What Does It Take to Become a “Certified” Black Belt or Master Black Belt?

One of the issues with the business of quality (as opposed to the quality of business) is that it has spawned a wide range of certification methods and standards for “Black Belts” and “Master Black Belts.” Putting aside for a moment the various methods of certification (and they range from credible to dubious) and instead focus on the nature of expertise itself, we have seen a number of writers describe the process of developing mastery of something — tennis, chess, playing a musical instrument — with the so-called 10,000-hour rule of thumb. The premise of the 10,000-hour rule was that it generally takes about 10,000 hours to develop a high level of proficiency (or mastery) at just about anything. This was a primary point in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” and it also figures into Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (particularly his chapter entitled “Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It?”).

Kahneman uses the chess master example, citing studies that indicate 10,000 of practice is required to attain a high level of performance. Interestingly, my own observations and records from coaching several hundred Black Belts over the years would also indicate that under the assumption of a motivated individual of reasonable cognitive capability and also under the assumptions of

  • a steady stream of project work of sufficient variety to exercise a range of skills but with enough repetition to practice the same skills,
  • and under the coaching of a person who themselves has attained a sufficient level of mastery of process excellence techniques both technical and change related

then what I term a first-level process excellence mastery (a “certified Black Belt”) occurs about after about 4 years and the second level of mastery (what many term a “Master Black Belt”) after a minimum of about 8 or 9 years. These correspond quite well to the above-noted 10,000 hour rule in that realistically a process improvement professional spends at most 5 hour per day actually applying the tools and techniques (both hard and soft) of process excellence (the rest of the day, at a minimum is spent on travel time between sites, meetings, culling email, surfing the web, checking our LinkedIn or Facebook accounts, going to Starbucks or Tim Horton’s for coffee, lunch break etc.). At roughly 25 hours of process improvement practice per week and assuming 48 work weeks per year gives us 1,200 hours per year. Using the 10,000 rule gives us a little over 8 years to develop that second-level mastery.

Of course the nature of this mastery is dependent on the nature and complexity of the “steady stream of work” and the quality of the coaching received. But in my experience, this is directionally the amount of experience that I think is required to reach the first two levels of proficiency, namely a “certified” Black Belt and Master Black Belt. As such, I think the profession of process improvement is much more akin to an apprenticeship model than one that is reducible to an exam and/or completion of one or two DMAIC projects.

Passing a knowledge-testing exam is perhaps useful but not sufficient, in my experience, to connote competence at the arts and sciences of the process improvement professional. Likewise, completing one or two projects is not, in and of itself a signal of competence. Rather, I would suggest that in the same way that one might apprentice as a carpenter with a master carpenter, process improvement professionals develop over time with the decreasing support of the master carpenter until one day they literally can fly from the nest and themselves guide and develop apprentices.

This approach, however, is antithetical to people and approaches that want or promise quick mastery (or at least, the title of “certification” for use on their resumes) and presupposes a population of coaches who are truly skilled (in the eyes of their peers and not just in their own opinion) and who are highly devoted to the advancement of process excellence and the development of capable professionals. On the first point, it is as much the fault with providers of Lean Six Sigma training who offer certification before a depth of mastery is demonstrated as it is with individuals seeking “certification” not for reasons of learning but for marketability. As for the second, while there are many Black Belts and Master Black Belts with shaky expertise (just as there are home improvement contractors with questionable knowledge and attitudes) there are also many Black Belts and Master Black Belts with very solid skills and a real commitment to bringing about excellence in their field.

Employers who know little or nothing about process excellence often compound the problem by asking for “certified” Black Belts when, as I would assert, there is no one single, credible body for the assigning of “certification” that is also highly correlated to competence as a process improver. The better if not best way for organizations to learn what good looks like is to develop a serious and committed process excellence effort in-house through a small, initial group of process excellence masters who, over time, coach others to become good process improvers and who also control the hiring and screening process for potential “Black Belts” or their equivalent. This, or something quite like it, is part of the story of Toyota, as an example of process excellence.

Wax on, wax off…

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