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Thursday, November 23, 2017
Six Sigma Heretic Black Belt Training: Coming to a Desktop Near You

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“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”
Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903)

 What’s distance learning?

Six Sigma Black Belt training has long been the realm of the elite. It used to be so expensive and required so much time that only companies with the cash and resources to make up for 3,200 worker-hours per class could afford to acquire those advanced problem-solving skills and the benefits that result. Fortunately, that’s changing. A recent innovation in the delivery of Six Sigma training is "distance learning." For our purposes, distance learning is training received outside the traditional classroom setting on each student’s own schedule. In most cases, this training is computer-based, although a few are video-based.

Distance learning can provide many benefits. It allows individuals to acquire the training independently, either to enhance their value to their employers or to increase their skills for future employment. It also allows small businesses to train a few experts without losing much work time. In addition, companies that can afford the traditional training can continue to train employees between the scheduled courses. In all cases, distance learning offers the flexibility to get training on your own schedule. So, whether you’re an individual, a small business owner, or an employee at a large company looking for training options, distance learning could be valuable to you.

Selecting a Provider

As with all Black Belt training, there’s high variability in the quality and content of distance-learning options, so the first thing to examine is the course content to make sure it contains the skills you need to be successful. This is easier said than done, because many people looking for training solutions aren’t technically proficient enough to differentiate between provider options. In cases like this, it’s essential to obtain the advice of an expert--someone who’s been in the trenches and has learned how many different tools and techniques actually work in real situations. Unfortunately, these criteria aren’t met by even all Master Black Belts.

The difference between business training such as Black Belt training, and more general education is that in business, we usually train people in specific tools without a lot of discussion of alternatives. If the tools are flexible and powerful, this can be efficient. However, a Black Belt won’t typically have a broad enough exposure to choose amongst procedures that weren’t part of the training curriculum.

There are many resources available in the literature and online to help you generate a list of tasks that your training should teach you to do. Dr. Roger Hoerl’s article in the Journal of Quality Technology, Dr. Roderick Munro’s October 2005 article in Quality Digest, and my nonprofit Web site six-sigma-black-belt-training.com offer contrasting opinions and things to think about.

  • Make a list of activities you want trainees to be able to do after training.
  • Get a complete list of topics covered in the course, and by that I mean a lot more than 20 general headings. You’re considering plonking down a goodchunk of money with the expectation that you’ll receive a big return for it,and you deserve to see what you’ll get for your investment.
  • Talk with technical experts at distance-learning providers so they can explainwhy a particular tool they teach is useful, and why one they don’t teach isn’tneeded.

Software Considerations

Although only a small fraction of your time as a Black Belt should be spent doing statistical analyses, statistics takes up the most time in Black Belt training due to its complexity. In addition to the statistical theory, you also need to learn how to use software correctly. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of distance learning. Make sure that your training includes step-by-step instructions on how to use the software, including screen captures. You’ll spend minimal time trying to figure out how to work the software and more time learning the statistical basis for what it is you’re trying to do. Some providers include software with the training; others require that you purchase it separately.

Training access

Because the training is somewhat self-paced, another important consideration is how much time you’ll have access to the training. As a student, you don’t want to drag out the training over too long a time period or you’ll lose the context. On the other hand, you’d like access to the course as you’re going through your first few projects. A paradigm-smashing aspect of distance learning is using the course capture itself as a reference. I’ve frequently heard from my students that, while they understand, say, McNemar’s Test of Change in the class, they may not need it for their current project and fear they won’t remember it when it’d come in handy. If you have permanent access to the training, you can review whenever you need a refresher. This is especially useful for a content-filled course like Black Belt training.

That human touch

Even though the training is done at a distance, our primate brains need human interaction. There will inevitably be questions you have that aren’t answered in the course, or applications of the tools to your specific situation, and you need some easy way to contact an instructor. Nothing beats live conversation with an expert, so determine if this is an option and if there’s an additional charge. There may also be an online discussion board, where students post questions and instructors and peers discuss your topic.

Although computers are great tools, there are some things that are just more efficient for people to do without them, such as flipping through a book or a manual. Determine what texts are included with the course. Materials that you’ll be referring to frequently or that you may want to use to instruct others will be most useful as paper books. If you’re a kinesthetic, textual learner, you may even want to have a copy of the course slides on which to take notes and record your thoughts.

Training format

Another consideration is the format in which the distance training is delivered. If the training is delivered online, you’ll need a fast, reliable connection to the Internet. Losing a connection halfway through a two-hour lecture is a frustrating experience. Some providers deliver the materials to you so that you learn on your computer, but offline. This eliminates the need for an Internet connection during the training and allows you to be fully mobile. I’ve had students report that they do their training on a portable computer on public transport or when traveling by air.

There are two aspects of a distance-learning course that interact to form your learning experience. The first is the instructor’s performance, including video, audio and possibly slide annotation. The second is what’s happening with the software you’ll need to learn. Video of the instructor isn’t necessary, but I’ve found that having a human face and body motion at which you can glance helps maintain alertness during the nearly 160 hours you’re going to be sitting in front of a computer. Any slides must be clearly visible on the screen, and screen captures of the software must be legible and easy to follow.

Progress reports

One way that you can check your progress is an online or offline assessment. You can see what you need to review, and the instructor can follow your advancement and help with any tough spots. These assessments should be paced throughout the course, rather than all at once at the end. Testing for comprehension only at the end means that you have to go back over a lot of material, and you run the risk of a misunderstanding early on affecting your understanding of the entire course.

Tips for distance learning

As you would expect, training performed on the computer is very different than sitting in a class, even if the course is captured during a class. Here are some tips to make computer-based training more effective:

  1. Schedule a set amount of time per day to go through the material. Determine how long the sessions are and plan for short breaks in between.
  2. Clear out all distractions when you’re sitting down for a session. Having the dog run in or the phone ring can cause you to lose the thread of the discussion and set you back an hour or more.
  3. Most people find speakers preferable to headphones.
  4. If you find your attention wandering, pause the session and get up and move around for a bit. (I wish I’d had that option in some college courses!)
  5. If you have any questions or run into any difficulty, contact your provider. The last thing that you want is to get frustrated because of the training.

Distance learning can be a powerful way for individuals, small companies and large corporations to achieve their Six Sigma training objectives. With some thought and a bit of research, you can find the optimum solution that will efficiently train you or your employees in these essential problem-solving tools.

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