Jackie Cazar, vice president of Pershing LLC, a member of BNY Securities Group, offers her perspective on the hiring and training of Black Belt leaders – including what a Black Belt needs in the way of skills, background and experience.

Q: What are the skills, knowledge or traits most often possessed by successful Six Sigma Black Belts?

A: Successful Black Belts overcome virtually all barriers to successful project completion. That includes even such basic problems as poor project selection, lack of Six Sigma infrastructure, poor Champion support and lack of data. A company seeking to select or develop successful Black Belts, should start by looking for a person with a well-balanced set of leadership, analytical and project management skills.

Within the leadership category, successful Black Belts candidates are results-oriented and particularly strong in people, thought leadership and change management skills. For instance, Black Belts must be confident enough to lead any team of subject matter experts and senior leaders on a Six Sigma project. They are hands-on go-getters who have records of driving results. In addition, they have the ability to see downstream impacts throughout the entire firm. Finally, they are eager to accept the role of change agent, and have the ability to facilitate change through strong listening, influencing, presentation and communication skills.

In terms of analytical skills, successful Black Belts usually make sound and solid decisions based on data. They dig deeper into the root cause of a problem. They are not satisfied with recommendations that are not supported by data. They ask the right questions…and keep asking questions. They do not give up. The biggest mistake companies make when selecting Black Belts is to put too much emphasis on the candidate’s ability to run statistical analysis. Having an affinity for statistics, math and science remains important, but, with friendly statistical software so available today, running statistical analysis is not as challenging it once was. What is essential is the ability to understand data being analyzed and make the right decisions.

In general, Black Belts with project management experience perform better than candidates who have none. Either formal training or strong experience in project management will provide Black Belts with the tools required to effectively run meetings, establish goals, define roles and responsibilities, assign tasks, close issues, resolve conflict and move projects forward. There is a direct relationship between effective project management and project cycle time.

Black Belts who combine a well-balanced set of leadership, analytical and project management skills with strong knowledge of the Voice of the Customer and other disciplines such as legal, compliance, marketing, finance, operations and technologies are more likely to succeed in their Six Sigma journeys.

Q: Who do you find perform better, Black Belts with business backgrounds or Black Belts with quality backgrounds?

A: Black Belts with business backgrounds generally perform better because they have a broader perspective of their companies, industries and marketplace. They understand the big picture in terms of finance, compliance, legal, risk management and marketing. Black Belts with quality backgrounds do not have experiences that provide that same broad business perspective. This is because most companies make quality departments back-end operations, at the “end of the assembly line.” The misconception that quality departments are “cost” drivers versus “revenue” drivers limits the department’s personnel.

Regardless of the Black Belt’s background, a company should expect a Black Belt to close major competitive gaps by either enhancing the customer experience or generating positive economic profit.

Q: When hiring Black Belts or Master Black Belts from outside your own company, what qualifications are most important to you?

A: The three most important qualifications are:

  1. Experience in Six Sigma methodology and tools
  2. Overall Six Sigma deployment knowledge
  3. Cultural compatibility

Trying to assure the proper level of expertise on the first two qualifications, many companies make the mistake of thinking it is enough for candidates to be “certified” belts. Unfortunately, the lack of certification standards for Black Belts and Master Black Belts has contributed to an increasing number of candidates who, even though certified, have not mastered Six Sigma skills. For example, it is possible to find certified Black Belts who have never used any statistical software during the Analyze phase and/or do not understand what a project primary metric is.

Companies should look for hands-on experience in DMAIC, DFSS, Lean, TRIZ and other Six Sigma complementary methodologies, as well as experience using statistical and flowcharting techniques or software. Asking the following questions will minimize the risk of hiring unqualified-yet-certified belts:

  • How many Six Sigma projects have you completed?
  • How many Six Sigma projects have you coached?
  • What are the three most critical Six Sigma issues?
  • What are the three Six Sigma success factors?

Finally, it is important that hiring managers take cultural compatibility seriously. To avoid the problem of belt attrition due to lack of cultural fit, hiring managers should develop a belt-position profile to reflect the company’s unspoken rules and corporate culture.

Q: How much and what type of experience would you like Black Belts to have before you would feel comfortable hiring them?

A: The level of expertise of a Black Belt or Master Black Belt depends on the number of completed projects, number of belts coached and overall teaching experience.

Having completed or coached a minimum of 10 projects for Black Belts and 20 projects for Master Black Belts would be considered enough. If a candidate has fewer completed projects, obviously, the hiring manager should find out why, and take that into account.

The extent of a candidate’s teaching experience can be an indication of their Six Sigma knowledge. But the kind of teaching is noteworthy. It does not take the same knowledge to teach awareness training as it does Black Belt training. Because both Black Belts and Master Black Belts are change agents who share knowledge with other employees, they must be able to deliver Six Sigma training at different levels.

Q: What is your opinion about company-issued Black Belt certifications versus third-party (non-company) certifications?

A: The certification process is inconsistent among both company and third-party vendors. On one end of the spectrum are certified belts who took an on-line test with no classroom attendance or Six Sigma work experience. At the other end are certified belts who have weeks of classroom attendance, two to twenty completed projects, a test with a 90 percent minimum score, an interview in front of a board, and several hours of teaching and coaching. Simply, a person can get certified in a matter of hours or years.

Any certification process – be it by company or vendor – is shaped by the needs, strategies and requirements of the company for whom the belt is being trained. Therefore, companies considering hiring from outside should plan to understand what each candidate underwent to earn certification, and information about the company for which they were being certified. The screening process to select the best candidates should be tough.

In addition, I have these final recommendations:

  • Companies should develop their own rigorous certification process that others will recognize.
  • If a third-party vendor is used, its role should only be one piece of the certification process.
  • Any third-party vendor used should be one that is well known and respected by the Six Sigma community.
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