One would think that with the levels of standardization and process efficiency we drive in Lean Six Sigma that there would be consensus on how much training a certified Black Belt should receive. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, despite the herculean efforts by the American Society of Quality (ASQ) and the International Society of Six Sigma Professionals (ISSSP), there is not even a consensus on what constitutes the “true” body of knowledge of Six Sigma; many consulting companies and corporations simply teach their versions. This leads to a huge divergence in what Black Belt certification means. Most hiring managers are left to look at the applicant’s pedigree to assess qualifications.

Part of this confusion is historical. When companies in the United States were first adopting Lean and Six Sigma in the early 1980s, the standards for certification were incredibly high. At Texas Instruments in 1992, for example, candidates were expected to attend approximately 1,000 hours of training and complete more than 30 projects before they were eligible to sit for certification (patterned after a thesis defense). Later, as Six Sigma became more mainstream, the requirements became less stringent. At GE in 1997, for example, training was a standard four weeks (160 hours) and candidates were expected to complete two projects, which were vetted by their businesses. This trend has continued and, today, many programs are one or two part-time weeks and candidates then take an exam. In the early days, significant effort was made to differentiate Lean and Six Sigma from the status quo approaches to quality and the programs were technically rigorous. Today the emphasis is more on balance and accessibility. Unfortunately, this means that all Black Belts are not equally qualified for all roles.

Another reason for the diversity is the demands of the industries we have extended Lean Six Sigma to cover. In engineering-intensive product-focused industries (e.g., aerospace and automotive), the focus of Lean and Six Sigma was focused principally on the analytical and reliability side of Six Sigma. The teams generally had solid engineering and scientific backgrounds so demanding that Black Belts master experimental design and reliability statistics was not a challenge. But today, Lean and Six Sigma are found in nearly all industries and the quality needs of these industries are broader than the products they create. In the service industries, by contrast, the focus tends to be on people skills and descriptive statistics. In these industries the solution to problems is not nearly as difficult as is the defining of these problems clearly so that there is an urgency for creating solutions. Even in companies were a blended approach is favored (e.g., GE), the Six Sigma body of knowledge still remains specific to the industry and application.

Still another reason for the apparent diversity is the leadership of the various deployments. Everyone has his or her own intrinsic biases and these color how we choose to manage our deployments. Maybe it was what you were taught, the business’ needs as you see them or even a sense of unrealistic expectation (“I had to learn to compute ANOVA results by hand so everyone else should, too!”). No matter the source, these biases influence what we choose to emphasize and downplay, and this drives choices about which tools are important and in what order tollgate deliverables are to be completed.

The diversity in Black Belt knowledge is far from accidental. This means that basing your training content off of that used at another company or in another industry is very likely to fail. There aren’t universal standards because each company’s program must serve its customers, deliver its products or must participate in its unique regulatory environment. Lean and Six Sigma are not academic disciplines, they are pragmatic business approaches and as such must be unique to the businesses they serve. Success demands a balance of technical tools and applications with practical hands on application of these tools in real world scenarios. This is, after all, why we call them Black Belts and not process engineers. If you shortchange either the level of rigor or the level of practical application, your Black Belts will struggle. If, on the other hand, you over-emphasize either of these, your Black Belts will also struggle. The key is balance.

Balance is achieved by knowing your company and its needs so start with the strategy. Who are your customers? How do your customers make money and how does the product or service you provide help them achieve that goal? What are your long-term and short-term improvement goals and aspirations? If you discover that your customers want only cost and cycle time improvements, teaching modeling, DFSS and maybe even elements of DMAIC are a waste. If on the other hand, your customers expect innovation and extreme reliability, you cannot skip these topics. It’s all a matter of where you are in the quality journey and what is critical today. (Remember, it’s a journey not a destination.)

Once you have a plan, then consider who you will train. Six Sigma requires a certain level of mathematical sophistication and while everyone can master the concepts, some are better prepared than others. Those whose education has focused on the more concrete applications of mathematics (e.g., accounting or engineering) will require more time to master modeling than those whose education was more theory-based (e.g., physical science or economics). And those whose education did not demand mastery of higher mathematics (e.g., liberal arts and business) will require still more time. It’s not a matter of if your candidates can become good Black Belts but rather how much you must invest to get them there.

Many people make the mistake of “dumbing down” quality principles to match the current capabilities of their audience; this is a recipe for failure. Teams applying Lean and Six Sigma in transactional, non-engineering-intense disciplines need more training and coaching – not less. You can assume fewer things about their preparation but the problems they will encounter as they apply their art are no simpler so don’t handicap them with Lean Six Sigma “light.” It is also important to understand the personality profiles of your candidates. Certain people are more comfortable with inquiry whereas others must be coached not to jump to solutions. Everyone can learn Six Sigma but not in the same amount of time or in the same manner.

Finally, remember that the moniker “Black Belt” was purposefully chosen to distinguish practitioners of Six Sigma from quality engineers or industrial engineers. Someone can become an engineer through rigorous study and mastery of a body of knowledge without ever actually applying this learning to real-world problems. Not so with a Black Belt. To become a Black Belt, one must demonstrate a practical mastery of the art. In fact, most experts in Lean and Six Sigma consider the practical application more important than mastery of the body of knowledge. Lean Six Sigma is not an academic discipline and delivering results always trumps expert knowledge.

Maxwell Gladwell argues in his book Outliers that to truly master a subject, one must devote more than 10,000 hours to the field. This is probably true for Lean Masters and Six Sigma Master Black Belts. For ordinary project managers and Black Belts, I have found that less time is required to become practically competent, but the study and application should still be significant. Reasonable training on the Lean Six Sigma body of knowledge for the average candidate requires 100-160 hours plus an additional 40-100 hours of hands on coaching in the practical application of these tools and concepts. Add to that the independent application of Lean Six Sigma in two or more projects (~250 man each) and 1,000 hours (six months of full-time employment) is not unreasonable. When we short change our Black Belt candidates on training, mentoring (especially mentoring) or practical experience we should not be surprised when they struggle.

Most companies rush the process, perhaps with the aid and advice of well-meaning consultants who assume any shortcomings in training will be made up in mentoring. And then the companies expect miracles. To get the full effect of continuous improvement you must be in the game for the long-haul. Invest time in developing your team and great things will come.

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