Does It Actually Matter What We Teach Black Belts?

In an earlier blog entry, I described my feelings on DMAIC and roadmaps in general. To make a long story short, I don’t believe they add much value to the core toolset of Six Sigma. A couple of folks quite rightly expressed their disagreement with my view via comments. I say quite rightly, because I don’t have data to back up my hypothesis that the roadmaps don’t matter. To get that data it would be necessary to run experiments at a program level comparing projects (or even entire deployments) done with and without a roadmap. I haven’t done that, and I don’t know of anyone else that has either.

Lack of data, however, generally doesn’t stop me from speculating. And in that spirit, while we’re talking about program-level and deployment-level experiments, there’s one that is even more fundamental that I have often thought about. It’s a scary one to consider about for those of us whose jobs, in whole or in part, involve arranging and facilitating Six Sigma training. The experiment essentially asks the question: does it really matter what we teach Black Belts?

Let me explain. Any Six Sigma program that I’ve ever seen or heard of (or any continuous improvement program, for that matter) starts off with a pitch to executives in which some version of the following conditions are laid out, either by external consultants or an internal champion:

  1. We need your absolute best people;
  2. We need to free up those people to focus exclusively on Six Sigma work;
  3. We need the most important projects to work on;
  4. We need to make sure those projects are properly scoped and resourced;
  5. Weneed to ensure that the organization supports people working on these projects from top to bottom.
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Conditions 1-3 are usually the toughest to satisfy for reasons which are perhaps obvious, although 4 and 5 aren’t exactly easy either. In fact, most deployment leaders will tell you that a high percentage of their time is spent on 1 and 2 alone for the first few years of a deployment. Nevertheless, assuming the program is agreed to and competently managed, we end up somehow bringing our best folks together for four intense weeks of training, during which the concepts, tools, and methodology of Six Sigma are taught. Projects gets worked, and results happen. Everyone’s happy.

My question is this: what if we did exactly the same thing, but didn’t teach Six Sigma? What if we got our best folks together in a room one a week for four weeks over four months, focused them exclusively on the most important projects to the business, and gave them the resources and support they needed to get the job done… but didn’t teach them any new methodology? Would the outcome be materially different than if we taught them some roadmap or program?

In other words, maybe satisfying the conditions 1-5 – which make no mention whatsoever of methodology, roadmaps, DMAIC, statistics, etc, etc – is what continuous improvement really amounts to. Maybe the “sexy” methodology and jargon only provide a to a way to get the organization to agree to conditions 1-5 in the first place. Maybe the whole Six Sigma ball of wax is no more than a means to create the will to satisfy conditions 1-5.

This is the experiment that I invariably run in my head each time I go to a training event. I am struck every time by how bright and energetic the participants are, and how quickly they come together and make progress on their projects. This occurs in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that they are usually drawn from different geographies and business units. I’ve been involved with training programs that I think are absolutely top notch, but nonetheless I wonder… would these folks make more progress if we just got rid of the obstacles and let them get down to it with out interfering? Do we really need to teach them anything?

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My hunch is no. I suspect if we truly got the best people focused on the most important projects with the right resources behind them, we wouldn’t actually have to teach them a thing. The problem is that conditions 1-3 are extremely difficult (maybe impossible?) to produce in the absence of a program with a lot of “sizzle”. That is, it’s relatively easy at this point in history to sell a Six Sigma program with all the attendant hoopla, but for whatever reason it’s hard to sell the idea of simply getting our best people working on our most important projects with everything else cleared out of the way. Perhaps when it comes down to it, the only reason to have a Six Sigma program at all is to create conditions 1-5. Maybe what we teach truly doesn’t matter.

Comments 12

  1. Dr.Jacquescoley


    Compelling argument.

    Incidentally, there are great deal of engagements or projects that are not pitched to senior management. Regardless, if DMAIC has been entertained and/or accomplished. Let me explain.

    Let’s say I am product of the "Big 4" environment and I was a PM on a mid-level engagement with revenues of >2,000,000 and the client needed a "formal opinion" on Sarbanes Oxley (SOX); and a concurrent review that focused risk of a particular business line within this engagement.

    It has been my experience as a Green Belt, that "Condition 1" may not require the "best" person on the team to fufill this particular work statement. Perhaps, your overall perception of "Condition 1" means these "Champions" or Business Leaders have been responsible at one point in time of launching, coordinating, teaching, allocating the integration of SixSigma principles into their organization…that their "time", represents an over-stated value in your perception. If this perception is true, would the correlation be the same for "Condition 2" & "Condition 3?"

  2. Pavan Kumar Garikapati

    Dear Andrew!

    I see the point in your essay.

    However, just see the resemblance in the following.

    You can pray the god anywhere in this world with heart. but we use a designated place(church/temple etc.,) we use prescribed way (use our hands and eyes and body postures etc.) etc etc. These are not absolutely necessary if you are really praying. but teach preayer to children you need to tell them all these things. If you are matured enough you may not go to temple you may not use the said body posture stil you can pray. at the same time these things wil help.

    In the same way if you are using the road map and methodology they will act as catalyst (they dont themselves bring improvement but they facilitate)

    Pavan Kumar Garikapati

  3. Gary P Cox

    You mean I took 5 weeks of training, aced a Case Study exam, completed two projects and an oral defense to get BB Certified when I didn’t have to? All I needed was to be in a room with other folks who the company saw as having the needed desire and willingness for continious improvement and have them support me?

    Andrew,You may get data (albeit not quantifed but rather subjective) by asking BB’s who have lead projects pre and post Six Sigma Training… my experience was that when I had the right people supporting project pre-SS training we were always successful… the best thing about the Six Sigma roadmap approach, after being trained, is the systematic gathering of facts you obtain along the way to validate your assumptions, which become a tool when selling and validating the need to change and teh recommended solution to Sr. Mgmt. The credibilty of the training and tools used support the outcome as much as the ’who lead the project’.

    my 2-cents


    Now if only I could think a cartoon on the subject!

  4. Andrew Downard

    Pavan – elegantly stated, and I don’t disagree. But to follow your analogy, my question is this: does one method of praying work better than the others? Or are we simply tied to a particular way of doing it out of custom?

  5. si

    Andrew, you are correct …and here are my thoughts (I don’t pretend to be any guru on Six Sigma):

    Using DMAIC or Six Sigma does not provide solutions. It at best answers questions to what should be fixed, never how. Bright people provide the solutions and so are the least common denominator to success. I’m with you so far.

    But….the roadmap/methodology provides a framework for approach – this will not guarantee solutions (bright people do) but it does help get there faster (guessing at root causes by trial and error is avoided).

    I used to fix the same problem many times…


  6. Andrew Downard

    Dr. Jacquescoley – I’m not arguing for or against condition 1. But it’s an empirical fact (at least in my experience) that most programs ask for it to be fulfilled. Whether it actually does need to be fulfilled for the program to be successful is a different question!

    My own opinion is that conditions 1-3 don’t actually need to be fulfilled. In fact, some of the most dramatic results I’ve ever seen – both in terms of projects and personal development – have come when they are not. Of course you could argue that this is only true because we tend to be lousy at identifying the "best" people and "best " project opportunities ahead of time. But if this is the situation, then we need to work not only to get better at predicting (long term), but also to make our program and process robust to less-than-ideal choices (short-medium term). Historically I’ve had much more success at building robustness into the program than I have at trying to predict the best people and projects.

  7. Andrew Downard

    Gary – you’ll get no argument from me on anything you said. But it comes down to what the essence of Six Sigma is. If “the systematic gathering of facts along the way to validate your assumptions” is what we are after – and I agree it is – then how did we become so caught up in belts, toll-gates, roadmaps, certifications, and jargon? Look at a typical curriculum, and that’s what’s there. “Systematic gathering of facts to validate assumptions” as a methodology predates Six Sigma…by a couple of millennia! The scientific method has been around for a long time. Which is why I continue to wonder if we are focusing on the right things when we gather our folks together for training.

  8. Gary P Cox


    Who gets caught up in belts, tollgates, roadmaps, certification and alike? The belts themselves or the Sr. Mgmt and those who lead and sponsor the program?

    It may be that in some companies those who have to validate the existance of the Six Sigma program within the company are most likely consumed with the ’stuff’ outside the systematic gathering of facts to validate assumptions – my limited experience would suggest that the belts themselves are more focused on the latter rather than the former.

    I have found that the former (certification, tollgates etc) are needed to validate that the methodology is worth the investment of the training. I think you agree Continious Improvement is not an accident, so if a program, like Six Sigma, can put something concrete before those who hold training budgets on the ROI for the money spent, then it is worth keeping a focus on.

    Another question that could be askes is; how does simply putting good people in a room improve the skills of others?… I was taught that Six Sigma training teaches a methodology that you can share with others and thus ’teach them to fish" as it were… (i.e. feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – not sure who said it) Good Black Blets should be teaching others how to continiously improve their business processes.

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog!


  9. Andrew Downard


    I’m not arguing that the "program" parts of continuous improvement aren’t useful from the standpoint of getting the organization’s attention. I think they are hugely important for precisely the reasons you mention. I just wonder if that is the ONLY value of a program.

    Regarding your latter question, you assume there is something left to teach. With some BBs there certainly is. But I am seeing more and more BBs enter training with a deep background in the the 7 CI tools, Lean methodology, SPC, etc, etc. This may be a fact of my background and circumstances more than anything. We’re teaching them different things, but I still don’t know if we’re teaching them better things. To a certain extent I get the feeling we’re just re-arranging the furniture in their brains. The situation would of course be different if new BBs walk in the door with no grounding in any school of continuous improvement.

  10. Andrew Downard

    Si – I’d never advocate guessing at root causes by trial and error! And of course we want to fix problems properly, and fix them once. I’m not advocating chaos or a lack of process, but I am asking whether we might be better off letting bright people develop their own process depending on the situation. It would be harder to administrate for sure, but should that be the deciding factor?

  11. Dr.Jacquescoley


    I agree with your responses.


  12. Pavan Kumar Garikapati


    A good question.. sorry for my late reply. As after global culture we tend to understand that all ways of praying has its own advantages. Similarly we can see the good points in all methodologies.

    Some methodologies work better in some cultures. For example can we have bread with chop sticks efficiently? Or spoon and fork are better methods to eat chowmein?

    One should not be tied to methodology so deep that he starts seeing methodology above everything.

    I believe process improvement means 5 M’s

    1. Motive – what is the business challenge that is motivating you for improvement

    2. Model – what is the model we are choosing for bringing in improvement

    3. Methodology – which methodology best suits in your organisation culture ( It may be few out of many)

    4. Managing Change – how do you manage change in the organisation

    5. Measure – what are the measures you are using to assess process improvement

    So whatever may be the methodology, but you cannot discount the value of methodology.

    Pavan Kumar Garikapati

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