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Jul 6, 2011

Blackbelts – Who and How ?

An important, but not comprehensive, role of a Six Sigma Black Belt is that of technical expert in the area of Six Sigma methods. This expertise allows the Black Belt to understand the link between complex customer needs and the critical internal process elements designed to achieve them.

In the fall of 2000, I participated as a subject matter expert on a panel to develop an industry-wide Body of Knowledge for Six Sigma Black Belts. The panel, commissioned by the American Society for Quality (ASQ), drew upon the collective experience and expertise of leading Six Sigma consultants and trainers.

It is interesting to note the general similarities between the participating organizations’ training topics. There were, however, two sources of disparity with regard to training:

Some topics were not covered for selected Black Belt programs. For example, a handful of training firms provided only a cursory overview of Designed Experiments and Multivariate Analysis for Black Belts in the services industries, on the belief that those tools were less needed in service industries. These same training organizations tended to ignore Lean Thinking as a viable topic for these clients.
There was disparity on the level of comprehension (i.e. the cognitive level) for some topics.
While there is a credible argument that many Six Sigma projects will require use of only a handful of tools, and that a portion of these will require only rudimentary statistical knowledge, Black Belts nonetheless need to learn these skills. Black Belts should be taught to think critically and challenge conventional thought. Six Sigma levels of improvement require what Juran termed “breakthrough thinking.” Successful breakthrough requires rigorous analysis. Black Belts must be taught to accept ideas and opinions as just that, noting their limitations. They need to learn to use analytical tools to examine these ideas and to find sustainable solutions to the problems plaguing the company. This applies equally to manufacturing and service applications. Statistical tools allow Black Belts to prove concepts with minimal data and process manipulation, so that great advances can be made in a short amount of time. Problems that have gone unsolved for years can be attacked and conquered.

While Six Sigma Black Belts are generally given credit for their expertise in analytical, statistical and problem solving techniques, successful Black Belts must be much more than technical experts. The advancement of an organization from a nominal 3.5 Sigma to Six Sigma represents a vast organizational (and cultural) change. As such, Black Belts are primarily Change Agents.

Effective Change Agents are:

Positive Thinkers: Black Belts need to have faith in management and in the direction of the business and its Six Sigma program. They must be upbeat and optimistic about the program success, or they risk undermining management or the Six Sigma initiative. They need to exude self-confidence, without the pitfalls of being overbearing, defensive or self-righteous. Proper Management support and vision allow Black Belts to both believe in and experience their potential as Change Agents.
Risk Takers: Black Belts need to be comfortable as Change Agents. While ineffective Change Agents agonizes over implementing change, effective Change Agents relish it. They enjoy the excitement and the challenge of “making things happen” and “grabbing the bull by the horns”. They know that change is necessary for the company and the customers’ sake; and that change is inevitable, given the competitive market. Only by leading the change can we hope to steer its outcome. The effective Change Agent wants to lead the charge.
Good Communicators: An effective Black Belt needs to be capable of distilling a vast amount of technical material in an easily comprehensible fashion to team members, Sponsors, Champions and management. Many of these personnel will have only minimal training (Green Belt or Champion level) in statistical techniques, if any at all. The Black Belt that can clearly and succinctly describe to the team why, for example, a designed experiment is better than one-factor-at-a-time experimentation will strengthen the team and shorten its project completion time.Of course, being a good communicator is much more than just being capable of distilling technical material. An effective Change Agent must also comprehend and appreciate others’ concerns. These concerns must be responded to in a thorough, respectful and thoughtful manner. Through the use of the Six Sigma statistical techniques, data can be used to predict the merits of various improvement strategies, and address these concerns. The effective Change Agent will enlist those with concerns to participate in these efforts, either as team members or Project Sponsors. Through participation, these employees learn to understand the nature of the problem and the most viable solution. ‘Buy-in’, a necessary part of sustainability, is greatly enhanced through this participation.
Respected by Peers: It is often said that an individual’s position in an organization can be either earned or granted, but that true power must be earned. Effective Change Agents have earned the respect of others in the organization by their hard work and effective communication. Those new to an organization, or who have not gained respect from others, will find it harder to implement changes.
Leaders: Black Belts will often serve as Team Leaders; other times they need to show respect to others (and true leadership) by allowing them to assume leadership roles. First wave Black Belts will also serve as role models and mentors for Green Belts and subsequent waves of Black Belts.
Many of these Change Agent skills are facets of one’s personalities, but they can be supported through awareness training, management policy, and coaching and mentoring by Master Black Belts and Champions. The best Black Belts are those individuals who show a balance between these softer attributes and the technical skills described in the Body of Knowledge. Many firms demand demonstration of these Change Agent attributes, through work history and personal recommendations, as a pre-requisite for consideration of Black Belt candidates. Depending on the business and functional area, a technical college degree may also be required. For example, a BS in Engineering may be required for manufacturing areas, whereas a Business Degree may be required for sales or business development areas.