Master Black Belt Certification – The value of program leadership


As many of you know, there are significant differences in Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt expectations and certification criteria between organizations. Typically Master Black Belt certifications focus on advanced tool knowledge, training/project coaching experience, portfolio management and program leadership to name a few of the most common ones.

While I’ve always thought that the program leadership component was a very important element, only recently did I truly realize the importance and degree of difficulty associated with this component. While a program might appear as a bigger project it does bring unique challenges and skills which I think are essential to the success of a strong Master Black Belt.

Program management is essentially the process of managing several related projects with the intent of improving overall performance, generally by significantly impacting a critical metric. In such a case, projects would deliver discrete improvements but the overall program would ensure the realization of tangible business outcomes that would not happen through only one or two projects. In most cases, this is the Lean Six Sigma way of addressing multiple linked root causes through a series of related projects, often occurring at the same time or in rapid succession.

The skills to be successful in Lean Six Sigma program management are fairly complex and include items such as:

– managing cross-functional program governance

– addressing ownership challenges where processes cross multiple executive teams with differing perspectives

– strong project coordination to ensure tight non-overlapping and prioritized project scopes

– an ability to gain a 35,000 ft strategic view of a value stream in order to quickly identify the overall projects that will need to be scoped and prioritized

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– strong influence skills

Whereas Lean Six Sigma is occasionally criticized for driving positive improvements that are not materially felt by customers, the program approach does allow a significant positive customer outcome to materialize because of the concentrated force that is applied. For that reason, I definitely do think that this is a skill that should be developed for strong Master Black Belts.

The program approach that I’m advocating is different from a portfolio approach whereby a MBB would manage a series of different projects that improve a VP/GM portfolio’s performance. In the portfolio case, the key elements around governance, cross-functional collaboration and project scoping are quite distinct as they are stricly focused on enabling that functional area’s strategy.

At a future date, I will spend more time elaborating on the benefits of a program approach to Lean Six Sigma and some successful approaches in this space. In the interim, I welcome your thoughts around program management in the Lean Six Sigma space and invite you to reach out to me with questions.


Comments 4

  1. Sue-Kozlowski

    Thanks Eric for discussing this important aspect of the MBB role. I’d be interested to learn what you think of the relationship between program management and value stream management? Are they similar, or are there important differences?

  2. Punit Banga

    I agree with you Eric on all these aspects. However there is a crucial element of training the team on Lean concepts. Sometimes this can be a big challenge when you’ve to show results in quick time. On one of such programs, I adopted a different approach and trained team members on the job on relevant tools. This helped gain good traction in quick time though I had to get involved in almost every project during initial stages.

    It worked well though and because there was only one sponsor for all projects, it helped me organise my governance.

  3. emichrowski

    Thanks for your comment Sue and apologies for the delay in responding. You bring up a very interesting analogy around Value Stream Management. While I would agree that in many cases, the program management concept that I bring forward might be similar to value stream management, I would propose that at least in a non-manufacturing context, the program management approach is broader.

    Program management from my perspective is the combination of multiple separate Lean Six Sigma or other improvement projects against a common goal. Each of the sub-projects migh address separate root causes or components of the process but the overarching goal is to significantly move a core metic of organizational performace.

    Here are some examples where this concept could be distinguished from value stream management:
    – In a call centre, a goal could be to improve first call resolution. In simple call centres, this could be a single project but in cases where there are many different types of calls processed and different root causes, this could become an overarching program.
    – In an investment bank, the desire to improve overnight funding could involve a program addressing root causes in different business units of unsual funding volatility, perhaps some investments in forecasting models (some might require IT support) and some improvements in the actual cash funding processes.
    – In a supply chain, the goal could be to narrow the window of arrival to a 1-hour appointment slot at a customer premise. In such cases, there may be different projects addressing different facets of this”on-time arrival process”.

    I hope that these make sense.

  4. emichrowski

    Hi Punit. Thans for your comment. You bring up a valid point around the value of training and education as part of the role of a Master Black Belt. There is no doubt that this is one of the critical facets of this role in addition to other elements that include coaching of new belts.

    I’m simply proposing that in addition to some of the more traditional elements considered as part of different MBB certifications, that there is immense value in also preparing Master Black Belts in leading larger transformational programs leveraging Lean Six Sigma.

    While not necessarily a requirement, such an approach can bring critical skills that can materially impact the strategic value of Lean Six Sigma projects.

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