Every Lean Six Sigma deployment leader must eventually confront the critical decision of how the various Belt roles should be allocated and deployed throughout the organization. Lean Six Sigma has existed for more than 10 years now in a variety of manufacturing, service and distribution environments, and through trial and error fairly standard niches have been carved out for the Black Belt, Green Belt and Yellow Belt roles. Obviously there are differences in these roles from organization to organization, but in general deployments tend to use the roles in the following manner.

Black Belts: This is a dedicated, full-time position focused on process improvement through the use of a variety of problem-solving tools applied in the DMAIC or DMADV project cycles. Black Belts tend to be highly skilled in the use of Lean Six Sigma tools. The reporting structure varies, but in many cases this position reports directly through a separate function that is responsible for deploying Lean Six Sigma with a dotted-line responsibility to process owners or Champions. Occasionally, the reporting structure to process owners or Champions is direct with a dotted-line responsibility to the deployment team (which may include Master Black Belts). Black Belt projects tend to be fairly broad in scope and may rely on the assistance of Green Belts or Yellow Belts. The Black Belt position often requires them to mentor and support Green Belts or Yellow Belts, and it is often an important element of a career development plan for high-potential employees.

Green Belts: This is more of a level of internal certification in the use of Lean Six Sigma methods and tools as opposed to a unique job description. Green Belts maintain functional responsibility and exist within the standard reporting structure as they work Six Sigma projects in areas related to their functional role. These projects tend to be more narrowly focused than Black Belt projects, and they typically fall within the normal scope of the Green Belt’s functional role and scope of influence. Black Belts often assume a role similar to Green Belts when they are repatriated into the functional organization. Green Belts may also bear the responsibility of supporting and developing Yellow Belts in their functional areas.

Yellow Belts: This (or some other color of the Belt spectrum) is typically the name applied to the role of team members participating on Black Belt or Green Belt projects. Yellow Belts are familiar with the methods, tools and language of Six Sigma, and they are expected to be effective participants on Six Sigma project teams. Yellow Belts may also be directly involved in efforts to establish a process management infrastructure by documenting and measuring business processes that relate to their functional roles and scope of responsibility or influence. Like Green Belts, the Yellow Belt term is more a description of a level of certification rather than a specific job title.

The use of these roles over the last decade or so has developed into a robust and consistent deployment scheme in most organizational functions like Sales, Marketing, Operations, Distribution, Human Resources, Finance, IT (mostly) and other support functions. Where the intuitive and standard application of these roles tends to differ is in areas that are project management intensive like Research & Development, certain parts of IT and other functions (like opening new facilities or implementing large projects on the customer site). While the application of Lean Six Sigma or Design for Lean Six Sigma methods to standard project-management approaches is well established, the application of the various Belt roles is still maturing in project management environments.

Lean Six Sigma Fits Project Management Like a Glove

All environments where project management is the defining process experience the same basic sequence of events: they initiate, plan, execute, control and close (IPECC) each project. Whether this process is strictly defined or not, every effort to create something goes through these steps. When DFLSS (Design for Lean Six Sigma) is applied to this process, then DMADV (define, measure, analyze, design, verify) or IDOV (indentify, design, optimize, verify) becomes the tool set that enhances the basic IPECC design process. The various processes tend to integrate with each other as shown in the following figure.

How Processes Integrate
How Processes Integrate

The natural consequence of this relationship is that DFLSS or IDOV becomes a set of methods and tools that facilitates the project management process. This is true regardless of the scope of the project or the nature of the project: construction, hardware development, software development, systems implementation or anything else that requires managed project resources.

Where Lean Six Sigma is integrated effectively with project management, the DFLSS philosophy (but not every DFLSS tool) is a core element of every project. Too often organizations make the mistake of distinguishing between DFLSS projects and “other” projects, thereby perpetuating the notion that DFLSS is a selective project-based approach. Since the goal of DFLSS is to deliver better results faster with fewer resources, then the issue is not which project is a DFLSS project but rather which DFLSS tools are most appropriate for any given project. Regardless of how the projects are executed – from a highly iterative agile approach to a stage-gated waterfall approach – DFLSS is a method that is integral to the project management process.

Organizations that try to differentiate types of projects tend to waste time and energy in the classification without accounting for the waste of failing to standardize an approach by fully integrating the tools and methods in their project management processes.

But One Size Does Not Fit All

Once the integration of DFLSS or IDOV with IPECC is defined, the allocation of the Belt resources becomes a challenge. Many organizations continue to struggle with this because they attempt to apply the resources in project management environments according to what is familiar: the mature application of Belt resources in a more operational process environment as described above. While the roles above align fairly well to project management environments, there are a few important, but different, features.

Black Belts: In the project management arena, projects tend to become more outwardly focused. This is because all projects, especially in systems implementation and hardware and software development, are solutions to problems or opportunities in the customer’s (internal or external) environment. The output of any given project (on time with all required features fully functional) has a direct impact on an organization’s value stream. Consequently, improving the project management process means that improving the ability to deliver all requirements, fully functional and on time, becomes a priority.

This tends to force Black Belts to focus on efforts to improve the processes of gathering and defining requirements through better understanding of the customer’s context. This effort improves on-time delivery by minimizing defects found downstream due to defects in the requirements engineering process, and it improves functionality, thereby ensuring that the right requirements are delivered with the right level of capability.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Black Belts never address improvement opportunities through the reduction of waste that creates excessive consumption of resources within the project management process, especially since that waste often delays project completion. Better understanding of the customer environment is a priority, not an obsession to the exclusion of other opportunities.

Companies that deploy Six Sigma successfully in their project management processes recognize that project management resource consumption is only a fraction of the cost of projects delivered late or with reduced functionality, especially when those failures affect the value stream. As noted above, the Black Belt role is best structured as a dedicated, full-time position focused on process improvement, with Black Belts retaining the role of supporting and mentoring Green Belts and Yellow Belts.

Green Belts: This role takes on less of an improvement project orientation and more of a project management orientation by using the understanding of the DFLSS tools to drive integration with the project management system. Project managers make excellent Green Belts, as do other managers (like architecture or systems specialists) who are exposed to a broad view of the project management process. This enables the Green Belts to practice and encourage use of the DFLSS methods and tools across a wide scope of the project management process.

Technicians, developers or engineers often do not make good Green Belt candidates because their view of the project management process tends to be limited to their focused area of responsibility, which will make many (but certainly not all) of the DFLSS tools seem irrelevant. Green Belts in the project management environment do tend to work on improvement projects, especially those that reduce waste in the project management process or align to Black Belt projects. Since most Green Belts will naturally have some management responsibility, their role will include mentoring and supporting Yellow Belts.

Yellow Belts: This is the more appropriate role for technicians, developers or engineers – especially those that have a limited view of the project management process. While Yellow Belts should be introduced to the methods and tools of the DFLSS process, the practice of those tools will typically be limited to their specific areas of expertise.

For example, requirements engineers may use VOC and language processing methods; design technicians may find themselves frequently using concept selection, robust design and tolerance analysis techniques; software developers may practice agile programming tools; and test engineers may apply DOE or combinatorial test methods. Few of these roles, however, will regularly practice the full range of DFLSS methods and tools, so in-depth understanding of all the techniques is typically not appropriate. Yellow Belts should participate on both Black Belt and Green Belt teams, and their process management responsibility should be to document and measure work processes in their areas of expertise.

All over the world, various organizations have successfully deployed Lean Six Sigma techniques to parts of their organizations that are driven by intensive project management methods. The synergy between traditional project management (IPECC) and DFLSS or IDOV is well documented, and while the general methods seem to integrate well, the traditional Six Sigma roles are not as easily leveraged to project management environments. Organizations that successfully deploy Lean Six Sigma in project management environments like R&D, IT project management and construction recognize that DFLSS is an integral part of the project management process and that the roles of Black, Green and Yellow Belts must be carefully tailored to the project management environment.

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