In a Six Sigma implementation, the initial focus is typically on training in-house Black Belts and Green Belts to work on projects that support the business strategy and, in the process, demonstrate the efficacy of the methodology. At this stage, program oversight and mentoring – the typical Master Black Belt role – is often provided by consultants. The longer-range vision usually includes development of such expertise within the organization.
Once a critical mass of Green Belts (GBs) and Black Belts (BBs) have been reached, and leadership is convinced of the value of their projects, the internal development of Master Black Belts (MBBs) becomes a higher priority. However, this phase of the transition from consultants to in-house expertise must be carefully managed to ensure the long-term health of Six Sigma within the organization.
There are five primary elements that must be addressed prior to launching in-house MBB development:
1. Leadership perception of the MBB role
2. Deployment structure
3. Candidate selection
4. Curriculum content
5. Demonstration criteria (abilities and responsibilities)
Leadership Perception of the MBB Role
By definition, MBBs are expert problem solvers who manage resources to help deliver the business strategy. This experience and knowledge should be highly sought after as executives scour the organization for top talent. However, if the leadership team does not recognize the skill set that the MBBs possess, individuals may not receive the promotional opportunities that they deserve. If there is no formal role definition or approved career path for MBBs, the situation will be even worse. The risk of not addressing this element is the loss of skilled talent to outside firms, as well as the loss of the financial investment made for the training and development of those individuals.
a. Communicate directly with the executive leadership team to explain the value of MBB resources to the organization. Gain their buy-in to support formal human resources (HR) definitions for all Six Sigma roles.
b. Collaborate with HR on the development of documented requirements and responsibilities for each Six Sigma role. Include definitions of specific rewards and recognition, such as salary grades, bonus potential and stock options.
c. Work with HR to create formal career paths for Six Sigma practitioners at all levels.
For lower-level Six Sigma practitioners, the diffused deployment model – BBs and GBs working projects within their functional areas – is the most common. However, MBBs may be deployed at a local, divisional or even corporate level. The appropriate decision is organization-specific, with pros and cons for both the centralized and de-centralized approaches to MBB deployment. The risk associated with not defining the deployment structure up front is mismatched resources, e.g., inadequate numbers of MBBs to support the BB and GB community.
a. Develop guidelines for ratios of GBs to BBs to MBBs, and determine staffing needs accordingly. For any mentoring relationship – whether it is BBs mentoring GBs, or MBBs mentoring BBs – it is very difficult for mentors to manage more than 20 active mentees at any given time and still fulfill their other duties. This number is a guideline only; more complex projects or programs of projects will reduce the recommended ratio significantly.
b. Assess the value and risks associated with MBBs reporting through a centralized quality organization vs. MBBs in operational roles. Recognize that the most desirable structure may change over time, as the organization evolves.
c. Work with operational and executive leadership to determine the appropriate solid-line and dotted-line relationships, and incorporate them into the HR definition for the MBB role.
Ideally, the training and development of internal MBBs is an investment that realizes significant added value as these people are promoted into leadership and executive roles. The risk associated with not defining candidate selection criteria up front is a waste of this investment if the MBB candidate is not ultimately suited for the role.
a. Allow only leadership-nominated individuals into MBB training. Given the potential for promotion possessed by a trained and experienced MBB, it is not recommended that an organization allow self-nomination for MBB training. MBB candidates should be nominated by staff at an appropriate level of the organization to determine whether a candidate has high potential. It is crucial to consider more than simply technical proficiency for an MBB candidate, because the role will involve change management skills, leadership, influencing capability and communication with executive leadership.
b. Clearly delineate MBB candidate expectations at the onset, including a contract specifying the required time in the role. This is important for three reasons: 1) the time required to develop an effective MBB, 2) the size of the investment required and 3) the limited numbers of MBBs in the organization, which makes it difficult to backfill roles quickly.
c. Define MBB candidate prerequisites early in the process. Decisions must be made as to requirements in the following areas:
- How many seats will be available in the MBB class? (Given the nature of the course, small interactive classes are preferred – typically 10 or fewer participants.)
- Is documentation of BB certification required? If so, what does certification documentation entail – completing a course, passing a test, completing projects, a specified duration in the role?
- How many projects must the MBB candidate have successfully completed as a GB? As a BB?
- How many projects must the MBB candidate have mentored successfully to completion as a BB? Is there a requirement of GB vs. BB projects?
- How will MBB candidates external to the organization be handled? Will they be required to take a test prior to admission? Take the in-house BB course? Present to a selection panel? What level of documentation for project proficiency is required for them?
- Will the MBB candidate be required to bring a project to the training class?
d. Formalize the application process for MBB candidates, including web-published guidelines and an application form with appropriate submittal timing defined. No application should be accepted without prior leadership nomination.
e. Create a review panel consisting of both quality professionals and executive leadership to screen and select candidates. The MBB candidates should be required to present their credentials to the review panel, if possible.
MBBs are expected to be masters of the technical aspects of Six Sigma, such as statistics, statistical tools and project management execution. However, if the MBB role is considered strategic to the organization, then the expertise must extend beyond the technical tools of the trade. The curriculum for an MBB course must be designed to fit the requirements of the organization and the vision for the role MBBs will play as they progress down the future career path. By not giving careful consideration to the MBB curriculum content, organizations run the risk of the developing MBBs who are not educationally prepared to fulfill the requirements of their position.
a. Review current proficiency requirements for Six Sigma practitioners from industry groups, such as the Six Sigma Body of Knowledge available from ASQ. Tools and methodologies for Six Sigma application are not static, so research on current trends is advised.
b. Decide up front if the MBB course content will be designed around industry standards, or focus on the customized needs of the organization. For example: In a transactional business, should an MBB be proficient in response surface designs, or not?
c. Create a panel of quality professionals to determine specific content for each element of the MBB course, including the depth of knowledge required. (For example, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains provides knowledge-level criteria). Recognize that MBB courses often have as much or more emphasis on leadership, coaching/mentoring and financial analysis as they do on technical tools.
d. Ensure that the MBB course includes high-profile speakers from both within and outside the organization. If possible, schedule the CEO to speak to the class.
e. Allow the curriculum to drive the duration of the course. Do not establish an arbitrary criterion of course timing, such as a four-week training course over three months, and then fill open time blocks with extraneous material. By definition, such an approach violates the Six Sigma best practice of effectiveness before efficiency.
Demonstration Criteria (Abilities and Responsibilities)
Attending an MBB course does not guarantee the development of a successful MBB. Content understanding must be combined with demonstrated proficiency to prove that the person is truly a “Master” Black Belt. A clear list of demonstration criteria is an important element of successful MBB development. The risk associated with not defining demonstration criteria is inconsistency in the definition of who is and is not an MBB in the organization. This inconsistency inevitably will lead to lax standards and a lessening of the perceived value of the MBB role.
a. Ensure that a candidate who has been selected for the MBB course is identified as an “MBB-in-training” (or something similar), until proficiency is demonstrated.
b. Create a certification review board to assess the proficiency of the MBBs-in-training and determine the point at which they officially become MBBs.
c. Ensure that the elements of the MBB roles and responsibilities document are reflected in the certification criteria.
d. Identify whether or not the organization culture values a formal, post-course certification exam to demonstrate knowledge of the curriculum content.
e. Define specific project and program management success criteria. Decisions must be made in the following areas:
- Should MBBs be required to lead their own projects to successful completion, above and beyond project completion requirements of the BB role? Should MBBs be required to lead multiple individual projects? If so, how many?
- Is the successful management of a deployment initiative required for MBB certification? For example, must the MBB lead a suite of BB/GB projects that impact a scorecard metric in order to be certified?
f. Define specific requirements for coaching and mentoring. Decisions must be made in the following areas:
- How many projects must an MBB-in-training coach or mentor to be considered a full-fledged MBB? Is there a mix requirement between BB and GB projects, or between projects with discrete output data and those with continuous output data? Note: Be aware that the mentoring requirement will likely have a significant impact on the time required for an MBB to become certified.
- At what point can the MBB-in-training claim a mentored project? Must it be completed and closed, completed but not yet closed, or just in the Control phase?
g. Define specific requirements for training that the MBB candidate is expected to deliver. Because MBBs are often described as coaches and mentors, there is typically a requirement to serve as a lead trainer in one or more modules of a GB or BB course. However, it is recommended that the training requirement be defined as either developing or delivering a course module. Also, be sure to let the MBB candidate decide which aspect to accomplish; there are often MBBs-in-training who are technical experts and great team leaders, but who also may be highly ineffective as course instructors. The point of having a training specification for MBBs is to allow them to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, which could be just as well accomplished by creating material as by delivering it.
The decision to begin training in-house MBBs is a significant milestone in the Six Sigma journey. Doing the up-front development work outlined in the five elements described above will provide a strong foundation for an organization as it moves from external support to internal expertise.