Mind the Gap

Six Sigma tools and methods help students develop STEM skills

By Peter J. Sherman and Scott W. Luton

The skills gap among young workers is a recurring concern we hear from organizations in Georgia and the rest of America. No industry is immune, and it’s affecting organizations of every size.

A 2014 survey conducted by Change the Equation and Business Roundtable reported, "98% of the CEOs of top U.S. corporations fear lagging science and math skills are hurting their businesses and the economy. Thirty-eight percent of CEOs said at least half of their entry-level applicants lack basic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) literacy."1

Organizations are struggling to find qualified problem solvers and critical thinkers who can communicate and think independently. Also at issue is that millennials—roughly 80 million people born between 1980 and 1995—are entering the talent pool just as many experienced baby boomers are retiring. By 2025, they’re expected to represent about 75% of the nation’s workforce.2

We’ll never forget listening to the regional economic development manager for Georgia Power share the sobering odds that a U.S. child faces in graduating from college. For every 10 children entering kindergarten, seven will graduate with a high school diploma. Of those seven graduates, three will enter college. And of those students, only one will graduate from college. As lean Six Sigma (LSS) practitioners, we quickly calculated a 10% first-pass yield of students completing their educations with college degrees, which is completely unacceptable, and we decided to do something about it.

In 2014, we led a volunteer effort to help address the skills gap at the high school level. The pilot program was a partnership with the Newton County School District and Covington-Newton Economic Development Authority in Georgia.

School of LSS

Our expertise is in LSS, a powerful process improvement method that relies on a disciplined, data-driven, analytical approach to solving problems. Over a three-day period, we trained 25 students (called associates) from the Newton College and Career Academy (NCCA) as LSS Yellow Belts (YB)—the method’s introductory level of training. NCCA is a charter high school in Newton County focused on career and post-secondary readiness pathways.

The associates applied LSS principles, tools and techniques to streamline the school’s manual admissions process, allowing for faster registrations and approvals. NCCA processes more than 1,700 returning and new applicants every year.

The associates learned to use the define, measure, analyze, improve and control framework to attack the project. To define the customer and his or her needs, they created a voice of the customer diagram and a suppliers, inputs, process, outputs and customers diagram. This was followed by creating process maps of the end-to-end admissions process.

It was amazing to see how quickly the associates grasped the art and science of process mapping using stakeholder swim lanes, Post-its, colored markers (green for value-add and red for nonvalue add) and kaizen starbursts. They calculated key LSS metrics including lead time, process-cycle efficiency, first-pass yield, and sigma level. And yes, math was involved as they determined the cost of doing nothing.

After capturing the current state, associates performed rigorous root cause analyses, which involved building and interpreting Pareto charts and fishbone diagrams coupled with the five whys. To quantify the cause-and-effect relationship, they constructed scatter plots—a visual form of regression analysis.

The tools helped reveal a lack of standardized processes and inconsistent communication protocols. Having confirmed the root causes, the team was ready to brainstorm possible solutions. To evaluate and prioritize solution ideas, students separated them into the four categories using a possible, implement, consider or kill chart.

The solution the associates came up with was an online registration system with poka-yoke (mistake-proof) techniques built into it. With their help, the school plans to implement the system in 2015.

Real-world skills

In addition to strengthening problem solving skills, the training helped develop communication and leadership skills, too. The associates worked in teams and gave readouts to the class about their findings, helping build their confidence in delivering group presentations. An exam capped off the training to demonstrate their proficiency in LSS.

Every associate passed the exam and received a LSS YB certification at a school ceremony. To our knowledge, these were the youngest certified LSS YBs in Georgia.

It was exciting to be part of a grassroots effort to create an education that prepares young people with skills in problem solving, critical thinking and decision making. The associates entered the program with vague notions of LSS and its benefits. But they finished with the ability to define a problem, measure it, map the process, perform root cause analysis and create solutions. Their real-world problems taught them how LSS principles can be applied to business and life.

In describing what she learned, graduating senior Ebony Wilson summed it up best: "When you think about the needs of the customer, you think about making sure everything you do for the customer is satisfactory for them, to make them come back."

Without a doubt, this was our proudest moment of 2014. Coming from a baby boomer and a member of generation X, we felt a sense of obligation to mentor and coach these young people because they’re the next-generation workforce.


  1. "Business Roundtable/Change the Equation Survey on U.S. Workforce Skills," Changetheequation.org, Dec. 3, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/surveyonworkforce.
  2. Dan Bursch and Kip Kelly, "Managing the Multigenerational Workplace," University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School whitepaper, http://tinyurl.com/multigenerationalworkplace.

Peter J. Sherman is a partner at Riverwood Associates in Atlanta. He earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and an MBA from Georgia State University in Atlanta. A senior member of ASQ, Sherman is a certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt from Smarter Solutions Inc. in Austin, TX, an ASQ-certified quality engineer, and a certified supply chain professional from the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS).

Scott W. Luton is a partner at Riverwood Associates in Atlanta. He has a bachelor’s degree in information management from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Scott is a certified lean Six Sigma Green Belt from Riverwood Associates in Atlanta, and is a member of the APICS Atlanta chapter and the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

good article about equations.
could a disability to on-line identity card / item verification (such as electronique scan, etc) or "missing photo" be a cause of "identity fraud" to strictly control / improve / eliminate.
--Aylin N. Minikus, 12-07-2015

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers