As Six Sigma continues to be adopted and integrated across the spectrum of global businesses, from manufacturing, to finance, to pharmaceuticals, it is important to recognize the evolution of the role of the Six Sigma professional within those businesses. Traditionally, Black Belts and Master Black Belts were expected to be experts on applying the tools and techniques of their craft. Unfortunately, the model of a Black Belt as an individual contributor is insufficient to provide the change leadership that current businesses require. The constant change that defines modern business mandates that the role of a Black Belt as a “process fixer” needs to evolve into a “business process integrator.”

The traditional certification requirements of a Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma Black Belt generally constitute a documented expertise with the DMAIC process and the tools and techniques therein. Unfortunately, these skills alone do not recognize the multitude of other capabilities that must be present for a modern Black Belt to be successful. A successful Black Belt must be defined as being one who inspires people to adopt Six Sigma tools into daily business operations.

Tutor’s Skills and Executive’s Business Acumen

Success obviously calls for easy familiarity with the tools of the profession, Lean, statistical and otherwise. However, it also requires the pedagogic skills of a tutor wed to the business acumen of an executive. It is in the rare confluence of these skills that the best Six Sigma professionals operate. Such individuals are both rare and valuable, as is expertise in any field. This collection of skills is especially difficult to find in those with wide transactional experience, since the bulk of Six Sigma practitioners hail from operational backgrounds.

Transactional processes, by their very nature, generally contain far fewer controllable variables than operational or manufacturing process. For instance, competitors, customers, and weather are uncontrollable, but have a significant impact on transactional process outcomes. This minor chaos must be addressed with a certain amount of flexibility – sometimes an anathema to “Six Sigma purists.” Unfortunately, rigid application of methodology and tools may sabotage the very success a Black Belt is trying to stimulate. If a product manager is trying to gauge and improve the sales impact of various promotions, Six Sigma tools can provide the structure to efficiently pursue an answer.

Basic Six Sigma tools also can help sales professionals articulate improvement goals more precisely. During initial conversations with transactional professionals, the best Black Belts should allow their “customers” to do most of the talking; only gently guiding the conversation toward the right questions: “How will you measure the process outcome?” and “Which specific products or markets do you want to investigate?”

Structure That Potential Six Sigma Users Need

These early meetings are the appropriate time to discuss, in business terms, how to test existing theories. This is the type of structure that a potential user of Six Sigma seeks. Now is not the time to “fill out a project charter,” launch into a monologue on strengths and weaknesses of linear logarithmic regression, or proselytize the elegant simplicity of a chi-squared analysis. Forcing every business challenge into a formal project or discussing business challenges only in statistical terms is no way to cultivate support for Six Sigma. If statistics are necessary, the Black Belt can lead the customer through the tool application when the time is right.

The most successful Black Belts often adroitly lead customers through a Six Sigma tool application without the customer even being fully aware of the structured guidance. This is because the best Black Belts speak the language of their customers – the language of business. For Six Sigma to thrive, customers must perceive the guidance from their Black Belt as sound business advice. Opinions may differ, but it may be more useful for Black Belts to do most of the statistical “heavy lifting” while only providing “awareness training” for the customer. This may be especially true in transactional projects. If the customer is a Green Belt, the training will reinforce previous classroom training. If the customer is untrained, this gentle approach will help recruit future Green Belts and Black Belts.

Six Sigma Is About Business Improvements

Six Sigma should not focus only on sigma-level improvements; it should be about business improvements. The assistance that a successful Black Belt affords, transactional or otherwise, should be viewed as helpful business advice, not just Six Sigma advice. In order to accomplish this, Six Sigma professionals must speak both languages fluently. It also should be noted that, just as a sensible person would not constantly correct a non-native English speaker for mispronunciations or syntax errors, a Black Belt must show some patience and understanding to those trying to implement a Six Sigma tool or technique for the first time.

It is unfortunate, and extremely counter-productive, when a Six Sigma novice discusses their intent to use a particular tool but is admonished by a Black Belt for picking the “wrong” one, or being scolded for less-than-perfect application. Imagine the damage to the Six Sigma novice’s confidence in the methodology, or willingness to apply it, after clashing with a Six Sigma purist.

If a customer wants to use a tool that, while not ideal, could provide some value and lead closer to an answer, that implementation should be encouraged. If a better tool exists for the task at hand, a Black Belt must lead customers to it, rather than point out faults of previous efforts. Six Sigma professionals recognize that sometimes, just as a paperweight can be used as a hammer, a partially appropriate tool is better than using no tool at all. When the limits of its application become apparent, a more appropriate tool can be suggested. Allowing this minor crisis to happen creates a strong opportunity for change management. These situations also offer a chance to gauge a customers understanding of the DMAIC methodology.

Carefully Cultivating Enthusiasm for Six Sigma

Black Belts must carefully cultivate and encourage enthusiasm for Six Sigma, especially in transactional environments. Many individuals working in these functions are apprehensive about using technical or statistical tools, so if initiative to use Six Sigma is presented, it is crucial to nurture that willingness. Sometimes it is more important to reward effort than to recognize results.

This apparent encouragement to coddle transactional customers of Six Sigma may seem peculiar, especially to Six Sigma purists, but is just a response to the reality of how people work together. People want to work with others who are pleasant and provide value. In companies where Six Sigma is required, this gentle approach should be fostered. In companies where Six Sigma is optional (officially or not), it is even more important for Black Belts to show flexibility in applying their expertise. If they do not, they risk never being invited back to lead the problem-solving process.

So where does one find these Black Belts bilingual in the language of business and Six Sigma? Finding great ones is a challenge. Deployment Champions should first search within their business. The most effective Black Belts are not necessarily those with the most impressive pedigrees, such as career Black Belts, General Electric graduates or ex-consultants. On the contrary, awareness of the business in which they are expected to provide direction is a more important consideration.

Six Sigma Positions as Career Accelerators

It is critical that Six Sigma professionals possess strong business skills, which are built on actual business experience. Any lack of such experience must be weighed when making hiring decisions about Six Sigma professionals. This need to staff the Six Sigma ranks with business professionals requires a talent management system and succession plan that promotes Six Sigma positions as attractive career choices. This is achieved by ensuring that Six Sigma positions are career accelerators. If vocally supportive business leaders work to attract the brightest talent to the Six Sigma ranks, they have done all that they can to ensure a successful Six Sigma deployment.

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