There’s a lot of talk about Six Sigma certification these days. I remember being asked by a talent acquisition manager at a previous employer what it meant to be a “certified” Master Black Belt. The question arose because a quick search on Google turned up programs ranging from 3 days (online) to 2 years in length, and all of them offered “Master Black Belt Certification” as an end goal. In some cases the certification was automatic on completion of the program, in others it required things like project work, testing, or other forms of independently verifiable achievement. As we quickly established, it didn’t mean much at all to be a “certified” Master Black Belt.

Which isn’t to say that certification doesn’t have value. It’s just that it’s value isn’t consistent. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, in a roundabout way it might be a good thing.

I’ve been involved with the creation of three different Six Sigma certification programs at three different companies. In every case, we started off with the idea that certification should be tied to some external standard – for example, our Black Belts might have to take a test provided by an external quality organization or consultancy. The argument here is usually that standards may slip and/or be applied inconsistently if certification criteria are evaluated qualitatively from within the organization. The idea is to make certification more like a degree or professional accreditation, which in theory has consistent value across organizations.

I reject this view. Individuals who independently pursue achievements that result in recognizable, external certifications of some sort do so to further their individual goals. And the organizations that award such certifications have a vested interest in maintaining high standards so that the individuals they certify conform to certain expectations, furthering the reputation of the certifying organization. Colleges that award degrees are a perfect example. Individuals choose a college to pursue a degree to further their interests and/or career. Colleges won’t award a degree unless those individuals meet the standards they set out. And that makes perfect sense if you are a college.

But businesses are not colleges, and Six Sigma certifications are not degrees, and businesses pursue business goals not individual ones.There is noautomatic value to a business in having either “tough” or “easy” certification criteria, or even criteria which are consistent in their application. Indeed, the only thing that should matter in setting up a certification program is what behavior the business wants to recognize and reward. Want to drive the efficient acquisition of knowledge? Design metrics and base certification around those. Want to complete a lot of projects quickly? Design your certification around that. Want to use Six Sigma certification to drive employee morale and buy in? Then certify everyone as they walk out the door of the training course. I could go on, but you get the idea. None of these methods of evaluation are good or bad ideas except in the context of what the organization wants to do.

If you think this argument is abstract, consider a conversation I had recently about a Black Belt (not at my company!) who was running a fairly complicated DOE and having trouble getting support and resources. I asked why. It turned out that the project was basically dead, but the DOE was being done because a DOE was required as part of the certification process. This was a case where the objectives of the certification process were not just out of alignment with the objectives of the organization – they were actually pulling in opposite directions. I’ve seen variation on this theme happen consistently when certification standards and criteria are out-sourced to consultants or quality organizations. Businesses need to use certification as a way to drive the behavior they want to see, and an outside organization simply can’t do that effectively, especially if it is trying to be consistent across many different businesses.

The key thing to remember is that certification itself has no value to the business whatsoever except as a driver of behavior. Of course, if you take this approach, inevitably someone will howl that“certification doesn’t mean anything”. My response? So what. It doesn’t have to “mean anything” outside the organization. All it has to do is motivate the behaviors that the organization is interested in. Nor do whatever standards you come up with have to be consistent. In my view the tenth person that gets certified in a business unit should almost certainly face elevated standards relative to the first person – that tenth person should be benefiting from the experience of others, and anyway, how else are you going to drive continuous improvement? And a Black Belt in HR isn’t going to be subject to the same set of standards as a Black Belt on the manufacturing floor – why would they, since the nature of the work is completely different? And I’m certainly not above certifying a key individual to drive culture change as opposed to for technical reasons. I do have standards, but I’m also ruthlessly focused on moving the organization where it needs to go. If you overlook certification as a way to do that – or if you’re asking someone outside the organization to do it for you – you’re overlooking a very powerful tool for driving behavior.

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