Six Sigma and more: Education and self-improvement

David SchwinnThis month, David Schwinn reflects on the application of Deming’s point number 13 to expanding forms of learning that have become available through technology.

I recently noticed that Starbucks initiated a College Achievement Plan. Starbucks’ partners (employees) who pursue a college degree at Arizona State University (ASU) will receive some combination of tuition reimbursement, scholarships, and other financial aid from the company to help them graduate. Starbucks’ partners may choose from 40 ASU undergraduate degree programs delivered online. It seems to help with the problem we have in this country of many college graduates and non-graduates being saddled with excessive student loan debt.

Starbucks’ effort reminded me of a similar initiative we are taking at my own college to try to simultaneously reduce the cost of higher education for our students and better provide them with the KSA’s (knowledge, skills, and abilities or knowledge, skills, and attitudes, whichever definition you find most useful) they need as employees, entrepreneurs, life-long students, and citizens. When a small group of us at Lansing Community College (LCC), recently volunteered to investigate the feasibility of a pilot project in Competency-Based Education (CBE), we immediately attended a workshop on CBE in order to jump-start our investigation. The essential idea of CBE is a focus on what students are competent at, rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom. This CBE approach expects that graduates can better perform in the workplace and in real life and have spent less money in order to earn their degrees. We envision CBE at LCC to begin with a participatively-developed articulation of the competencies our students need in order to be successful graduates. Next we expect to develop innovative, yet reliable ways to assess those competencies. Finally, we expect to provide an array of alternative methods by which our student can achieve those competencies such as online and face-to-face courses, independent study, organizational and/or community improvement projects, condensed face-to-face and online workshops, and individual coaching and mentoring. There’s a pattern here.

Do you remember Dr. Deming’s 14 points? Point number 13 said, “Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.” He also thought training was important. Point #6 was “Institute training on the job.” Whenever anyone would ask him how to improve individual performance on the job, he would frequently say to provide training. If training and all other improvement tactics failed, he would say that a person who continued to perform poorly might have to be trained for another job in another organization. Training is essential, but it is not what Starbucks, Arizona State, and LCC are involved in.

We are involved in point #13, education and self-improvement. Education and self-improvement may or may not be directly connected to the work on an employee’s job. When Dr. Deming first proposed point #13, it was controversial. It still is. It is important, however, since we want our employees and ourselves to become ever more creative, thoughtful, and motivated, so providing broader education and self-improvement opportunities beyond what training provides is essential.

Besides the slightly indefinite benefits of education and self-improvement, the Starbucks plan documents another reason for the controversy. The plan states, “Partners have no commitment to stay.” Why would an employer help an employee become more valuable to the organization only for them to leave? I am reminded of a similar, personal situation. Most of my higher education was funded by General Motors. God bless them. I know they don’t seem to be doing so well these days, but before the pressures of international competition, it seemed to be a pretty well run company. GM paid me to get my BME at General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University) with no expectation that I would stay at General Motors. Despite that openness, I remember that 80 percent of GMI graduates stayed around. GM also paid for my MBA even though I left a year after that graduation. That system worked well for me and, I believe, worked well for them.

As you consider how to encourage more education and self-improvement at your own organization, you may want to also consider how to encourage graduates to stay. You might want to reexamine things such as competitive salary and benefits, clearer internal developmental opportunities, more chances for job growth and creativity, meaningful work, and opportunities to contribute beyond the organizational walls. You might even want to take a look at our forthcoming book, The Transformative Workplace, for other ideas. What shameless self-promotion!

I hope you will seriously consider your own education and self-improvement, and that of the folks who work with and for you. The wisdom of Dr. Deming and my own experience tell me that it will improve performance, be fun, and “Grow people, purpose, prosperity, and peace” (from our book). As always, I look forward to your comments and questions.

One thought on “Six Sigma and more: Education and self-improvement

  1. Mr. Schwinn, I couldn’t agree with you more. Wise leaders know the value of developing human resource assets and achieving this in such a way that is a win-win all around. CBE combined with eliminating restrictions to stay seems like a feasible option that will hopefully “catch on” with more organizations.

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