Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Six Sigma Features
Donald J. Wheeler
Using process behavior charts in a clinical setting
Alan Metzel
Introducing the Enhanced Perkin Tracker
Donald J. Wheeler
What you think you know may not be so
William A. Levinson
The AIAG offers a clearly defined and powerful synergy between the three
Donald J. Wheeler
How does it compare with a process behavior chart?

More Features

Six Sigma News
Sept. 28–29, 2022, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA
Elsmar Cove is a leading forum for quality and standards compliance
Is the future of quality management actually business management?
Too often process enhancements occur in silos where there is little positive impact on the big picture
Collect measurements, visual defect information, simple Go/No-Go situations from any online device
Good quality is adding an average of 11 percent to organizations’ revenue growth
Floor symbols and decals create a SMART floor environment, adding visual organization to any environment
A guide for practitioners and managers
Making lean Six Sigma easier and adaptable to current workplaces

More News

Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man

Six Sigma

The Four-Hour Black Belt

If we want quality methods to spread, we should simplify and streamline the learning process

Published: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 15:37

Let’s face it: Everyone isn’t cut out to be a belted Six Sigma guru, but everyone should know how to use key tools in the right order to solve the problems facing businesses. And they can’t wait months or years to get results; the marketplace moves too quickly.

During the early 1990s, I attended one of W. Edwards Deming’s workshops here in Denver. It was great to see the grand master at work. But at the end of those four days, I knew that we could have covered the same material with greater comprehension in one day or less. I knew because of a learning experience in 1990.

I began my training in total quality management (TQM) at the same time that I began learning neurolinguistic programming (NLP). The TQM training was about improving processes; the NLP training was about brief therapy—i.e., improving mental processes. Two methods of training were used, and they couldn’t have been more different.

My weeklong training to become a TQM team leader followed the know-show-do model of teaching used in classrooms everywhere. First you learn the material, then you are shown how to do it, and finally you do it. I considered it some of the best training I’d ever had in a corporate environment.

The NLP training followed a show-do-know model. First you are shown the pattern of how to do something multiple times in a short time frame; next, you do an exercise to practice the pattern; then, and only then, are you told the knowledge behind it.

I’ll be honest. I was comfortable in the TQM classes because the teaching method was the same as what I’d experienced since grade school. In the NLP classes I was very uncomfortable—until I noticed how quickly I was acquiring the skills being taught.

I still remember the first day of NLP class. The instructor told us a story of going fishing with his grandfather and pulling up old cans and shoes, and finally a fish. I kept thinking, “When are we going to get to the ‘know’ part of this material?” Eventually he told a story about working with a client on a process. He brought a class member up on stage and demonstrated how to do the process. Then he had us do it. The instructor and coaches helped us refine our budding skills. Then, and only then, did he reveal what we had learned, the knowledge embedded in the skill. In a surprisingly short time, we all became competent therapists.

I had thought the TQM training was excellent, but our class of TQM team leaders proved sadly incompetent. More than 100 TQM team leaders were trained using the know-show-do model, and those leaders all started teams. A year later, only three teams had successfully completed projects, which had taken most of the year. Despite top leadership support and what I considered excellent training, we had failed.

NLP training

NLP training is designed to turn you into a competent therapist. The final exam was a bit unusual: People were brought into the class who needed therapy but couldn’t afford it. The instructors had the class work with these people.

My “exam” was a young woman about 20 years old. “I used to be a heroin addict, and now I’m a methadone addict,” she told me. “A few years back I was diagnosed with HIV, so I went back on heroin. But recently I was retested and don’t have HIV, so I went back on methadone.” At the beginning of my NLP training, working with her would have been frightening, but during the exam, it wasn’t. I simply asked her what she would like help with, and I guided her through some personal change work.

I’d wanted to learn the NLP teaching methodology, and my training for it changed, forever, how I teach people—in any subject, including Six Sigma.

What’s wrong with traditional Six Sigma training?

I also completed Six Sigma training, after which I realized that the big three-ring binders and weeklong training sessions telegraphed a message to participants that this was complex and took a long time. People knew this before they walked into class. The course work was spread out over five days, so there was no way to get the “marrow” of Six Sigma into your head in a short period of time. And it covered all of the methods and tools the team leaders “might” need, not just the ones they would use most of the time. The training took too long and covered too many tools. The same was true of 10-day Green Belt and 20-day Black Belt training.

So I decided to apply the NLP teaching methods to TQM.

A new way of training

Having finally completed some successful Six Sigma projects, I learned what methods and tools I needed to solve most problems in my company. To teach a course on these newly discovered processes, I created a 16-page quality improvement coloring book. This simple workbook became the course material. It signaled to the participants that the material was easy to learn and apply. You can download the current version of this workbook here.

I have experimented with how to teach the material. Here’s the process:

1. Only teams that have specific problems to solve are trained. I require the teams to find data about their problem before we meet.

2. I also describe the three silent killers of productivity and profitability: delay, defects, and deviation. I ask teams to describe problems and slot them into one of these three categories. This helps them imagine many other places to apply the skills they will learn.

3. I tell them an improvement story that features “the magnificent seven tools” I use to solve a problem and save time and money. Over the years, I’ve collected a variety of stories, such as the time I helped one healthcare company save $5 million in denied claims in an afternoon. (Note: This is the first repetition of the improvement pattern.)

4. Then I ask for a volunteer to help me demonstrate how I’d put the team’s problem into an improvement story using the seven tools. I ask what the defect rate might be and draw it as a control chart. I ask what the most common cause of the defect might be and draw it as a Pareto chart. I take the “big bar” of the Pareto chart and put it into the head of a fishbone diagram. And I do this all on one sheet of flipchart paper because I want them to see the pattern again (repetition No. 2).

5. I have them break up into small groups and use the lean Six Sigma action plan to develop the basic structure of an improvement story: control chart, Pareto chart, and fishbone diagram. I tell them not to worry about the data because I just want them to become comfortable with casting their problem as an improvement story. I help them to fine-tune their story so they know what data they need to refine the focus (repetition No. 3).

I do three repetitions of the improvement pattern in less than an hour because the speed of presentation is essential to the pattern-detection and learning style of the human mind.

Not surprisingly, this method makes participants more comfortable, which accelerates learning. I’ve also found that teams immediately begin finding solutions to problems they thought were simply unsolvable. And they do it in the class, often before lunch. Nothing hooks participants like succeeding at learning how to solve problems quickly, especially problems that previously seemed too complex.

I continue to run into students from my TQM accelerated learning workshops who are still using the methods and tools to solve operational problems wherever they work.

After I developed the QI Macros for Excel, I used the same teaching method to help people learn to use the software. I’d tell a story using data and the QI Macros. I’d demonstrate using their data. I’d ask them to practice with test data and then try again using their own data. They begin by drawing control charts, Pareto charts, and histograms in minutes. I leap them over their fear of math, statistics, and computers and get them comfortable with a radical new tool set in an hour. In four hours or less, most teams end up with an improvement story ready for root cause analysis.

Can you imagine teaching Six Sigma using the show-do-know model of accelerated learning? Probably not. It may seem too strange, too unfamiliar. It’s not how we’ve always done it. How can it possibly work? (And yet isn’t that what most people say about process improvements?)

Simpling up vs. dumbing down

Does this kind of accelerated learning method turn people into Black Belts in four hours? No, of course not, but it does lay the foundation for them to learn all the methods and tools in the Six Sigma body of knowledge in four hours or less. They learn the seven tools they will need to solve most problems involving delay, defects, and deviation. This “vital few, trivial many” approach prevents overload. Most Green Belt and Black Belt training covers so many methods and tools that participants can become overwhelmed and paralyzed.

Some say I’m trying to “dumb down” Six Sigma. I disagree. I’m trying to “simple it up,” which is a much more difficult task. I’m trying to make lean Six Sigma accessible to anyone who wants it. I want everyone to know and use the vital few methods and tools, but to accomplish that objective they shouldn’t overload them with the trivial many.

Deming taught thousands of people how to use quality tools, but he may never have considered improving his teaching method to accelerate learning and comprehension. Current trainers follow in his footsteps, dragging out training time and teaching too many tools.

The 10- to 20-day Six Sigma training classes spread over one to six months still telegraph the message that the methodology is complex and time-consuming. If we want quality methods and tools to spread, we have to find ways to simplify, streamline, and optimize the learning process.

Isn’t it time to reevaluate your training methods to accelerate learning and shorten the time to results?


About The Author

Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man’s picture

Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man

Jay Arthur, speaker, trainer, founder of KnowWare International Inc., and developer of QI Macros for Excel, understands how to pinpoint areas for improvement in processes, people, and technology. He uses data to pinpoint broken processes and helps teams understand their communication styles and restore broken connections. Arthur is the author of Lean Six Sigma for Hospitals (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and Lean Six Sigma Demystified (McGraw-Hill, 2010), and QI Macros SPC Software for Excel. He has 30 years experience developing software. Located in Denver, KnowWare International helps service and manufacturing businesses use lean Six Sigma tools to drive dramatic performance improvements.


Good points all

All of the comments below are well taken.

  • I certainly agree with Jay that one needs to spend time on how to improve the speed and quality of learning. While I probably won't be delving into NLP, I am always looking for ways to improve the way I teach. When I decided to convert from classroom teaching to online teaching I consulted with and hired experts in education and e-learning to help me do it. I learned a great deal from these experts.
  • Regarding the 7 quality tools, I love them! These are simple and effective tools that I was teaching long before Six Sigma made its appearance. Unlike "Belt" training, which should only be taught to a relatively small contingent of change agents, the 7 quality tools should be learned by a much larger group as a way to help them improve their own quality and productivity.
  • As far as learning things we "never use," I must disagree that this is a problem of education. Lean (the name Americans use to describe the Toyota Production System) and Six Sigma should never be taught or used just for the sake of the methods themselves. This is putting the cart before the horse. Instead, leaders must look at these proven approaches as ways to help them (the leaders) achieve their broader business goals. If approached in this way the phenomina of "one project per belt" will not occur.
  • As far as Belts learning tools they "don't need" or "don't use," this is true of every official certification or recognition, including certifications, diplomas, and degrees. These credentials are bestowed on people who master a well-defined body of knowledge. Employers tend to favor certain credentials and preferentially hire, pay, and promote those individuals who possess them. The employer generally has a job for these people that won't use all of that person's knowledge, skills, and abilities. But the fact that the person has these KSAs makes it more likely (the employer believes) that the person they are hiring will be qualified for advancement into other jobs that may use these KSAs. Lean Six Sigma belts are trained to be effective change agents. On any given project or subset of projects they won't be required to use everything they know. But employers know that they can address a wide variety of opportunities for change and that this will help the organization to improve its ability to create and deliver value for stakeholders.

Tom Pyzdek


Deming Seminar

I attended one of Deming's seminars in Cincinatti in 1991 even though I had already studied everything I could get my hands on regarding his teachings. While I did not really learn "anything new" during the four days, I did gain a deep appreciation for the man and his work. The seminar had a profound impact on my life and career. Not one minute of the four days was a waste of time. As for Six Sogma, there are many aspects that could be criticized, but I leave that to the vast number of articles already written on that subject. I think a key point is that everyone in an organization does NOT have to be a statistical expert to utilize the tools. After all, I am not an auto mechanic and I know little about internal combustion engines, but I am very good at using an automobile to get myself from point A to point B. However, every organization does need about 1-2% resident experts in statistical methods to help people use the tools effectively. I have seen too many abuses of the tools over the years without proper mentoring and guidance.

Some call NLP a cult even

Worse than "discredit pseudoscience," some call NLP a "cult":


That said, Jay makes a great point here and in his book that a lot of Six Sigma training is wasted -- knowledge that is never used. I have seen organiations where the number of green belt projects ever done was basically the same as the number of green belts certified (one per person... never any beyond the certification).

There's a magic in the simplicity of the "7 basic QI tools" from TQM. If you ask Toyota factories if they use Six Sigma, they'll say "no, we use the 7 QI tools." They don't train "belts." They don't "do Lean" either. They focus on improving processes and developing people (and actually, I got that order backward, if you'd ask them).

Big batches of green belt or black belt training might be useful for some, but I wonder how much money and time has been wasted training people in statistical tools that they never get to use?

I think you missed my point

There is much research about how to accelerate learning, most of which is not evident in most Six Sigma trainings.

If you're not trying to figure out how to improve the speed and quality of learning, you are missing the boat.

As much as I love Dr. Deming's content, his teaching method could have used improvement.

P.S. If you haven't experienced accelerated personal change using NLP, you've missed an opportunity.


The premise of Jay's article is that he learned an approach called NLP that was vastly superior to the methods used by Dr. Deming, and pretty much everyone else. The reader might want take a look at this article before rushing to adopt the NLP method https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuro-linguistic_programming. Here's a quick summary from the Wikipedia article:

Reviews of empirical research find that NLP's core tenets are poorly supported. The balance of scientific evidence reveals NLP to be a largely discredited pseudoscience. Scientific reviews show it contains numerous factual errors, and fails to produce the results asserted by proponents. According to Devilly (2005), NLP has had a consequent decline in prevalence since the 1970s. Criticisms go beyond lack of empirical evidence for effectiveness, saying NLP exhibits pseudoscientific characteristics, title, concepts and terminology as well. NLP is cited as an example of pseudoscience when teaching scientific literacy at the professional and university level. NLP also appears on peer reviewed expert-consensus based lists of discredited interventions. In research designed to identify the "quack factor" in modern mental health practice, Norcross et al. (2006) list NLP as possibly or probably discredited for treatment of behavioral problems. Norcross et al. (2010) list NLP in the top ten most discredited interventions and Glasner-Edwards and Rawson (2010) list NLP therapy as "certainly discredited".

So I guess you're now pretty much an expert on the subject! The Wikipedia article also includes numerous reference links and a lot of additional information, but it's probably a waste of time to learn that additional material. Kind of like when Jay found that Deming wasted 3 days of Jay's time in his 4 day seminar.