In my opinion, one of the key questions to answer when planning a deployment is whether the Black Belt role should be full-time.

While this sounds like a reasonable question to some, many experienced Six Sigma folks find it strange to even ask, because in the majority of programs the Black Belt role is automatically assumed to be full-time. Candidates are identified from within the organization (or hired externally) and trained in the usual way, after which time their job title becomes some version of “Black Belt” and they leave their previous role. In a separate but related process, projects are identified and prioritized. Projects are then matched to Black Belts, who move through the organization as necessary to complete the projects they are assigned.

There are innumerable variations on this theme, but in general it’s a pretty common model for continuous improvement. I think there are two reasons for this. First, it works well, especially at the start of a deployment. If you pick the right projects, provide a serviceable tool set, and 100% focus the right people, good things happen. You get project results and you get them fast. The second reason is that most Six Sigma consultants push this model, which is of course because of the first reason.

I worry about this deployment strategy in the long run though, especially as a path to culture change. This is partly because when I think of culture change, I think of work that should be targeted to address the holistic, system level in an organization. Not any one specific thing, but rather a collection of many aspects that must all be addressed with reasonable simultaneity. In my own mind, I call this “common cause work”.

In contrast, I view deploying specifically trained individuals to work on individual projects as “special cause work”. Here we are thinking less about working on the system as a whole, but rather about a very specific set of activities associated with a specific improvement objective.

(Before I get jumped on for my use of “special cause” and “common cause” terminology in this context, let me freely admit that I am using them conceptually rather than literally. And that I am taking liberties. And that I do understand the formal and correct usage. And that yes, I have read “Out of the Crisis”.)

I don’t mean to suggest that one type of work is better or more necessary than the other, only that they are different in nature and serve different purposes. I have seen successful Six Sigma programs based on both strategies. The problem comes when we address common cause work with special cause responses, or vice versa. As any Black Belt should know, the only exacerbates the problem we are trying to solve.

What this means in practice is that if culture change is the goal of a Six Sigma deployment, deploying full-time Black Belts, which is a special cause response (or at least much more special cause than part-time Black Belts) may not be the right strategy. In fact, as anyone who has done any special cause/common cause simulations can tell you, deploying Black Belts in a special cause fashion may in fact make the common cause cultural issues worse. It’s true that projects will be completed quickly and successfully, but it wreaks havoc on the culture.

Part-time Black Belts, on the other hand, can be deployed against common cause cultural variation as well as specific projects. For example, suppose there is a project that needs to be done in a specific facility which does not have a resident Black Belt. The special cause option would be to bring a full-time Black Belt in; import one from the outside, or take someone from the facility and put them in a new role. This would get the project done. But another – maybe better – option would be to find a subject matter expert from the facility and ask for 50% of their time for training and project work. The downside is that it will likely take that person more time to complete each project. And there will be battles to fight about focus and time balance. But the upside is tremendous. That person will know more than any outsider about the process. They will know the people involved. They will have natural social connections. They are far more likely to spread the philosophy and methodology of Six Sigma than an outsider would be. And when the project is done, they will still be there to for the next iteration, and the one after that. In short, they will be embedded and able to work in a common cause fashion on the culture, as well as being able to work special cause on specific projects in a special cause fashion.

As I said, the downside to all this is that it takes longer to get projects done. And part-time Black Belts are typically not very mobile in the organization, and thus can’t be easily deployed against projects outside their area. There are plusses and minuses to every approach. But the part-time Black Belt strategy is always worthy of consideration, especially when cultural change is a stated goal of deployment, and even when full-time Black Belts are an option. While undoubtedly messier in the short term, it’s a shorter path to culture change in the medium-long term.

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