An emerging trend – which can justifiably be labeled as a case of “Mad Belt Disease” – may be threatening the long-term credibility and success of Six Sigma. It is time for practitioners of Six Sigma to help stem the spread of what is beginning to look like an epidemic.

This disturbing trend is the increasingly frantic emphasis on Green Belt or Black Belt certification. Individuals frequently ask how they can “get Six Sigma-certified.” More and more people seem to believe they can take a course and pass a test to improve their job prospects or get a pay raise. Or worse, they would like to just take a test to accomplish those goals.

Organizations Cannot Buy Culture Change

It is not clear how many employers buy into that, but there do seem to be a lot more help wanted ads than qualified applicants, always an indicator of pressure on businesses. No doubt there are employers who want to hire the “silver bullet” rather than do the hard work needed to build a better organization. Unfortunately, organizations cannot buy culture change. Some organizations have successfully used “hire-a-belt” strategies, but these are organizations that had made a commitment. They had a plan, an engaged management team and a mature human resources process for selecting candidates, testing candidates and hiring candidates.

While a hire-a-belt approach without further commitment may achieve some short-term results, disillusion will soon set in. Both employers and employees will come to realize that there is a big difference between certification based on knowledge (as indicated by passing a test), and certification based on demonstrated knowledge (as indicated by completion of projects that produce real business results). The former can be done alone; the latter requires management engagement, guidance, support and understanding.

Results What Count in Belt Certification

Six Sigma certification must be based on results, not knowledge alone. The success of Six Sigma realized by leaders such as GE, Motorola, Raytheon and others always has been based on a carefully orchestrated deployment process that begins at the top and is fully supported by appropriate infrastructure. This infrastructure includes coaching, mentoring and fact-based monitoring of results. Training and testing are among the less important elements of a successful deployment – necessary, but far from sufficient alone. Certification based only on knowledge is form without substance.

Another indication of Mad Belt Disease is the great increase in the number of discussion forum postings in which individuals are looking for suggestions for projects they can execute to complete certification. This is more form without substance – a type of “grade inflation.” It is clear that some businesses are losing sight of a Six Sigma fundamental – the need to connect Six Sigma projects to important business results. Picking a Six Sigma project in order to get certified is putting the cart before the cow. Six Sigma succeeds when it is driven by top-level business goals that are tightly linked to lower level Ys, leading to projects of appropriate scope that are clearly tied to significant business objectives. Management must be actively engaged. Projects that are not aligned with business goals, that are too big or too small in scope, that lack ongoing review, and that do not have provision for the recognition and reward of participants are at serious risk of failure.

The Cure for Mad Belt Disease

Certification is a small part of the total picture of Six Sigma. Success comes when organizations make a broad and sustained commitment to deep-seated culture change. It does not come as a result of heroic efforts by a small group, no matter how knowledgeable, determined or well trained. Many articles and discussions published on iSixSigma have been written by experienced and successful Six Sigma practitioners. Although they represent many different companies, frames of reference and even countries, the critical success factors employed are always similar.

Six Sigma success requires alignment of the organization around the critical success factors for the business – it does not come about as a result of a few trained people from an intermediate level in the organization selecting projects without the necessary context and support. Alignment is an executive management responsibility that cannot be delegated or abrogated if real and significant business results are to be achieved.

Success comes when organizations focus the right people on the right problems. Organizational success with Six Sigma is like building character – it can be done by the organization, but not to it, or for it. It cannot be hired or bought; it must be earned the old fashioned way, by working for it.

Seek Those Who Understand Six Sigma

Belt candidates should be chosen from the top performers in the organization – the best and the brightest high potential performers. They should not be chosen from the ranks of the unemployed or from those who happen to be available at the moment. (Consider that the best people are usually the busiest people.)

So, those individuals seeking only certification or seeking a certification project from the public forum should consider the possibility that they may be looking for the wrong thing. Instead of looking for certificates or projects, perhaps they (and their future employers) would be better served if they first look for organizations that “get it” about Six Sigma. That is the best path to long-term success.

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