I have been a Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt for two and a half years and have come to a heartbreaking realization: I’ll never be good at everything.

This is not what my teachers expected from me. My Yellow, Green and Black Belt education included a diverse curriculum including a week on statistics and Minitab, in addition to change management, project management, the scores of tools used in DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control), DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) and Lean. I took tests on everything and passed, so I was blessed by the faculty and earned my Belts. Before I knew it, I had multiple projects for different business units.

This is when I started to see the problem – I couldn’t do it all. One boss told me I lacked project management skills. Because I forgot the Minitab tricks I learned in class, I had to buy and read books on Minitab.

At the same time, I was complimented for my creativity in discovering solutions and for listening well to what the business leaders wanted. I am better than average at assembling cross-unit teams and finding experts that happily consult with me for free. I’m a natural systems thinker.

I noticed that others seemed to have skills that were the inverse of mine. One person I worked with was a wizard with Minitab and another made beautiful PowerPoint slides. Among our team of four, each of us brought something different to the table. Soon we were asking each other for help – but our tollgate templates had only the space for the Black Belt’s name.

Then one day I attended a lunch-and-learn webinar in which a Black Belt presented a project that united a healthcare payer with a claims clearinghouse and a hospital system. The project got the three parties to the table and delivered millions of dollars of savings across the three businesses.

I was so enthralled that I contacted the Black Belt and asked him to present the story at a conference. While talking with him before his session I learned that he had added some data analysts to his stable of Black Belts. “We just didn’t have time to do everything,” he commented, adding, “I needed the Belts in the big meetings.”

It suddenly dawned on me: I had been trying to do everything for everyone. I wished for a team like the one I had heard described. Maybe, I thought, the team could include an interpersonally skilled relationship manager, a statistician, a data analyst, a project manager, and a creative individual to develop the presentations. Some or all of these could be Belts.

My guess is that some Lean and Six Sigma teams have developed this collaboration over time. But I also bet each project bears one name in the blank for Black Belt, reflecting the cowboy – good at everything – mentality that we generally share across our industry.

The cowboy Black Belt model has other limitations.

How often do we encounter objections from the front lines when we first cross the threshold of the Gemba? One reason for this may well be that those on the floor see by our outfits that we are all cowboys. This self-important, good-at-everything attitude is off-putting to others who imagine our arrogance and experience our condescension.

Projects may also suffer due to the fact that the Belts do more of what they are best at and less of what they are not. For example, I’ve seen tollgates with tons of valuable content that bores the team to death. I’ve seen spectacular statistical analysis ignored because no one understands it. And I’ve seen creative changes implemented that take the process in the wrong direction. In each case, the Belts were doing most of what they did best.

The alternative is a team model of change facilitation. The team can consist of all Belts, or some Belts and non-Belts. My current team has talked about taking on its first project manager, for example. I also think that a data analyst would be a good addition. Maybe we could add a marketing or a public relations professional who could help us present our ideas better. A financial expert could probably identify our savings better than the rest of us.

Then none of us would have to pretend to be cowboys who are experts at everything. More importantly, we could help each other. Best of all, our teams would deliver better outcomes, possibly even faster outcomes. All of us are happiest – and most productive – when working with our strengths, so perhaps retention would improve.

I’m tired of being a cowboy. It is a lonesome job.

About the Author