The U.S. Army’s Lean Six Sigma (LSS) deployment will be two years old in summer 2008. Thousands of Belts are trained, thousands of projects are completed, hundreds of Belts are certified, and practitioners report more than $2 billion dollars in cost savings and cost avoidance. While these results speak of great success, the Army must continue to improve its processes. In particular, it must increase success rates for Black Belt project completion and certification. To do this, the Army is using Belt course portfolios within its project-tracking software program to monitor leading and lagging indicators to ensure that more Black Belts are reaching their goals on time.

Black Belt Training Basics

Army LSS Black Belt training is a four-week course spread over three months. One week before the training, deployment leaders identify project sponsors who work with an assigned Belt to write a project charter. Organizational leadership identifies a coach for the project and the Belt and the coach establish a working relationship. Thereafter, the Belt attends each week of the four one-week Black Belt courses and learns the DMAIC methodology. During each three-week break between class sessions, the Belt returns to their duty station, meets with both sponsor and coach, and works on the project.

These meetings with the sponsor and coach serve as a means for the Belt to obtain guidance, accomplish tollgates and further refine the project. The Belt also uses this time to upload all required documents into the project-tracking database, following the project-completion checklist. These steps are essential to successful project completion and certification.

The Army invests a significant amount of time and resources into training Black Belts, including the cost of four weeks of classroom training and travel to and from training. The expectation is to receive a return on investment for each Belt trained. Specifically, each Black Belt is expected to complete a project and to obtain certification. The Army Lean Six Sigma Deployment Guidebook, Version 3.0 gives the general target for a Black Belt to complete their project within five months. This table outlines a timeline for sponsors, Belts and Belt coaches to ensure project completion and certification within this period.

Black Belt Project Completion and Certification Timeline
Week Target
Pre-week 1 Project approved (Master Black Belt reviews); sponsor assigned;
Belt coach assigned
Week 1 Belt has project charter (prior to class) and conducts project presentation; instructors
provide feedback and suggestions
Week 2 Belt completes Define tollgate (prior to class) and conducts project presentation; instructors provide feedback and suggestions
Week 3 Belt completes Measure tollgate (prior to class) and conducts project presentation; instructors provide feedback and suggestions
Week 4 Belt completes Analyze tollgate (prior to class) and conducts project presentation; instructors provide feedback and suggestions
Week 4 + 2 months Project completed; certification submitted

Enhancing Project Completion

There are several activities that must occur before each week of training in order for the courses to be beneficial and to enhance the likelihood of timely project completion. The Army’s approach is to first establish measurable targets for each activity and, second, to develop a methodology for assessment of each activity. The activities are:

  • Prior to Week 1, the organizational leadership must assign a sponsor and coach to the Belt and provide the Belt with a Master Black Belt reviewed project. The purpose of the Master Black Belt review is for an LSS expert to validate that the proposed project is feasible using the DMAIC methodology and within scope for an inexperienced Black Belt.
  • At Week 1, the Belt arrives in training with a charter. During the week, the Belt provides a short presentation of their project and receives feedback and suggestions from instructors and peers. The combination of feedback, instruction and out-of-class work helps the Belt to complete the Define tollgate prior to Week 2.
  • Before the start of Week 2, the Belt has completed the Define tollgate, establishing a positive project velocity that makes the week’s training more relevant and beneficial.
  • Prior to Weeks 3 and 4, the Belt completes the Measure and Analyze tollgates, respectively.
  • Two months after completion of Week 4 of training, the Belt completes the project and submits the request for certification.

These targets define leading and lagging indicators needed to predict and assess accomplishing a five-month Black Belt project cycle time.

Measuring Progress

The goal to complete a Black Belt project within five months is an important metric for the deployment of LSS across the Army. Additionally, the defined targets (leading and lagging indicators) establish necessary conditions for assessing accomplishment of the five-month cycle time metric. In order to be efficient and effective, these indicators must be measured and visible to LSS deployment leaders. Doing so provides opportunities to spot signs of potential shortfalls and to be proactive in exploiting opportunities for greater success.

In their book Strategy Maps: Converting Intangible Assets into Tangible Outcomes, Robert Kaplan and David Norton write, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” This means determining the what and the how. The what is quantifying the targets, which are:

  • Number of Belt candidates who complete the Define tollgate by Week 2.
  • Number of Belt candidates who complete the Measure tollgate by Week 3.
  • Number of Belt candidates who complete the Analyze tollgate by Week 4.
  • Number of Belts who complete a project and gain certification by two months after Week 4.

The how is more complex and requires solving the following problems:

  • How should the Army efficiently and effectively measure progress throughout the Black Belt course and through project completion and certification?
  • How should the Army efficiently and effectively make project progress visible throughout the Black Belt course and through project completion and certification?

Establishing Course Portfolios

The key to establishing successful measurement and visibility is creating an open marketplace for obtaining information about the leading and lagging indicators. Anyone with the appropriate privileges must be able to independently obtain information on demand. Additionally, the information must come from an authoritative data source representing the “one version of truth” that leaders demand. Establishing such a framework for monitoring Black Belt project completion and certification will enable deployment leaders to make better decisions. The Army’s concept for a solution is to establish and formalize the use of Belt course portfolios within its project-tracking software.

The Army defines a Belt course portfolio as the collection of projects assigned to personnel attending a Black Belt course. The objective of the portfolios is to provide LSS deployment leaders with visibility and situational awareness of project status, by Black Belt course, throughout courses and until project completion and certification are measured against the established targets.

Creation of the portfolios is decentralized. Black Belt course instructors create a portfolio within the tracking program for their class and populate the portfolio with the project tracking number (LD Number) for each Belt’s project. Once created, the portfolio is visible to all users. A request to view the portfolio dynamically queries the program’s database and pulls the most current information for each project assigned to the portfolio, consolidates the results and presents a table of the results. Within seconds, users may view and assess leading and lagging indicators using the current status of projects by Black Belt class. Given the increased situational awareness, deployment leaders are now armed with a tool that provides on-demand, up-to-date, accurate information in order to conduct decisive engagements with project sponsors.

Meeting Goals

Using targets for leading and lagging indicators better enables Army LSS deployment leaders to assess movement toward the goal of achieving five-month project cycle time. The use of Belt course portfolios provides dynamic, up-to-date, one-stop-shop visibility and situation awareness of Black Belts’ project status during the course and beyond. In turn, this increased awareness provides an opportunity to proactively conduct decisive engagements and positively influence the velocity of project completion and certification. Moreover, the Army is better able to shape Black Belt project completion and certification times.

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