Whither Certification?

There’s a lot of talk about Six Sigma certification these days. I remember being asked by a talent acquisition manager at a previous employer what it meant to be a “certified” Master Black Belt. The question arose because a quick search on Google turned up programs ranging from 3 days (online) to 2 years in length, and all of them offered “Master Black Belt Certification” as an end goal. In some cases the certification was automatic on completion of the program, in others it required things like project work, testing, or other forms of independently verifiable achievement. As we quickly established, it didn’t mean much at all to be a “certified” Master Black Belt.

Which isn’t to say that certification doesn’t have value. It’s just that it’s value isn’t consistent. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. In fact, in a roundabout way it might be a good thing.

I’ve been involved with the creation of three different Six Sigma certification programs at three different companies. In every case, we started off with the idea that certification should be tied to some external standard – for example, our Black Belts might have to take a test provided by an external quality organization or consultancy. The argument here is usually that standards may slip and/or be applied inconsistently if certification criteria are evaluated qualitatively from within the organization. The idea is to make certification more like a degree or professional accreditation, which in theory has consistent value across organizations.

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I reject this view. Individuals who independently pursue achievements that result in recognizable, external certifications of some sort do so to further their individual goals. And the organizations that award such certifications have a vested interest in maintaining high standards so that the individuals they certify conform to certain expectations, furthering the reputation of the certifying organization. Colleges that award degrees are a perfect example. Individuals choose a college to pursue a degree to further their interests and/or career. Colleges won’t award a degree unless those individuals meet the standards they set out. And that makes perfect sense if you are a college.

But businesses are not colleges, and Six Sigma certifications are not degrees, and businesses pursue business goals not individual ones.There is noautomatic value to a business in having either “tough” or “easy” certification criteria, or even criteria which are consistent in their application. Indeed, the only thing that should matter in setting up a certification program is what behavior the business wants to recognize and reward. Want to drive the efficient acquisition of knowledge? Design metrics and base certification around those. Want to complete a lot of projects quickly? Design your certification around that. Want to use Six Sigma certification to drive employee morale and buy in? Then certify everyone as they walk out the door of the training course. I could go on, but you get the idea. None of these methods of evaluation are good or bad ideas except in the context of what the organization wants to do.

If you think this argument is abstract, consider a conversation I had recently about a Black Belt (not at my company!) who was running a fairly complicated DOE and having trouble getting support and resources. I asked why. It turned out that the project was basically dead, but the DOE was being done because a DOE was required as part of the certification process. This was a case where the objectives of the certification process were not just out of alignment with the objectives of the organization – they were actually pulling in opposite directions. I’ve seen variation on this theme happen consistently when certification standards and criteria are out-sourced to consultants or quality organizations. Businesses need to use certification as a way to drive the behavior they want to see, and an outside organization simply can’t do that effectively, especially if it is trying to be consistent across many different businesses.

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The key thing to remember is that certification itself has no value to the business whatsoever except as a driver of behavior. Of course, if you take this approach, inevitably someone will howl that“certification doesn’t mean anything”. My response? So what. It doesn’t have to “mean anything” outside the organization. All it has to do is motivate the behaviors that the organization is interested in. Nor do whatever standards you come up with have to be consistent. In my view the tenth person that gets certified in a business unit should almost certainly face elevated standards relative to the first person – that tenth person should be benefiting from the experience of others, and anyway, how else are you going to drive continuous improvement? And a Black Belt in HR isn’t going to be subject to the same set of standards as a Black Belt on the manufacturing floor – why would they, since the nature of the work is completely different? And I’m certainly not above certifying a key individual to drive culture change as opposed to for technical reasons. I do have standards, but I’m also ruthlessly focused on moving the organization where it needs to go. If you overlook certification as a way to do that – or if you’re asking someone outside the organization to do it for you – you’re overlooking a very powerful tool for driving behavior.

Comments 11

  1. Sue Kozlowski

    Certification within an organization should meet the requirements for that organization, absolutely. For effectiveness at one organization, I agree external certification is not needed.

    However: Company certification may not "travel," even between organizations with similar products or services, so Gen X’ers looking to move up and out may not get credit for past training or experience. Also, lack of a national standard* means that the Six Sigma philosophy may get watered down so that the terms GB, BB, and MBB become meaningless. (Grandmaster Black Belt? Gold Belt?)

    Maybe we need to differentiate "certification," with its implication of stringent training, experience, and professional-body approval; and "credentialing," with its implication (at least in healthcare) of meeting organization-specific requirements.

    Thanks for posting such an interesting topic!!!

    *By "national certification" I don’t mean to imply that only one company could offer it – only that the requirements would have to be equivalent among those companies.

    Full disclosure: I’m "certified" as a Black Belt by my healthcare organization which brought in GE for training. I’m one of those individuals seeking national certification because I want to show that I am competent over the entire BB body of knowledge, which we did not cover in my initial training. As a Baby-Boomer, I expect to work in "retirement" so I want credentials that I can take with me to a tropical island!

  2. Meikah

    Great ideas, Andrew! I’ve seen how certification companies become money machines and compete for candidates. In the end, quality of training is sacrificed. I tend to agree with you that certification of six sigma belts are not degrees. They are something you acquire and live through it, not tuck under your arm and forget about it afterwards. Besides, I think Six Sigma is versatile and open so there’s no one or only way of doing it.

  3. Andrew Downard


    I agree entirely. I know a lot of people – myself included – that seek certification for precisely the reasons you describe. And I have no issue with that. But the reasons for businesses to offer certification are different than the reasons individuals might want it. I see a lot of companies out there who overlook the power and value of customizing their own certification process to exactly what the needs of the business are.

    Put another way, for obvious reasons many individuals look want a certification which is "portable" and will have some meaning outside the organization. My suggestion is that businesses don’t necessarily have to cater to that desire. There’s a lot more beyong awarding a certificate that can be acheived through a well designed certification process. For starters, it can be designed to encourage people to stay, rather than leave with their new credentials!

  4. Scott

    I’ve been looking into paying for my own green belt certification. For better or worse, six-sigma is a ’buzzword’ along with the rest. To a hiring manager does it look good that a potential employee went out and paid for his/her own certification? Even if the company doesn’t utilize six-sigma, or even plan to?

  5. Andrew Downard

    Hi Scott,

    Good question!

    Although it pains me to say so, I suspect many hiring managers would be content to “check the box” for Green Belt certification regardless of how you got it or who the certifying body is. It definitely is a buzz-word, and having Green Belt certification can give you an edge over other candidates without similar qualifications.

    I’d like to be able to say that the hiring manager would want to know about the projects and results that resulted in certification, but not everyone knows enough to enquire. I imagine that this would be especially true for companies that don’t have their own programs.

    Of course, if you get Green Belt certification on your own through a reputable organization by doing some challenging project work, you wouldn’t have to worry about it either way. I can’t see any hiring manager being bothered by that sort of initiative!


  6. matt parsons

    I am considering getting some type of green or black belt certification online. Currently my company has certified me as a "Red X" problem solver, which from all I have read is the same thing. My project work to date mirrors that of what many black belts are doing at other companies. I, however, am looking to leave this company and I dont know how recognizable a "Red X problem solver" will be to future hiring managers. Any suggestions on programs or thoughts would be helpful. Thank you.

  7. Andrew Downard

    Hi Matt,

    A few thoughts here, just my own experience:

    1) Most HR types won’t know what to make of Red X certification, but knowledgeable hiring managers in the right areas certainly will.

    2) If you are pursuing online Six Sigma certification just to round out your resume, you probably won’t get a lot of out the program. This is especially true if there is no project work involved.

    3) Nonetheless, it is true that basic online SS certification may get you past the gateway HR person to the real hiring manager in an outside hiring situation. Only you can decide whether it is worth the work involved.


  8. David Hawley

    Interesting and practical take on the certification issue.

    From the opposite viewpoint, the advantage of portable certifications is that they enable a marketplace in which you can hire in talent with known capabilities, rather than have judge the merit of non-standardized credentials or to grow talent internally.

    I can’t see how SS differs in this respect from Project Management. The PM certification with which I am familiar, PMP, requires familiarity with a Body of Knowledge, practical experience, and ongoing training. Organizations embed the PMBOK in local procedures and processes.
    Why does the SS marketplace for talent not follow a similar scheme?

  9. Andrew Downard

    Hi David,

    The marketplace does not follow a similar scheme because it benefits the individual employee, not the corporation. What is the benefit to the employer of setting up a scheme that awards a standardized, externally recognized certification qualification to employees? As you suggest, that simply allows others to hire talent with known capabilities. Why would a corporation pay to make their own employees more mobile and employable elsewhere?

    These kinds of certifications are often administered by non-profit third-parties…typically educational institutions and professional organizations. In the case of Six Sigma, the role those groups usually play is occupied by consultants. Standardized, portable certification doesn’t suit consultants any more than it does corporations, since consultants don’t want to give anyone a reason to use anyone other than them.

    So, we are where we are. And unless a lot of people start paying for SS training themselves (like they pay for university education themselves), I don’t see it changing. While corporations are paying the bills, they can and should call the tune.


  10. David Hawley


    Thanks for the reply. I wasn’t aware that SS training was largely sponsored by corporations; in that case your answer makes perfect sense.

    But I think it begs the question why individuals and corporations take that approach with SS but not with PM. Certification exam costs and low-end online training costs are similar.

    Maybe its related to market scale? Some quick comparison on Google hits:
    "six sigma training online" => 3K hits
    "project management training online" => 13K hits

    "six sigma" job => 2MM hits
    "project management" job => 22M hits
    (similarly for "employment")

    I will be paying for my SS training because I want the competence, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to use it wherever I go. On the other hand I took PMP for the qualification. The difference for me is that SS certification looks more challenging.

    David Hawley

  11. Andrew Downard

    Hi David,

    I honestly don’t know the answer to your question, other than to say there doesn’t seem to be an emerging equivalent of the PMI with the world of Six Sigma. If memory serves, the PMI was started about 40 years ago and has always been not-for-profit in nature and driven by member practitioners. There is no equivalent group for Six Sigma. In some ways I think ASQ would like to fill that role…but for whatever reason I don’t see that happening.

    The question of what Six Sigma certification "really means" and where to go and get it remains a hotly contested debate wihtin the community. You’ll find third parties offering seemingly equivalent certifications with wildly different equirements without looking too far. It’s a problem, but unfortunately one that no one group or individual is positioned to address anytime soon.


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