Black Belt Ranks

In the martial arts, you may know that once a person obtains a black belt there are usually levels of progression upwards. Each of these levels is called a “dan” and there can be 3 or more progressive levels, sometimes designated with astripe ortape around the end of the black belt.

We’ve taken that concept as a beginning for a career development plan for Black Belts. We ask for a 2 – 3 year commitment as part of our hiring process, and hire new Black Belts at a “novice” level if they have not previously been certified as a Black Belt elsewhere. After training and internal certification, and meeting other organizational requirements, they are promoted to “practitioner” level.

At this point, we start discussing possible future paths: Continued learning in project management and expanding the focus of the projects; or possibly going back into operations and a Green Belt level of participation; or possibly upwards to incorporate moreteaching and mentoring. In the last case, the level is called “sensei” and can be obtained through a number of ways,demonstrating effectiveness in project management, teaching of our Operational Excellence courses, and formal mentoring programs.

Each of these levels has a salary band within the Black Belt wage range, and the promotion process includes preparation of a portfolio to be presented to a group of executives who will consider the appropriateness of the promotion.

We’ve put this structure together in the last several months, and will be setting up the first portfolio reviews this fall.

I’m working whether there are any other Black Belt level concepts, like this one, being used “out there?” If so, please share!

Comments 6

  1. Julie Crist

    I was wondering how did this play out at your organization? We current place non certified folks into a 2 year training program. Upon completion they can apply for a Black belt role, go to their previous role or apply for another role.

    I have been asked by our operations group to develop a career progression plan taking into account the various levels of skills that you allude to.

  2. Sue Kozlowski

    I like the concept that you use, the 2-year training program before BB or back to operations. Our organization has decided that we are Black Belts as a title from the time we hire in or transfer to the role. Internally, within our department, we use the stages of novice-practitioner-sensei as a career ladder with pay increases. We don’t put those internal titles on our badges, so as far as everyone else is concerned, we’re Black Belts.

    This has worked for us especially because we don’t transition only internal associates into the role. We have about half from internal, and half hiring in from outside of the organization. Some are already certified as Black Belts at their previous organization or through the ASQ, so we wouldn’t necessary want them to start at the bottom of the training curve.

    We developed a list of requirements for individuals in each stage, and a list of requirements for those wanting to move to the next stage.

    For example, with projects, as a novice they would be able to co-facilitate with an experienced BB. As a practitioner, they would be able to facilitate with assistance from experienced Lean Green Belts. As a sensei, they would be able to facilitate a novice BB or LGB’s new to their roles.

    Similarly, with teaching, as a novice they’re expected to take and pass the required courses. As a practitioner, they’re expected to be able to teach the content modules and assist with exercises. As a sensei, they should be able to be the lead instructor for Lean Green Belt courses.

    This has been helpful for our Black Belts, to understand the progression in their career paths – for example, being a novice for about a year; then becoming a practitioner for an additional 1-4 years; then on to the sensei role or back to operations.

    Also, it’s been helpful explaining to our leadership team why a peson with a Black Belt, who is new in the role, may not be ready to tackle advanced assignments right away!!!

  3. Darryl Zurn

    I hope that some day, Six Sigma puts their heads together to figure out some way to describe their training levels besides abusing belt titles from the martial arts.

    I have a REAL second-dan black belt in Tae Kwon Do, which took me 7 years to be granted, with another 7 years teaching experience.

    When Six Sigma plays around with dignified concepts like "black belt", it sounds really pathetic. I can’t imagine what possibly drove them to take that on. Well, I can, but this is polite company.

    I don’t mean to pick on anyone in particular, and it’s hardly your idea, but all the six sigma belt titles just infantilizes its practitioners.

    HA! I just saw you also used the word "sensei"! Jerks.

    The only thing left is mandatory Rising Sun headbands.

  4. Sue Kozlowski

    Darryl, I’ve heard from others holding martial arts rankings who resent the terminology developed at Motorola. I usually explain to our classes that it was originally intended to refer to black-belt-like expertise to defend against poor quality and variation through statistical analysis. However, those who hold REAL black belts sometimes find it hard to view this as valid (or humorous).

    We had long discussions as to whether to use the belt terminology at our organization; I know that others have chosen expert, guide, or navigator as titles. However, since the term Black Belt has been accepted by most certifying organizations such as the ASQ, we decided to adopt it for ease of translation.

    As to "sensei," it’s my understanding that the term "teacher" is appropriate to all forms of learning, not just the martial arts. So I would be less worried about "stealing" that term, because as we have defined it, the sensei level does include teaching, coaching, and mentoring others.

    Thanks for taking the time to add to this discussion.

  5. Hanh

    I think the original intention of using title such Black Belt or Master Black Belt as a way to show the rigor and discipline that the six sigma practitioners have to go through to develop their expertise similar to the martial arts experts.

  6. Six Sigma Belt

    I couldn’t agree more with Hanh on the original intentions of the titles.

    Six Sigma Belt

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