning.
The challenge, as we have seen in the previous parts of this series, is that “training” and “learning” are not concepts with commonly accepted approaches, philosophies and methods. But in many cases, the design of workplace training (people sitting in a class) is as antiquated as the horse and buggy, with the school-house chalk board merely replaced by flipcharts, PowerPoint slides, and white tabbed binders. Sometimes “breakouts” and exercises are used to enliven the proceedings but it is as though one of the most important areas of performance improvement, the imparting of new skills and capabilities, is performed in ways that have remained curiously exempt from the kind of minute scrutiny Black Belts apply to every other facet of an enterprise.
Lest anyone reading this note think I have some sort of superior approach to training, I am afraid I am as guilty as the next person in leaning on the crutch of PowerPoint. But in other cases I have consciously used more on-the-job coaching rather than classroom training and have seen the benefit of a more tailored and flexible approach in the form of better performance. This is why I have tended to view workshops and classes as opportunities more for debate and discussion as well as a chance to build face-to-face relationships that help when we need to work at a distance. In the case of Black Belt training, I also view these sessions as an opportunities to establish an esprit de corp and to establish a climate and culture.
HR leaders need to point the lens of performance improvement on their own paradigms of learning and training while at the same time work with the performance improvement groups in their organizations to build a more effective and standard approach to the skill-building and training approaches used in projects. But perhaps most important of all is that Lean Six Sigma practitioners need to use their abilities to improve the process of skill development, starting with how they design and run their own Black Belt training and how they approach the skill-building that is so often integral to the implementation of a project. How many times have you seen a project plan that had a sub-section called “Implementation” that has this innocent line item: “training,” but the approach is the creation of a binder that is then presented. To borrow a phrase, “Physician heal thyself.”