How Lean Six Sigma Saved My Teaching Career

How Six Sigma Saved My Teaching Career
How Six Sigma Saved My Teaching Career

How Six Sigma Saved My Teaching Career

Many readers of this site have requested more applications of “Six Sigma in real life.” Many others have requested examples of Six Sigma techniques being applied in non-traditional fields like teaching, law, software development, small business and more. Still others have asked for examples of people who have gone through a Six Sigma journey

This is an intensely-personal and powerful guest post from Jeremy Garrett that unites each of those themes. We hope you like it!

My Beginnings

I had originally set out with the hopes of becoming a college professor. In hindsight I can now see that this goal was based mostly on seeking out the familiar rather than based on some higher more noble set of reasons. As I was completing my last few courses towards a Ph.D. my life seemed to be going well, my courses were drawing to an end, I had just gotten married, and I was contributed to our nation’s long term financial goals by aggressively borrowing student loans. Eight months later however things had changed. I was still borrowing aggressively, my wife and I found out that we had a baby on the way, and my Ph.D. adviser still wouldn’t help me settle on a dissertation topic.

With bills piling up, a baby on the way, and an unsupported adviser I had to make some big changes and I had to make them fast. As a result, I converted my two-third’s finished Ph.D. into a second master’s degree and got a job as a high school technology education teacher. We also bought a house and moved to a new town. Like many teachers my first year was exciting, busy and bewildering. I learned a lot from my students and from my attempts are organization, efficiency, and classroom management. At the end of the first year a “reduction in force” due to budget cuts eliminated my boss’s job; since I’d only been with the school for one year and he’d been there for eighteen, he was given my job. In spite of my natural inclination to be mad at him, I found it easy to forgive him because of what he and his wife did – they provided short-term foster care for new born, high-need crack babies.

Although I was not fired, I still had to look for a new job. I found a very nice job as physics teacher at a special school that offered an unusual amount of lab activities for juniors and seniors. Unfortunately it was just over an hour from home and I had to be home in the evenings to help my wife with the baby. The combination of a new job and tightly restrictions on my ability to stay late due to the driving time really drove home the need for efficiency. It was during this job that I truly began to learn (mostly from a hands-on, trial and error approach) that conducting small scale quality audits and writing improved work instructions could and would increase BOTH quality and efficiency. One of the unexpected benefits was a decrease in the number of parent conferences that were needed.

Further Changes in My Life

After working as a physics teacher for two years my wife informed me that we had a second baby on the way. At this point we had run up credit card debt while she was out of work with the first baby. The student loans were preventing us from being able to save money for “rainy days,” and thus unexpected expenses usually ended up on credit cards. With debt once again piling up, we sold our home and moved in with my wife’s parents. At this point things seemed to pretty bad for us. We were going from having our own home and yard and our own rules to having two rooms in her parents’ home – but due to our debts we still didn’t have a budget surplus. God did bless us in a major way however. He provided me with a job interview on a day that easily synchronized with a furniture hauling trip AND I was given the job on the spot. That is the job that I still have today, and a job that I hope will soon lead to some student loan forgiveness.

In this new job I had to start over with getting to know a batch of students, a new curriculum, and a new set of administrators, all while experiencing increasing pressure on my time. My first year at this new job was a living hell. When the students weren’t cheating they were stealing the candy out of my desk, damaging books or yelling across the room. The second year was significantly better, but still very bad. Two things were particularly helpful. The first is that I allowed a significant number of my students to actually keep the failing grades that they had chosen to earn – they had thought that they would simply be “socially promoted” to the next class regardless of their lack of effort. That reputation caused some of the worst students to not take my classes and some of the other students to choose to work. The other big difference is that I was an assistant wresting coach that year. That helped me to learn about the school’s culture and to bond with students and coworkers. As great as those improvements were, it was clear that I HAD to find a way to do my job both better and more efficiently.

My Discovery of Lean Six Sigma

In frustration over failing to make rapid improvements in quality and efficiency on my own, I started studying Lean Six Sigma and other quality assurance systems. At that time, I chose to study Lean Six Sigma with the sole hope of changing careers. I was shocked to discover how Lean Six Sigma would revolutionize my teaching experience. Because of these unexpected experiences I now seek new opportunities to apply my new skills as well as opportunities to help others learn these new skills.

Prior to studying Lean Six Sigma my teaching quality could have been described as “adequate” (which is not very complimentary). I worked long hours, hated many aspects of my job, struggled to evaluate potential new ideas, and feared parent conferences (which occurred way too often and which were nearly always negative in nature). My studies of Lean Six Sigma taught me to identify the internal and external customers, to hear the “voice of the customer,” to recognize the (often conflicting) needs of the various customers, and to think about my own work from a new perspective. Rather than evaluating my teaching and my curriculum and my tests from a perspective of “correctness” or “correspondence to state standards” (both of which are important), I learned to evaluate my work based on its “fitness for use” by the “customer.” Similarly I learned to treat parent communications in new way that focused on “ease of use” rather than on “time invested” or “factual correctness” (even though both of these are still important). I also learned to evaluate my teaching and my grading by using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, including the use of control charts. I then learned to use those charts and other data to conduct a “root cause analysis” rather than relying on intuition alone.

How Lean Six Sigma Changed My Life

I found that making those changes dramatically improved my teaching AND my feelings about being a teacher. As described, prior to making those changes my teaching was not as good as it should have been and I hated my job. After completing those changes I have found that I can actually get my job done faster and have a much more pleasant time doing it. I have gone from being described as “Oh, well he’s new here,” to being selected as a mentor for new teachers. Much of the revised curriculum that I developed this way has been adopted by the other teacher who teaches my main subject. I have also been honored by having the entire department adopt some of the changes that I tried on a small scale in my own classroom.

Perhaps the most important change of all though is that my new, data-based, systematic, “needs driven” decisions lead to a large increase in self-confidence and self-assurance. In teaching and management roles being at easy with one’s own decisions and being self-confident are absolutely critical to success. Students and their parents often seek out weakness and uncertainty and take advantage of those people and those situations; simply being confident automatically causes certain problems to never arise. Furthermore, when a situation does arise, the best way to end a parent conference quickly and positively is to show up prepared, certain, and able to justify actions, decisions, and grading methods with a sense of pride and confidence.

A Preview of Upcoming Posts

In the sections that following I will explain what I learned and how others can use those same techniques in their teaching jobs. The very first sub-section provides definitions and background information. The next few sub-sections explain how “control charts” can be created and how they can provide great insights into both how to grade fairly and what to loop back and reteach. The next sub-section explains how standard deviations and histograms can provide other insights. Sections after that will contain information on qualitative data and how to conduct a “root cause analysis.” After that, information will be given on DMAIC and PDCA loops and how they can be applied in a classroom environment. Final sections will include information on 5S and how it can be used to improve a classroom environment and the efficiency within a classroom environment, along with real examples from my own teaching experiences.

7 comments… add one
  • Todd Tierney

    Thanks Jeremy – Really interesting start to the blog. I look forward to seeing how you applied the principles in a classroom. I know there is a lot of work on applying Lean Six Sigma in the healthcare and government areas but I haven’t heard much about in education.

    • Jeremy Garrett

      Todd Tierney,

      I apologize for not responding sooner; I am honored that you took the time to write to us.

      I agree, Six Sigma (and other quality assurance systems) can and should be used fields outside of manufacturing. As you say, Six Sigma has in recent years been used in other fields such as human resources. But as you also say there is very little literature on its use in the field of education. My own writings have and will focus mostly on what individual teachers can do to apply these skills and concepts. Similarly my writings will continue to explain how these skills and concepts have greatly improved the quality of my teaching and my experience as a teacher and how I believe that they can do the same for others.

      Daniel Bloom (a connection of mine on LinkedIn) is currently writing a book on Six Sigma in education. Although his book is unfinished, my understanding is that he is looking at Six Sigma in education a more administrative level. He comes from the very background that you mention — in fact he has published three books already on the topic of Six Sigma in human resources. If you are interested, he is available at:
      It is my belief that my series of posts combined with his upcoming book will together present a fairly comprehensive picture of Six Sigma in education.

      Due to budget cuts, No Child Left Behind, outsourcing of jobs, and other pressures to increase output levels, I believe that the field of education is ripe and ready for the introduction of quality assurance, design for quality, and for Lean Six Sigma specifically. If you are aware of others who are working on this topic, please let me know. I am always eager to exchange ideas with you or others on this topic.

      With thanks,
      Jeremy Garrett

  • Jigal Mistry

    hi Jeremy your article is very inspiring.
    I’m QA professional from Biopharmaceutical field and currently unemployed. But as you said Lean Six sigma made difference in your life I would be really obliged if you can suggest me if I should be looking into it or not.

    • Hi Jigal,

      Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked Jeremy’s guest post articles. He’s worked very hard on them and has an entire series you can see here:

      I’ll let Jeremy provide his own answer but as a professional in the Six Sigma field there are many, many examples of Six Sigma methodology being applied to the Biopharmaceutical field.

      I think Six Sigma is a great way to advance a career. While a certification would bolster a resume, a certification alone without applying the principles to deliver business results would not likely be the biggest driver to landing a job. There are probably other key steps for your specific field.

      Next week we launch an article series on How to get a job in Six Sigma that I think you’d really enjoy. If you haven’t signed up for our free email newsletter, please do. That way you’ll be notified when I post those articles. I’d love your comments on them, too.

      Thanks, Ted.

    • Jeremy Garrett

      I would recommend it yes. Since you are currently between jobs, the work of preparing for the certification will show that you spent your time wisely and that you are seriously committed to not just the job search but to the long-term career.

      Many people (including myself) start with the ASQ CQIA (Certified Quality Improvement Associate) certification. It is quiet broad and involves a surprising amount of depth of knowledge. With ASQ membership, the exam is just under $200, without membership it is just over $300. It is nearly the only certification that does not require a series of projects. The difference in price is basically the same as the price of membership, so I always recommend joining ASQ if you are considering their certifications.

      If you live in or near any of the major cities then you will have an active ASQ chapter. Attending meetings can be a good way to network and find job leads as well as a great way to learn more about the QA industry. I myself am the treasurer of my local chapter, but our chapter is not very large or very active. As time allows however, I’ll start attending some of the activities (such as plant tours and regional conferences) in Atlanta and Charlotte.

      A certification helped me get a job interview, so it can help. But, as Ted said, by itself a certification won’t magically open doors. In summary, yes, the correct certification in combination with the right experience can help a career.

  • I want to set my career in teaching and for this purpose i am doing hard-work.I am inspired by your site.I want see all qualities in me which you have provided qualities of perfect teacher through your site.Thanks.

    • Jeremy Garrett

      I am extremely complimented, thank you. Teaching can be a very emotionally rewarding career; it can also be very emotionally draining. I’d be happy to answer questions about the teaching industry if you would like.

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