I recently attended my graduation ceremony for an Advanced Manufacturing Specialist certification in Kansas City.With Six Sigma methodology being a key component of the certification, I began to listen to the keynote speaker elaborate on the many projects and cost savings achieved by the seventy class graduates.

As I reflected over the last year and the work that went into my projects, I started envisioning my classmates giving their final project presentations.I remembered how the class started out large but over the months of the year grew smaller and smaller.At this same time I was reading the book Good to Great which quantifies and categorizes similar attributes shared by leaders of great companies. I then began to ponder…. What makes a great Black Belt? Based off of my classroom experience I have come up with the following conclusions:

Prior education does not matter. Passion for learning drives success.

I remember a former employer of mine had a cookie cutter mindset when it came to Six Sigma and one of its “suggestions” when inquiring about becoming a Black Belt was that you shouldn’t inquire unless you have a technical degree.Throughout my year of classes I saw the engineers drop out just as fast as those with non technical degrees (or no degree at all) and while the reasons may be different the end result is the same- lack of follow through. In order to be a great Black Belt, you must have a passion for learning and want to learn process improvement techniques.

Black Belts must “know the flow”

By the time the final class rolled around I will admit my peers had polished their presentation skills through the facilitation sessions offered in the certification, however no classroom could prepare them for the Q&A session to follow.The one thing that stuck out amongst the great Black Belts during this session was they knew their companies inside and out. I was impressed to hear how aBlack Belt working on a project in R&D had the foresight to take into consideration accounting costing concerns and production manufacturability constrains- both of which are departments he does not work in. Another Black Belt working in healthcare talked about the effects her project had on both patients and insurers even though her performance review was based solely on patient satisfaction. A great Black Belt must look beyond the scope of his or her department and see the big picture in terms of a company’s operations.

Organize! Prioritize! Strategize!

As if taking six weeks out of my work schedule wasn’t time consuming enough, I was inundated with a multitude of templates, graphs, spreadsheets, etc. that were required for project documentation. If you’re gong to call yourself a great Black Belt, you may as well add “Great Project Manager” to the title. In addition to knowing the business a great Black Belt must know how to document it in a fact based approach while juggling the umpteen other requirements with work and family.Black Belts I considered class models were those who could strategize their approach to getting project buy in and tollgate buy off, prioritize their D-M-A-I-C tasks with the rest of their responsibilities and organize their work and results in a clear and concise presentation.

There’s no “I” in Team, Co-worker, or Group

Just when you’re out of school and you think you will never have to perform a group homework assignment, the real world sets in and you become employed working for the group. Six Sigma is no exception. Although “Black Belt” is a singular title one in this profession must learn to be humble and throw the title out the window when working with the general masses.The great Black Belts from class were those who worked as facilitators within departments, shifts, etc at their employer. Working with diverse people from diverse departments is a must when it comes to strategizing and knowing the flow of the business. While a goal for a project may be clear, co-workers may choose different roads for reaching the goal. The great Black Belts are those who make sure everyone runs in the same direction towards the goal without tripping over their feet.

Black Belts must be communicators

By the time the class started discussing requirements for the final project I bet I could tell you every classmate’s employer, their job position, the opportunities, and their challenges faced. With the exception of their employer, none of this information was required to be presented for the class but rather communicated informally through class breaks, luncheons, etc.I’m not saying a great Black Belt must be come from the sales department or be a network guru, but the communication must be there. Most projects regardless of size will require you to work with others and if you can’t communicate in a clear, concise, and comfortable manner, your projects won’t make it past the first tollgate. Communication also fosters relationship building and the great Black Belts capitalized on this in class by inserting small talk- often about things not even relating to Six Sigma.I’m not saying you have to act like you’re in high schoolbut even the occasional smile and hello in the hallway will definitely win you a sense of approachabilitywith your peers.

I’m sure there are additional attributes that could be added if I had more time (and maybe a book deal!).Although this study is not scientific and is based upon personal observation, all students who, in my mind, met these criteria carried out successful Six Sigma projects resulting in everything from saving money to saving jobs.

Next topic: Can you Quantify a Good vs. a Great Black Belt?

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