Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, situated at the mouth of the Columbia River, is the largest Coast Guard search and rescue station on the Northwest Coast of the United States. This area is regarded as one of the most treacherous river bars in the world and because of the large number of shipwrecks near the river entrance it is often called “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” During winter storms, wind-driven ocean swells range from 20-40 feet at the entrance of the bar.

In addition to the 300 to 400 annual search and rescue sorties undertaken by the Cape D crew, the Coast Guard uses the area to conduct advanced rough sea rescue training for its seasoned Captains. Learning to maneuver a rescue boat in these conditions is not for the faint of heart, or the novice. In fact, the boats these individuals pilot are capable of being rolled over by breaking swells and re-righting themselves, sustaining minimal damage.

I learned these interesting facts about Cape D from a documentary on the Coast Guard which aired on the A&E network recently. As I watched the show I was in awe at the seamanship displayed by the individuals piloting the boats and it was readily apparent that all of them were seasoned veterans whom the Coast Guard had chosen to take their game to the next level. Sort of a “Top Gun” for rescue boat captains. As interesting as all of this is, I was particularly intrigued by a comment made by one of the instructors when he explained that the success or failure of each person in the program often depended on the confidence they had gained through their previous experience.

That’s when it hit me! Could it be that the success or failure of a Six Sigma project often turns on the prior experience of the Black Belt? Surely not, for if that were the case it would be much less commonplace to throw neophyte Black Belts into the knarliest projects in the company! But maybe, just maybe, this is why detractors of Six Sigma reference a growing “graveyard” of project failures to make their point.

The truth is, freshly minted Black Belt certificates are nothing more than a license to learn. Organizations must continue to develop Black Belts long after the certification hurdles have been crossed if they’re going to develop Captains who can navigate “Cape Project Disappointment” without sinking to the bottom. Additionally, MBB’s and company leaders have to consider project selection relative to the capability of the potential project leader. Some Black Belts can float, some can swim, and some can steer the boat, but patience, development, and discipline are required if an organization wants “Top Gun” Black Belts whom they can call on when the surf is overwhelming.

“Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full”, Michael

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