I am regularly asked what characterizes an ideal Black Belt candidate. Like most people in the field, I have a list of adjectives and descriptive phrases I can trot out at a moment’s notice. Mine comprises about 50 items under the following headings: 1) Aptitude For Change; 2) Education and Experience; 3) Intellectual Curiosity; 4) Leadership and Interpersonal Factors. If pressed, I have a PowerPoint version of my list that I can speak to. If really pressed, I have even organized my list into matrix that can be used to score candidates. But to be honest I find that one good conversation with their manager is usually more informative than completing the matrix.

Every time the question comes up, I have the same thought after answering it: in order to define what characterizes an ideal Black Belt candidate, we first need to understand what we expect Black Belts to do. And every time I try to do that, I’m struck by some basic problems. Because often, we seem to expect them to do everything.

Consider a basic tool taught in most Six Sigma curricula: the SIPOC, which stands for Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer. (Some organizations cleverly reverse the acronym – COPIS – to emphasize that the customer should come first. Others add additional letters in various spots.) The purpose of a SIPOC is noble – to understand the entire process at high level, beginning with the supplier and ending with the customer. And while the Black Belt normally has a team in place to help them formulate and develop the SIPOC, it’s the Black Belt who owns the tool and the project at the end of the day.

It’s right about here that I start to get confused about what we are asking Black Belts to do. The dogma is that projects need to start and end with the customer, plus include the entire value stream, plus reach out to suppliers, plus touch on multiple functions within the organization. And while there can and should be a project team in place, the ultimate responsibility for all of these things does lie with the Black Belt. But how many Black Belts are suitably qualified (via experience, positional authority, contacts within the organization, etc, etc) to reach out in all these directions effectively? Can you think of a single individual in your organization that you’d be comfortable asking to do all of those things – personally visit with customers, work with suppliers, cut across internal functions, etc, etc? In my experience those people are extremely rare, and many of them already have “chief” somewhere in their title.

So where does that leave us? We need to develop Black Belts through training and experience, of course, but that takes time a multiple projects. What to do on the first, second, and third projects? Picking the right team is one obvious answer, but if the Black Belt doesn’t know what they are doing to a certain extent in all areas, then picking teams members who are very good at their particular function may or may not turn out well in the end. And it’s not easy to do, because those people are typically in very high demand. Anyone who has seen a wave of 20-30 (or more) Black Belts all attack their first projects at once knows this firsthand.

My suggestion is that the organization in general, and the Six Sigma (or equivalent) function in particular, should bear some responsibility for managing the interface between generation of knowledge (i.e. finding out what to do) and the execution pathway suggested by that knowledge (i.e. doing it). Put another way, perhaps the role of the Black Belt ought to be to investigate, understand and recommend…but execution and other aspects of realization ought to be left to those who best understand the area where the activity will occur.

For example, why do we ask Black Belts to go out and listen to voice of the customer? Don’t we have sales and marketing functions that ought to be doing that? Presumably those folks will be much better at it than a newly minted Black Belt anyway because, frankly, they ought to be experts. And if the sales and marketing folks aren’t good at it, then perhaps we ought to focus on that problem rather than institutionalizing a work-around via Six Sigma training. Which I think is what we are really doing if we give Black Belts end-to-end responsibility for a project. We’re admitting that our functions don’t work well together. If we ask a Black Belt with an engineering background to go out and listen to voice of the customer, then we might win the battle for the specific project (although in practice I actually don’t think this happens very often), but we lose the war for organizational effectiveness as a whole. And that’s definitely not what we should be asking Black Belts to do.

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