As the Lean and Six Sigma evolution makes its way throughout the financial services industry and organizations make decisions on how to best spend training dollars, an interesting trend is emerging. Many companies looking at ways to more broadly incorporate Lean and Six Sigma into their cultures are finding that a general knowledge across the organization may pay bigger dividends than deeper knowledge in a few individual experts. In other words, a second or third wave of training – following the initial teams of Black Belts or Green Belts – for the remainder of the associate population can effectively foster a broader culture. This approach, often referred to as Yellow Belt training, creates a corporate sense of inclusion.

Conventional thought in the Lean and Six Sigma world has been that an organization should certify one percent of its associate population as Black Belts and five percent (this percentage varies slightly depending on the source) as Green Belts. Thus, in a company of 1,000 associates this would mean the certification of 10 Black Belts and 50 Green Belts. Assuming that the executive team for this hypothetical organization is made up of 20 Champions and Sponsors, this leaves more than 900 associates or 90 percent potentially in the dark when it comes to understanding Lean and Six Sigma.

Such lack of knowledge can be a considerable impediment to successful Lean and Six Sigma rollout at a company level – even, to a certain degree, to the success of the first wave of Black Belt/Green Belt projects. Improvement initiatives do not happen in a vacuum or with mysterious project gurus magically using statistical tools. The projects are carried out in the lines of business and affect the people who make up those businesses as well as the processes and the technology. Acceptance of Lean and Six Sigma by associates on the line allows the Black Belt/Green Belt to lead the change effectively. Practical knowledge of Lean and Six Sigma at an appropriate level for all associates allows the cultural change to occur from the grassroots. Far too often this human or cultural infrastructure for Lean and Six Sigma is not addressed.

Addressing the Missing 90 Percent

Within this construct for deploying Lean and Six Sigma, much effort and emphasis are placed on the methodology itself, the building of a critical mass of expertise in terms of Black Belts and Green Belts, management participation and sponsorship, and an infrastructure defined in terms of tools and governance. Meanwhile that 90 percent of the people-part of the equation gets little or no attention. The answer to this dilemma is found in a Yellow Belt strategy.

Utilizing a Yellow Belt strategy prior to building a strong group of Black Belts and Green Belts is not a practical approach. However, if the goal of Lean and Six Sigma is to drive positive change and breakthrough improvement across the entire organization, then using Yellow Belt training as a key component of a well-defined infrastructure is important. Black Belts and Green Belt project leaders must be on point for making critical-to-customer change at a project level. But they can only be successful over time when the culture of the organization creates a context for such successful change. This occurs within a Lean and Six Sigma infrastructure of tools (project management office, quality management office, data availability, metrics, scorecards, etc.) and cultural support and knowledge (executive sponsorship, Champion training, Yellow Belt training).

In this sense Yellow Belts become the “cultural infrastructure” to support Lean and Six Sigma in the organization. They become allies for Black Belts and Green Belts executing sponsored projects. And they demonstrate Lean and Six Sigma principles in how they carry out their jobs and how they deal with customers.

What Every Associate Should Know

Understanding what an associate should be able to accomplish after attending Yellow Belt training gives insight into what should be part of the Yellow Belt curriculum. Yellow Belts should think and act differently than they did before training. They should:

  • Understand that data analysis drives business decisions, root cause analysis drives implementation of solutions, and Lean and Six Sigma are all about quality in terms of voice of the customer.
  • Understand the basics of metrics, process capability and process performance.
  • Understand the use of data and a scientific approach to goal setting.
  • Understand the application of cost-of-poor-quality methodology.
  • Understand the project selection and prioritization process of the company.
  • Understand the application of control mechanisms to sustain improvements over time and the continuous process improvement mantra.

Based on these goals, here is an example of a high-level curriculum for Yellow Belts:

  • An overview of the DMAIC process (utilizing an interactive simulation can be effective way making concepts real)
  • An overview of the Lean and Six Sigma strategy for the company in terms of the organization’s overall strategy
  • The definition and role of the Yellow Belt in the context of all other roles (Black Belt, Green Belt, Champion, etc.)
  • The company’s project pipeline strategy in terms of the selection process, prioritization criteria and tollgate process
  • Understanding of tools most widely used for transaction/service-oriented organizations:
    • Define Tools – Project metrics, structured brainstorming, SIPOC, process mapping, I/O analysis
    • Measure Tools – Cause-and-effect matrix, FMEA, data collection, cost of poor quality
    • Analyze Tools – Pareto charts
    • Improve and Control Tools – Solution design matrix, control charts
  • Six Sigma and Lean high-level definitions with emphasis on voice of the customer, critical to quality, speed and non-value-added

This example can be modified for the unique culture, strategy and priorities of any given company. The curriculum requires a commitment of two to four days in the classroom.

Conclusion: Moving to the Next Level of Success

Some companies limit themselves to a half-day awareness program for their non-certified population of associates. Such an approach is preferable to nothing at all. However, to best develop a strong infrastructure to support company-wide deployment of Lean and Six Sigma, a more rigorous Yellow Belt training program is a better choice. It is a commitment of time, money and resources, but the payback is well worth the investment. Priming these associates – 90 percent of the company – to become active partners in change instead of impediments to it will take the organization to the next level of success.

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