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Anthony D. Burns


I Do and I Understand

What if quality training was as engrossing as the most entertaining mobile app?

Published: Monday, August 28, 2017 - 11:03

I had humble, that is, poor, beginnings. I didn’t even know the taste of real ice cream until later in life. One of the first impacts I felt of the luxury that technology brings was the diode my father bought for me to replace the cat’s whisker on my crystal radio. My high school was lovingly called “shack town.” I spoke as much English as a European refugee, because I had a stammer worse that King George VI.

I was admitted to the hallowed halls of one of the country’s biggest companies, shortly after it ended the compulsory wearing of hats. (Down here in the antipodes we have been a little slower than in the United States to shrug off the vestiges of British colonialism.) My employer, in fact, was the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. It was fortunate that hat-wearing had ended, because I didn’t own a hat. But I was fortunate I wasn’t a woman, since the first women the company employed were kept in a locked room.

Unlike the 100 other internees, I didn’t have a white handkerchief in my lapel pocket, speak with a plum in my mouth, or have a private-school education. They let me in simply because I was smart.

When I eventually hit the factory floor after many years of self-funded university, I was warned that the private-school boy in my position from the year before lasted only one day before the workers threatened a strike if he returned. As I saw it, the workers weren’t so different than I. Most spoke little English but were dedicated to their jobs and loved what they did. They had little education and no training, but producing a quality product was an honor to them. They had massive pride in what they did.

People in the office didn’t know or understand this. They saw what the workers did as being menial. To them, workers merely filled gaps in the production line. I was proud to gain the respect of the factory workers after I showed them how I could help through my skills, rather than telling them how to suck eggs.

Power to the people, not the ‘experts’

Most of the population, then as now, are “ordinary” workers. However, all have a huge role to play in quality, but to play that role they need proper training. In recent years this has been forgotten. One major company demonstrated this magnificently by spending millions to train each of 10,000 carefully chosen “experts” who were supposed to return to the factories and tell them how to “do” quality. The first result was a new product so riddled with defects that external consultants had to be brought in to fix it.

Quality is for everyone. Break down the barriers, avoid slogans, and teach people the skills they need. These ideas are particularly poignant for me. Training and education can improve quality, but it has to be done correctly.

I shake my head in disbelief whenever pseudo-experts, grasping two-week certificates, talk about “long-term” drifts of up to 1.5 sigma. These people need to go back to the basics of quality. They don’t understand what quality means. There is a huge need for re-education.

Every year about $360 billion is spent globally on corporate training. A large slice of this is spent on training in continuous improvement. Chalk-and-talk training abounds in classrooms, repeating the same material over and over, ad nauseam. There has to be a better way that includes everyone in quality training, not just the privileged.

So how can we help both “ordinary” workers and pseudo-experts improve quality, if not by sending them to ridiculously expensive courses?

Training for every person everywhere

Recently the media has been filled with photos of masses of starving refugees, boat people, and illegal immigrants. Take a close look at photos of these folk. Most of them carry mobile phones. These ubiquitous devices are computers that are around 100 times as powerful as the PC with which I started my business, or about 2,000 times as powerful as the computer that put man on the moon.

You know what I’m going to say. You’ve heard it all before. More than a decade ago, “e-learning” was supposed to revolutionize training. It took a few years for people to realize they were being sold the old computer-based training in a new wrapper. The big problem was, and is, that most of it was simply boring. A page of text with some clip art and a “continue” button is about as interesting as an ad for laundry detergent.

However, e-learning has always shown incredible promise. It is far less costly than classroom training. There are no travel and accommodation costs. Because students work at their own pace, training time, and hence off-the-job salary costs, are reduced. Mobile training allows students to train in their own time, anywhere. It allows convenient training of new staff. It allows managers to track training progress from the palm of their hand.

Until now, the great failing of most e-learning has been that it is so boring, people don’t want to do it. I recall a manager, 15 years ago, telling me that he was only attending our demonstration under duress. He said quite bluntly that all e-learning is rubbish because it is so boring (ours being the exception, of course).

How e-learning got a bad reputation

No matter where you go using public transport, anywhere in the world, you see that everyone has their head buried in a mobile device. What if training in quality could be as engrossing as the most entertaining mobile app? What if it could be oriented to suit any user? It would be the ultimate in convenience, cost effectiveness, and consistent training for employees around the world. One could imagine that, particularly for Generation Y, who have been bred on a diet of mobile apps, this could be the nirvana of quality training.

That hasn’t happened. Why haven’t e-learning apps kept up? Part of the reason is the training development tools used by e-learning developers.

For instance, to avoid the pitfalls of most e-learning, two decades ago, my company needed a development tool that allowed the construction of highly interactive games and interactive exercises. Half a million happy users later proved that we had made a good choice. The tool we used was quite sophisticated; however, its full capabilities were rarely used by the majority of development companies. It required far more time and effort to develop really engrossing training. This tool was subsequently dropped from the market by its owners and replaced with a far simpler one.

Simple tools now dominate the market. Many even boast the ability to convert (boring) PowerPoint slides into (boring) e-learning. From our perspective, e-learning development tools actually went backward in terms of usefulness. Today, the emphasis with current learning development tools appears to give developers the ability to churn out as much boring material as possible, as quickly as possible. Speed before quality. There are at least 52 e-learning and mobile learning development tools now on the market. All have their particular gimmicks, but e-learning has not kept pace with market expectations. It is generally as boring now as it was decades ago.

E-learning doesn’t have to be boring

Twenty-five years ago, the first 3D game engine appeared on the market. I remember being blown away by running through Wolfenstein 3D. 3D games have grown at a staggering pace. Within 24 hours of its release, a car racing game had generated $800 million in revenue.

Everyone loves the excitement of 3D worlds. Surprisingly, the second biggest audience group for gaming are people 55 to 64 years old. It’s not just Gen Y.

Two decades ago, it hit me how incredible it would be if my company could make our quality training as entertaining as these games. Eight years ago, we started experimenting.

We embarked on a completely new and unique approach to quality training. We are creating interactive games and interactive exercises explaining the principles of continuous improvement, using a 3D, full-screen, game engine. We have built 40 interactive 3D scenes of games and exercises, across 54 modules. Importantly, for quality professionals, it also allows training on PC and mobile devices. Building training using game engines is an order of magnitude more complex and time-consuming than even our previous approach, but the results are absolutely spectacular.

Adapting 3D development to training has posed many challenges, not the least being the many thousands of lines of code needed. The huge variety of screen sizes and aspect ratios needs to be accommodated. 3D game-development tools do not naturally lend themselves to the more linear nature of learning. We put great effort into designing such training to meet learning requirements. At the same time, using custom code rather than a cookie-cutter approach, gives great flexibility to present information in the best way possible.

You might be thinking that all this dazzling and entertaining 3D training might be fine for Gen Y, but how are older folk like me going to be able to operate it? No need to panic. The design is simple to operate, and you don’t need the reflexes of a fighter pilot. Assistance and guidance is built in. This is especially important where a student may be doing some of the training on a mobile device on the way to work, then transferring to a PC in the work environment, automatically from where he or she left off. Having a smooth transition from mobile navigation to mouse movement is important. Data are stored centrally for global administration by the quality manager.

Our design is as easy to operate by a 70-year-old as my 7-year-old son... and both will have just as much fun. My son has also demonstrated that having fun gives a remarkable level of understanding of the quality improvement concepts being taught, at any age. He loves playing the quality games. It’s where he learned the basics of flowcharting. It was so delightful to see the flowchart he’d drawn up of his own volition, on “how to be happy.”

My son Alex’s “Me Chart.” He learned flowcharting basics from our 3D training software.


A huge challenge has been to add lots of variation to maintain a student’s interest. It’s important to avoid mundane examples. The examples should be QI... “quite interesting.” Most important is maintaining a theme of fun and entertainment throughout.

One example is training in histograms. Here, a real-world story in process improvement is taken from maritime history and built into a training game using an interactive 3D ocean simulation—seemingly real ships fighting on a real ocean. The aim is to do what was done in the real world, to shoot the enemy ship. The realistic scene makes it easy to see why hit rates were so poor. The final step is to discover the process improvement that was invented a century ago, long before the age of gyroscopes, and to play the game with the improvement.

Seamlessly move from playing a game on your cell phone to playing it on your desktop

By generating their own data in the game, students gain a far better understanding of the concepts. The program allows students to interpret the meaning through the different histogram shapes generated and how they have come about.

Learning is far more powerful when it involves activity rather than just information dumping. This continues on to the job. All too common in the real world, people ignore the story that the data are telling and blindly enter data into a computer program to normalize and spit out mean and standard deviations.


Eight wastes being generated in a 3D factory.

Managers should be aware that no form of electronic training in quality can be considered a panacea. Experts in quality will always be needed to assist employees in applying the principles learned. Interactive 3D learning could be considered a fun introduction that frees skilled quality professionals from the mundane task of repeating the same material over and over to folks who are sentenced to a classroom.

The future of e-learning

A discussion of technology-based training would not be complete without considering virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality was once the stuff of Hollywood, in movies such as Avatar, Total Recall, and The Matrix. The much publicized Rift, VR gaming gear by Oculus VR LLC, brought VR from million-dollar research laboratories to reality. More recently, Google Cardboard has brought VR to a $10 practicality, by using a mobile phone. Durable plastic versions are available for around $20.

The VR experience is indeed breathtaking and might become an adjunct to training. Software is a relatively simple add-on to the 3D training we are producing. It does have one major drawback. Many people, like me, feel nauseous after a few minutes using it. Virtual reality loses an advantage of just-in-time training with mobile devices, because VR involves separation from the real world. Real-world separation also introduces occupational health issues. I’m sure I’m not the first person to almost fall over backward while immersed in virtual reality. This doesn’t mean that VR won’t provide a useful training environment in some situations.

Another relevant technology is WebGL. It makes interactive 3D training and other content available in your browser. WebGL 2 made its first appearance in January 2017, in Firefox. Other browsers will follow, although it clearly poses a dilemma for app-store owners such as Apple. It is an unstoppable threat to app store revenue streams. However, WebGL 2 now makes interactive 3D in your browser practical. In a few years, I have no doubt you’ll be seeing interactive 3D advertisements cluttering your screen on web pages.

The result of our interactive 3D training design efforts is an entertaining, stimulating, and engrossing quality training product. Instant edutainment in quality will be available at any time and any place for a single user, or thousands, simultaneously. Imagine having staff just clamoring to get their hands on quality training and asking, “What is the name of the product, and where is it available?” Our new 3D product, Q-Skills3D, is complete and is in testing, debugging, and optimizing. We expect its release during the fourth quarter this year.

This is the start of a new wave in quality training... and perhaps in training generally.


About The Author

Anthony D. Burns’s picture

Anthony D. Burns

Anthony Burns, Ph.D., has a bachelor of engineering and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He has 36 years of experience and his company, MicroMultimedia Pty. Ltd., is responsible for the development of the e-learning quality product Q-Skills and its support tools.