It is an old dilemma. Should we select our Black Belt candidates based on prior performance in unrelated jobs or should we allow people to self-select for Black Belt roles based upon motivation and aptitude? Unfortunately, the answer is clearly, “It depends.” There are advantages to each approach and each approach has specific perils.

When you make a conscious effort to choose those with the best track record of delivering results within the company, you are reasonably sure they will make the effort to excel at Six Sigma. These are people who have a solid understanding of how current business processes work. These are people who know the organization and can select teams that are likely to work well together. On the other hand, these are also the people who are responsible and comfortable with the current processes and systems and who have a power base in those systems and structures. They are biased toward the status quo and unlikely to push for out-of-the-box solutions.

When you accept volunteers, you are likely to get candidates that are motivated to drive change and adopt new approaches. Volunteers tend to be dissatisfied with the status quo. These are people who are likely to know the problems with the current systems and be motivated to fix them. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction may also blind them to the advantages that these systems create.

The extreme cases are ambiguous at best. Fortunately, they are not mutually exclusive. What we want are high performers who volunteer to drive change. In many cases we can get these volunteers but generally we must recruit them. This opens up the process to conflicts in perspectives and expectations. It is through a clear understanding of these conflicts that we are best able to choose Black Belt candidates who are most likely to succeed within our organizations. So the real question is not how do we choose candidates but rather how do we cause A-players to choose to become Black Belts? It’s not about choosing the best people but rather motivating the best people to choose Six Sigma.

The problem with motivating (rather than directing) is that motivating is necessarily an evergreen task. With selection, the process is straightforward and finite. You set criteria and make a decision. When working with motivation, you must constantly reinforce the value of continuous improvement to the candidate and this value must include benefits to the individual as well as the business. It requires much more effort to properly motivate candidates than to select and direct people to join the program but it is far more effective! So, how do you motivate people to become Black Belt candidates?

Remember that even the most loyal employees are (ultimately) motivated by their own self interests. They will subjugate these interests for the common good or a corporate goal for a short period of time. But, if you want long-term continuous improvement, you must ensure that every Black Belt (or, better stated, every member of the improvement team) involved in a process improvement benefits directly from their participation in that project. These benefits do not need to be monetary. In fact, it is often best if the rewards are non-monetary. The benefit, however, must be tangible and valued by all. Simple one-time reward and recognition at the end of the project for a job well done is not enough.

Your high performing employees, the ones you want to become Black Belts, know how to succeed within the company as it is today. They will only engage in continuous improvement if it garners them some additional advantage. As business leaders, we many see this advantage as obvious but to these high performers who are accustomed to succeeding within the current business environment, these advantages may be harder to see. In fact, perception may be that making a change would actually erode their status. Leadership must clearly and consistently communicate what the benefits will be once the process improvements are enacted.

Consider career trajectory. Our A-players are rarely plug-and-play employees who can be put in any assignment. (In truth they probably are but you must consider their internal motivations as well as their abilities.) Our A-players chose their careers. They are the scientists, engineers, salesmen and other professionals who aren’t wandering aimlessly from assignment to assignment. They are crafting their future through targeted and deliberate roles and assignments. Sidelining some of these people into a “Black Belt program” where they are to give up their chosen employment in favor of learning a new set of skills is risky and may allow them to fall behind their peers in the climb up the corporate ladder. In most organizations, performance is not measured as absolute but rather relative to the performance of others in the group. When you take someone out of this race, you give the B-players an advantage over the people you are grooming for success. It is critical that we remember that people measure advantage not just in terms of business results and position. We must also consider the political, technical, social and cultural distinctions that provide them with prestige within the organization. Your motivational strategy must address all of these. To keep your A-players motivated, you must ensure that their participation in an improvement project doesn’t just maintain their organizational advantage but enhances it.

Cultural needs include the common practices and group norms of the company. When these change, people tend to feel less secure in their jobs. As you are driving continuous improvement, job continuity must be addressed in order to keep the high performers engaged. Individual jobs and roles will undoubtedly change but unless teams, and especially their leaders, see their participation in continuous improvement as secure, they will not fully engage in creating a meaningful transformation.

Political needs include the sphere of influence and prestige that certain employees enjoy as a function of the job they do, the knowledge they have and the influence they are able to exert. High performers generally enjoy a high degree of political clout either through position within the company or, more likely, their sphere of influence. If process improvement enhances that political position, your candidates will naturally want to be a part of that process. If, on the other hand, their political sphere is eroded in any way, their willingness to fully engage in the process will be similarly eroded.

Technical needs are the easiest to fulfill with a Lean and Six Sigma transformation. These needs are the cache from having know-how on how the process and the company works. Fulfilling these needs eliminates process uncertainty and results in lower overall variability and fewer defects. Unfortunately, our top performers often garner their political and cultural clout through control of technical knowledge. Care must be exercised to ensure that as this information is disseminated throughout the organization, compensatory prestige is generated for those sharing the information.

The key is to understand the drivers for what motivates people. Why do they choose to engage or not engage in improvement programs? How do we keep them engaged? Knowing this gives you the ability to perpetuate and expand their engagement.

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