Failed Six Sigma efforts often are attributed to ineffective training of Black Belts and Master Black Belts. But there is a more fundamental issue at hand: the training and experience requested of Black Belts. It may be time to reconsider the typical certification process in order to produce expert Belts and lower the odds of failed Six Sigma efforts.

What Is a Black Belt?

For most people (including CEOs) the term Black Belt conjures up images of martial art experts, decimating their opponents with lightning quick, decisive tools as they chop, kick, weave, duck and dodge their way to victory.

The iSixSigma dictionary describes a Black Belt as: “Six Sigma team leaders responsible for implementing process improvement projects (DMAIC or DFSS) within the business to increase customer satisfaction levels and business productivity. Black Belts are knowledgeable and skilled in the use of the Six Sigma methodology and tools. Black Belts have typically completed four weeks of Six Sigma training spread over 4 to 6 months, and have demonstrated mastery of the subject matter through the completion of project(s) and an exam.”

Contrast this with the common martial arts definition of first-degree Black Belts: advanced beginners. They are just grasping the concepts in which they will become experts in the years to come.

Effective Black Belt Training

In martial arts, the first stage of training typically takes three to six years. In fact, the beginner Black Belt often must go through five distinct stages of development before they can qualify for the sixth stage – becoming a Master Black Belt. As might be expected, each successive stage gets harder and harder. Many aspirants do not make it past the third stage, let alone the fifth or sixth.

The problem with the Six Sigma Black Belt requirements is that many levels of skills are blurred into one stage. The uninitiated – both company leaders and Belt candidates alike – may be misled into expecting a Bruce Lee in six months rather than a beginner with a basic knowledge of the techniques and a long road to traverse before becoming a potent Black Belt capable of effectively applying them to win real-world fights (business problems).

So what does it take to progress from a beginner Black Belt to an experienced Black Belt to a Master Black Belt? The levels of knowledge and skills, and the process of acquiring them is best described in the centuries-old Japanese literature and is summarized below. It makes for compelling reading and holds many lessons for leaders and advanced Six Sigma practitioners serious about closing the gap between the promise and reality of Black Belts.

Creating Masters in Martial Arts

The process as followed by the traditional, centuries-old Japanese martial arts schools is described here:


Stage 1 – Kihon encompasses the basic techniques and principles of the art, including footwork, body posturing, body-movement dynamics, ground hitting or tumbling escape skills, and body conditioning skills. There is no degree or recognition of skills at this stage.

This corresponds roughly to the four-week, one-project training of many Six Sigma Black Belts, in which candidates learn quality tools and techniques, such as correlation, DMAIC, regression and analysis of variance. At this stage, students acquire the motor skills of the art.

Stage 2 – Shoden focuses on a limited set of techniques, principles and conditioning exercises that demonstrate how a fight (project) might be won. Included are eight to 20 attack scenarios (case situations), and the best use of techniques and skills to counter them. It is only on completion of this stage, typically after three to six years, that the first formal recognition – a scroll – is given by some schools. The scroll shows pictorially which techniques have been covered, emphasising the limitation of skills acquired by any particular trainee.

Middle Teachings

Stage 3 – Chuden training places heavier emphasis on the importance of the tactics. The skills are developed to counter attack types not included in shoden.

A similar internalization of quality tools and techniques is necessary in Six Sigma for the realization of their full potential. This ability requires the skill of choosing the appropriate tool and adapting it creatively to “kill” a practical problem. Black Belts learn this skill by using the tools and techniques on diverse problems in diverse situations.

Advanced Innermost Teachings

Stage 4 – Okuden lessons require a substantial leap in depth of knowledge and degree of difficulty. They emphasize essential principles of strategy more than fine details of mechanical technique. Okuden skills are often deceptively simple in description, but incredibly difficult in application. Only a few qualify for this stage. In modern combat sports, the parallel to okuden would be to coach an athlete to an Olympic gold.

In Six Sigma, likewise seemingly simple concepts are often the most difficult to grasp fully; it can take years to utilize them to their full effectiveness.

Secret Teachings: Beyond Black Belt

Stage 5 – In older times, the deepest secrets of the martial arts were restricted to the top few warriors training to be grandmasters to carry the school forward.

The Six Sigma equivalent would be the Senior Black Belt, who may develop customized methods that are not included in general education of even the highest levels, but passed on individually to the most deserving.

Stage 6 – The final stage is the development of the Master. This is an earned title rather than a bestowed one and acknowledges the holder as a revered elder in a large family and the counsel of last resort in fundamental issues of martial arts philosophy, ethics, techniques and principles. In Six Sigma, the equivalent would be the Master Black Belt.

Making Bold Changes

In Six Sigma, riding the wave of a high-profile movement that has generated several large successes, some Black Belts may think they are experts after completing the basic program. Compared to the traditional martial arts development path, they are simply beginners keen to learn more.

In the interest of the continued long-term survival and progress of Six Sigma, leaders should consider breaking up the current one-stage process for creating Black Belts. The current stage could be divided into 4 to 6 stages, defining the increasingly difficult and diverse demands of knowledge and experience at each stage and the education, training and experience required to qualify for each level. A suggested breakdown is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Knowledge and Skills Required for Potential Belt Levels
Level Knowledge Skills
1, 2 Theoretical Basic
3 Experiential; know basic tools Proficiency; practice
4 Experiential; know advanced tools Adaptive; originality
5 Advanced; understand philosophy Master; able to train those at Levels 1, 2 and 3
6 Creative; original; conceptual Sublime; able to train those at Level 4

While the duration of time spent at each level would vary, Belts could stay at each level for long periods of time (Table 2). Beyond Level 3, originality could be judged based on projects handled as well as articles published and cited. Level 4 could be the Black Belt level and Level 5 the Senior Black Belt. Masters would be a select few who earn that right through work that is recognized as outstanding in its originality and their contribution to their community and business at large. As is true for Black Belts today, not all aspirants would make it past levels 3 or 4.

Table 2: Suggested Years Spent at Each Six Sigma Training Level
Level Years
1 0.5
2 1-2
3 2-4
4 3-7
5 7+
6 7+

Clearly, to motivate Six Sigma professionals along this career path, recognition and career advancement at each level would have to result. At the completion of each level, practitioners would gain a certification.

About the Author