There’s little doubt that businesses across the world have started to implement Six Sigma, Lean and Lean Six Sigma in larger numbers.

With process improvement becoming a key element for businesses, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and the military, many organizations are making the investment in training employees at the Yellow and Green Belt levels.

But what about Black Belts?

Despite the success of many companies using process improvement methodologies to improve business, and the availability of online Black Belt certification courses, many companies do not employ Black Belts.

However, for forward-thinking companies, Black Belts are a key employee to have onboard.

For example, Intel co-founder Andrew Grove calls a corporation a “living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

It’s no surprise that Intel routinely uses Lean and Six Sigma for process improvements and have many Black Belts within their ranks. When it comes to transformation, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt can act as one of the most important catalysts for change.

Employee Training in Lean Six Sigma

Many organizations have realized that providing at least a basic training in Lean and Six Sigma is important. This is true not only for “frontline” employees but for executives. Executive buy-in for the processes used in Lean and Six Sigma is vital to success.

That typically includes Yellow Belt training for employees, such as this Michigan healthcare company that trained its entire staff as Yellow Belts. At the Yellow Belt level, professionals are taught the fundamentals of process improvement. In general, that involves cutting waste (the focus of Lean) and reducing defects and variance in an operation (the focus of Six Sigma).

But having Black Belts onboard can prove to be a “game changer,” according to Harvard Business School graduate Larry Fast, an expert on process improvement. Writing for Industry Week, Fast said that having people trained as Black Belts “is a necessary skill set to have on staff.”

Fast said that Black Belts are trained to take on high-impact projects, including complex project management initiatives, process improvement studies, “de-bottlenecking” challenging areas of an operation and the training of others at the Yellow Belt and Green Belt levels.

The Role of a Black Belt

For those unfamiliar with the Lean and Six Sigma belt levels, they work as follows.

  • Yellow Belt – Provides an education in the fundamentals of Six Sigma methodology, including a basic understanding of processes and jargon
  • Green Belt – This level is for those with at least three years employment in which they worked on process improvement projects. It includes an in-depth education in examples of the successful application of Six Sigma methodologies.
  • Black Belt – This level focuses on leadership development in process improvement and is offered to those who have years of experience and have been on a team that completed at least two Six Sigma projects. At this level, graduates master the principles and philosophy of Six Sigma and prepare themselves to effectively lead process improvement project teams.

Some Black Belts go on to become Master Black Belts. This level is open to those who have earned a Black Belt and have at least five years of full-time, professional experience overseeing process improvement projects.

The Benefits of a Black Belt

Having at least one Black Belt on staff – more depending on the size of the organization – can bring many positive results. In addition to the examples of companies such as Amazon, General Electric, Nike and Lockheed Martin, there are certain practical considerations that make having a Black Belt on staff important.

The overall benefit in having a Black Belt is that they are solely focused on identifying areas that need improvement and implementing strategies needed to improve those areas. Their expertise is not boxed into one department or area. It can be leveraged company-wide.

This doesn’t mean a “top-down” approach, a frequent criticism of Lean and Six Sigma. Black Belts know to bring others onboard with a project that know the operation best. One of the major principles of Lean is have those who work daily in an operation have major input into the changes that are needed (which is one reason why Yellow Belt training across the board is valued).

Black Belts are there to guide, not hand down edicts. And they bring expertise in addition to their knowledge of Lean and Six Sigma methodologies. They include:

  • Using data analysis in problem-solving
  • A results-oriented focus on cutting waste and improving efficiencies
  • Well-rounded management and team leadership skills
  • A focus on keeping projects on track, on time and within budget

These types of skills are needed in organizations across all areas of the economy, from private business to government agencies. This type of results-oriented, hands-on approach to change management and process improvement can provide a great return on a company’s investment in Lean and Six Sigma training.

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