Social Learning Applied to Six Sigma Projects

11/15/2015 6:340 commentsViews: 1

Although information is readily available about applying team-building techniques to Six Sigma projects, there’s not much about how learning styles affect the success of Six Sigma teams. Knowing that the “people side” of an otherwise technical and statistical-based methodology is important to a team’s success, we analyzed Six Sigma team dynamics and performance through personal perspectives, interpretations, applicable literature, and team-building techniques. Here we summarize what we’d do differently in future team assignments as a result of what we learned.

We are concerned that formal training of Black and Green Belt professionals doesn’t thoroughly address the importance of team theory and facilitation (often called “soft skills”) to the define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC) methodology. After leading Six Sigma teams for decades, we reflected on the teams’ and our own performance as Black Belt team leaders in the spirit of continuous improvement. We focused on the dynamics and performance of project teams from a Fortune 200 company.

Our observations of team members’ learning preferences are outlined here using David A. Kolb’s learning styles. Based on the process of learning through experience, the learning style inventory (LSI) was developed by Kolb from research that began during the early 1970s. Kolb’s theory identifies four distinct learning styles, which are based on the four-stage learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Effective learning occurs when a person progresses through this cycle, as outlined in figure 1.

Of the many learning styles theories, Kolb’s experiential learning cycle offers valuable insights. Within the context of the Six Sigma improvement cycles, we recognized that the DMAIC methodology has a similar foundation to Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Individuals tend to enter the cycle at a preferred point. Within our DMAIC experience, teams most often entered the learning cycle together at “abstract conceptualization.” In figure 2 we mapped the DMAIC cycle to Kolb’s learning cycle. Note that for illustration purposes, we shifted the typical learning cycle 180 degrees to demonstrate alignment with DMAIC.

Given this link between DMAIC and Kolb’s learning cycle, we recognized the importance of applying Kolb’s learning theory to our Six Sigma teams. Kolb’s theory identifies four distinct learning styles, or preferences, based on his learning cycle. The four types of learners are: converging (i.e., thinking and doing), accommodating (feeling and doing), diverging (feeling and watching), and assimilating (thinking and watching). A diagram identifying Kolb’s learning cycle, DMAIC, and an overlay of Kolb’s four types of learners is shown in figure 3.

Figure 3: Kolb’s learning cycle, DMAIC, and Kolb’s four types of learner. Click here for larger image. (Note: Contained in Kolb’s learning cycle are two major dimensions of learning: perception (i.e., how we think about things) and processing (how we do things). Although the dimensions were part of our analysis, they are not covered in this article.)

People naturally prefer a single, unique learning style. Recognizing this preference, we informally assessed the learning styles of our Six Sigma team members. Overall, the very act of reflective observation or “walking in the shoes” of the team members has caused us to consider the assumptions we had made about team leadership of Six Sigma projects. We better recognize the importance of understanding team member learning styles and being aware of interpersonal relations within teams by “getting under the surface” and fostering an environment that promotes more open disclosure and feedback. This was critical to our personal learning and development with regard to team building and team effectiveness.

One team project led by Pat Cronin was to reduce product returns and exchanges from a global consumer electronics retailer.

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