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Six Sigma

Social Learning Applied to Six Sigma Projects

Create more effective teams by understanding how people learn

Published: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - 15:22

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.

Figure 1: Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Definitions adapted from Newark Teachers Union.

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.

Figure 2: Six Sigma DMAIC mapped to Kolb’s learning styles. Click here for larger image.

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. (For reference, Cronin’s own Kolb learning style is “accommodating.”) From her perspective, the Six Sigma project team’s observed learning styles are listed in figure 4:

Team members

Observed learning style

Director, customer satisfaction


Manager, consumer insights


Manager, human factors engineering


Director, retail accounts and product sales


Director, product marketing


Director, product development


Figure 4: Cronin’s observed team learning styles

In a similar approach, George Chemers reflected on one of his projects and assessed the team member’s learning styles. (For reference, Chemers’ own Kolb learning style is also “accommodating.”) Chemers led a Six Sigma project that focused on meeting demands for innovative products by introducing a series of new products rolled out over one business year. From his perspective, the team’s observed learning styles are listed in figure 5:

Team members

Observed learning style

Director, product support engineering


Manager, field data analytics


Senior director, software development


Director, hardware development


Director, customer support


Senior director, quality assurance


Director, Customer Service


Figure 5: Chemers’ observed team learning styles

It’s important to note that learning styles aren’t fixed traits but dynamic states and can “flex” to meet the demands of different learning situations. Formal assessment tools such as Kolb’s LSI self-assessment, are available to determine the degree to which a person changes his learning style in different contexts. Although we were aware of these assessment tools, we were unable to formally assess our team members due to limited resources.

Assimilating (thinking and watching) learning style associated with the define phase

Chemers’ project team members contained several assimilators. For that project, market share was critical, and understanding consumers’ expectations about purchasing innovative products that were easy to use, performed to consumers’ quality expectations, and were offered at a fair price were vitally important to the team. The team members who were assimilators were frustrated with launching the project, given that a wide range of information about the new products wasn’t available until later in the project’s process. The assimilators had the ability to take new information abstractly and process disparate observations into an integral rational explanation. Furthermore, they were good with inductive reasoning. This was helpful when creating future-state process such as SIPOCs, RACI charts, and value stream maps.

Converging (thinking and doing) learning style associated with the measure and analyze phase

Based on her team’s learning styles, Cronin may have initially caused uneasiness and frustration with her team members during a few critical project activities. For instance, with the converging learning style, the director of product development may have disengaged because Cronin didn’t demonstrate an obvious, detailed plan for applying DMAIC to the project. Cronin had intended to use the DMAIC cycle, but she assumed that all team members viewed Six Sigma as a cumbersome process and thus didn’t reference DMAIC when guiding the team. The director of product development may have preferred a more direct link to a structured process to problem solving and decision making, especially when developing a measurement plan and operational definitions. In retrospect, Cronin should have leveraged this colleague to take a more active role in the measuring and analyzing the data.

Accommodating (doing and feeling) learning style associated with the improve phase

Because Cronin typically leans toward an accommodating learning style, her frame of reference appealed to the director of retail accounts and product sales as well as the director of product marketing, both of whom share the same learning style. Cronin was most concerned about active team involvement and engagement from the sales and marketing professionals. She knew that without buy-in from the retail accounts and product sales directors, the team would struggle to gain access to the customer and potentially delay the project plan of obtaining the necessary performance data. These data were critical in directing the team toward possible improvement solutions that would lead to reduced variation in the process. Cronin received positive feedback from the sales and marketing colleagues on her method of applying team approaches and the ease of launching the project. As she reflected further on the team members’ learning styles, Cronin has come to realize that she may have unknowingly catered to the accommodating learning style and perhaps missed an opportunity to enhance team dynamics and performance by understanding and working with all the learning styles present in the project team.

Diverging (watching and feeling) learning style associated with the control phase

One member in Chemers’ project had a diverging learning style. Chemers discovered that it was easy to work with this particular team member. As a diverger, the individual provided a variety of perspectives regarding the verification of the results of the final solution, and provided ideas for the project closure activities. The assimilators and the diverger worked well together identifying replication and standardization opportunities. Both types of learners appeared to prefer integrating and managing the final solution rather than the earlier project phases. Given the diverger’s learning style, the accommodating team member might have spent too much time implementing the “develop process support plan.” This would have been an issue because project sponsors preferred the process-control dashboard to reduce product returns and exchanges while improving customer satisfaction.

Our takeaways

We have described an informal analysis of learning styles by applying Kolb’s learning cycle to the Six Sigma DMAIC methodology. We realize we may have missed an opportunity to enhance team dynamics and performance by understanding and working with all learning styles represented within the project teams. This is especially useful because in today’s environment, Black Belts must lead by using a multitude of sophisticated skills to understand how people think and feel.

In our experience, teams that learn faster tend to be more efficient, effective, and flexible. There’s no argument that these are important attributes in all types of teams. As Six Sigma facilitators, we found the following to be our experience:
• Individuals tend to lean towards one of four preferred styles for learning; typically, engineers prefer the “converging” learning style, which is to design first and build second.
• Conflict can occur when people with different learning styles work together in a stressful situation.
• Assisting individuals and teams to recognize individual learning styles and the leverage strengths of these preferences improves the team’s performance and increases the impact of the project.

In a cross-functional team of people created to solve a business challenge, an individual’s typical learning style can be different from many other team members’ styles. This can potentially lead to miscommunication and frustration. All team members could benefit from understanding different learning styles so that they may adapt more easily and create a more effective level of communication within the team.

What we’d do differently

Overall, our reflective observations caused us to consider the assumptions we made in the team leadership of our Six Sigma projects. We better recognize the importance of understanding learning styles and being aware of interpersonal relations of team members by fostering an environment that promotes more open disclosure and feedback. These two reflections are critical to our personal learning and development with team building and team effectiveness. In the future we plan to informally assess team members’ learning styles during the define step of DMAIC, and to include a discussion about learning styles so we may educate the team about different styles of learning. We can be a more productive team when we recognize different learning styles and the strengths these bring to the team.


About The Authors

George Chemers’s picture

George Chemers

George Chemers is a lean Six Sigma consultant. Previously he was the quality/continuous improvement director at Motorola in charge of major change initiatives, improving internal processes, reducing cost-of-quality expenditures, and understanding customer needs and expectations. He is also a certified Six Sigma Black Belt and certified ISO 9001 auditor.

Patricia Cronin’s picture

Patricia Cronin

Patricia (Pat) Cronin has more than 25 years of experience in organization development (OD) and learning and development. She focuses on business results through driving planned development and improvement on the strategies, structures, and processes that lead to effectiveness and change. Cronin is a certified Black Belt.