I have been wrestling lately with the question of when a Six Sigma project should be considered “done”. From the perspective of the organization, it’s common to say that done means finished through the control phase or it’s equivalent, including process changes or other implemented solutions. From the financial perspective it’s tempting to say that done means solutions have been implemented, controls put in place, and savings documented for some pre-defined period of time.

But from the perspective of the Black Belt (or whomever is leading the project to begin with), these answers often don’t make sense. Rarely will the Black Belt have the knowledge, authority, or resources to implement and monitor process changes, or the bandwidth to stick around for a year to make sure that the dollars flow as expected. One could argue that perhaps the world would be a better place if Black Belts were truly accountable for these things, but in practice it is usually a process owner and/or finance rep who are responsible for ensuring that changes stick and dollars flow. And given what they are trained to do, we probably want Black Belts moving on to new projects anyway. Instead, we seem to be moving the finish line farther and farther away, and keeping Black Belts involved in more and more things.

For example, consider a classic Six Sigma project aimed at reducing scrap and increasing throughput on a high-volume manufacturing line. Any competent Black Belt ought to be able to do the basic work of defining and measuring, then using statistical techniques to sample and understand the process, and finally running the experiments necessary to arrive at a proposed solution. But if that solution involves re-training the operators, installing new measurement equipment, and reducing changeover times, then the Black Belt is probably the last person I’d want handling the implementation. Give me the process owner, a good trainer, a capital engineer, and an experienced SMED expert to do that. If that Black Belt is all of those things, fine. But in the other 99% of cases, I think a hand-off is by far the best path forward. Even if the Black Belt is accountable for these things on paper (as is often the case), in reality it seldom works out that way for successful projects.

In fact, once a Black Belt arrives at a proposed solution, I’d argue that there’s usually little “Six Sigma work” left to be done. More often that not the change to be implemented involves other tools and skill sets like SMED, Lean, kaizen blitzes, cellularization, training or re-training, capital installations, etc, etc, etc. And given that’s the case, there’s almost always a better person or group than the Black Belt to get it done. Let the Black Belt move on to another opportunity where Six Sigma skills are needed. Why train people up on one thing and then devote them to another?

One answer to this problem is to try to make Black Belts experts at, well, everything. Hence the proliferation of various hyphenated and hybrid techniques (DFLSS with an extra week for change management, anyone?). And as a result, we get what seems like a never-ending curriculum creep: 40 hours online plus five weeks in class for Black Belt isn’t uncommon anymore, and both the online and in class parts seem only to be growing.

But maybe a better answer is to move the finish line forward. Perhaps the job of a Black Belt ought to be to deliver one thing and one thing only: the knowledge necessary to make the improvement. Maybe past that point there are others who will always be better at executing.

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