Part-time Help Wanted

In my opinion, one of the key questions to answer when planning a deployment is whether the Black Belt role should be full-time.

While this sounds like a reasonable question to some, many experienced Six Sigma folks find it strange to even ask, because in the majority of programs the Black Belt role is automatically assumed to be full-time. Candidates are identified from within the organization (or hired externally) and trained in the usual way, after which time their job title becomes some version of “Black Belt” and they leave their previous role. In a separate but related process, projects are identified and prioritized. Projects are then matched to Black Belts, who move through the organization as necessary to complete the projects they are assigned.

There are innumerable variations on this theme, but in general it’s a pretty common model for continuous improvement. I think there are two reasons for this. First, it works well, especially at the start of a deployment. If you pick the right projects, provide a serviceable tool set, and 100% focus the right people, good things happen. You get project results and you get them fast. The second reason is that most Six Sigma consultants push this model, which is of course because of the first reason.

I worry about this deployment strategy in the long run though, especially as a path to culture change. This is partly because when I think of culture change, I think of work that should be targeted to address the holistic, system level in an organization. Not any one specific thing, but rather a collection of many aspects that must all be addressed with reasonable simultaneity. In my own mind, I call this “common cause work”.

In contrast, I view deploying specifically trained individuals to work on individual projects as “special cause work”. Here we are thinking less about working on the system as a whole, but rather about a very specific set of activities associated with a specific improvement objective.

(Before I get jumped on for my use of “special cause” and “common cause” terminology in this context, let me freely admit that I am using them conceptually rather than literally. And that I am taking liberties. And that I do understand the formal and correct usage. And that yes, I have read “Out of the Crisis”.)

I don’t mean to suggest that one type of work is better or more necessary than the other, only that they are different in nature and serve different purposes. I have seen successful Six Sigma programs based on both strategies. The problem comes when we address common cause work with special cause responses, or vice versa. As any Black Belt should know, the only exacerbates the problem we are trying to solve.

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What this means in practice is that if culture change is the goal of a Six Sigma deployment, deploying full-time Black Belts, which is a special cause response (or at least much more special cause than part-time Black Belts) may not be the right strategy. In fact, as anyone who has done any special cause/common cause simulations can tell you, deploying Black Belts in a special cause fashion may in fact make the common cause cultural issues worse. It’s true that projects will be completed quickly and successfully, but it wreaks havoc on the culture.

Part-time Black Belts, on the other hand, can be deployed against common cause cultural variation as well as specific projects. For example, suppose there is a project that needs to be done in a specific facility which does not have a resident Black Belt. The special cause option would be to bring a full-time Black Belt in; import one from the outside, or take someone from the facility and put them in a new role. This would get the project done. But another – maybe better – option would be to find a subject matter expert from the facility and ask for 50% of their time for training and project work. The downside is that it will likely take that person more time to complete each project. And there will be battles to fight about focus and time balance. But the upside is tremendous. That person will know more than any outsider about the process. They will know the people involved. They will have natural social connections. They are far more likely to spread the philosophy and methodology of Six Sigma than an outsider would be. And when the project is done, they will still be there to for the next iteration, and the one after that. In short, they will be embedded and able to work in a common cause fashion on the culture, as well as being able to work special cause on specific projects in a special cause fashion.

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As I said, the downside to all this is that it takes longer to get projects done. And part-time Black Belts are typically not very mobile in the organization, and thus can’t be easily deployed against projects outside their area. There are plusses and minuses to every approach. But the part-time Black Belt strategy is always worthy of consideration, especially when cultural change is a stated goal of deployment, and even when full-time Black Belts are an option. While undoubtedly messier in the short term, it’s a shorter path to culture change in the medium-long term.

Comments 5

  1. Greg

    Very well said, Andrew! I am a part time BB working with full time BBs. You described this environment perfectly. Thanks, Greg

  2. Ron

    Hi there,

    I am not a fan of part time BB’s. They get "too busy" and are not able to really focus in on the things they need to be.

    I am interested in any GE folks comments on this topic. If I am not mistaken, fulltime BB’s were an integral part of their deployment. I am not sure if this is still the case?

    Great blog and hopefully this stirs up some good discussion.


  3. S K Pillai

    Compared to earlier days of BB projects, data collection is more automated. New tool sets are available and less manual work. People need not take a break from current job and restart which can hinder their career. BB coaches can be full time where as project leader and members can be part time. However it is the responsibility of the management to provide the part time needed.

  4. camejdrich

    I have seen firsthand the failure of the part-time Six Sigma model. Especially, Greg, ifit is culture change that you want. As you pointed out, it’s quicker, but you end up putting so much more work into constant re-inforcement that it negates any savings you would experience. That’s basic change management–the whole point of the Six Sigma "engagement" is to engender ownership–this way, you have greater buy-in at deployment of the solution.

    Another cirtical factor that’s missing from the part-time Six sigma solution is the critical managerial support. The management at my company is completley in the dark, quoting the "maturity index" and other false metrics. I know they are false because I’m a Black Belt, and have had sponsors tell me to change Pugh scores to make their "pet" solution come out looking better than others. I’ve had stakeholders tell me, "If this project wnds up with my guys getting more work, we’re not doing it". Does that sound like engagement?

    Having said that, I think it would be best for anyone sitting on the fence to employ DfSS methodology and determine whether or not the project even should be a Six Sigma, thus removing the politics (we hope) that eventually render any such initiative, including Six Sigma, impaired or even useless.

    If you’re going to do whatever you want to, it shouldn’t be a Six Sigma project. Just call it a project. If it’s going to be a Six Sigma project, follow the methodology. If you’re going to follow the methodology, do it full-time. Studies at several companies (mine included) show conclusively that the so-called "embedded" BBs do not get through their gates as quickly, nor are their value props as high as those of full-time BBs. So, it’s not rocket science—just decide.

  5. Andrew Downard


    I don’t debate that these problems can occur with part-time Black Belts. But I have seen every one of the failure modes and effects you describe in deployments that use full time Black Belts as well. These things are not a function of whether or not your people are 100% dedicated. They are a function of how well the deployment is set up, regardless of the model.

    It goes without saying that part-time BBs are not going to finish projects as quickly as full-time BBs would. As I said above, if speed is the goal, then full-time is the way to go. Speed isn’t always the goal.

    I don’t accept that the value prop of a part-time BB is less than that of a full-time BB. If what you are suggesting was true, we should staff the entire company with full-time BBs. Why is no one doing that? The whole point of part-time is that the person is adding value in other ways at the same time they are doing BB work. Get the model right, and they will eventually approach all their work with a BB mentality. In fact, this is the strength of the "part-time" model.

    Regarding the studies you mention, I hear about studies all the time. Which "several companies" have conducted them? What y’s were considered? What other factors were at play in addition to full-time versus part-time? Over what time period were results evaluated? I’d like to see just one study, including the operational definition of "value," the raw data, and the method of sampling.


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