Black Belt Certification Conclusion: Should We Care About It?

BB certification blog titles-4

In this wrap-up of a series of posts on the Black Belt certification topic I’ll share a perspective on whether or not it is even worth setting up certification or paying for a training program to get certified.

In Part 1 I recommend that organizations develop their internal Process Excellence (PE) training and Black Belt certification capability. Part 2 asserts that the role of external experts is to help organizations by acting as a bootstrap to help build internal capabilities. In Part 3 I urge that the training and certification of PE professionals is best done by an organization’s own internal PE experts mainly through face-to-face coaching and less through training programs.

In this conclusion, I make the argument that Black Belt certification, or its equivalent, is largely irrelevant and certainly not something for which individuals should shell out thousands of dollars. Here’s my take on it:

  1. The certification of a Black Belt/Process Excellence professional is best approached, if at all, as an outcome of an organization’s long-term commitment to and success from Process Excellence (PE). As an example, take Toyota, which, although it has had its ups and downs, has certainly remained committed to the idea of seeking perfection and in so doing, has generated value for all stakeholders including the development of strong skills in its employees, its most important asset. I don’t think Toyota designates its experienced problem solvers and coaches as “certified;” perhaps continued career progression and having a larger and larger role in the development of others is the de facto recognition. In any case Toyota is an example where “certification” is irrelevant if the PE professional/Black Belt is a part of an organization that is doing great PE work and thereby achieving objectively superior levels of quality of business. But if such an organization decided to establish a meaningful criteria of certification in-house, then such an organization would have the internal capability and external credibility to do so. Employees who earned such as certification would truly have achieved, through on-the-job application under the eyes of experienced sensei/coaches, a meaningful level of competence.
  2. Be vary of Black Belt Certifications offered for those who enroll in a course whether online or in class. In this series of posts I’ve made the argument that the most robust and meaningful development of Black Belts/PE professionals is through an internally led PE journey, with some initial help from external experts to help “bootstrap” their early efforts. I believe that issuing Black Belt certification on the basis of passing an exam or exams as well as completing 1 or more PE projects (often with some form of project report) is insufficient for the level of “quality control” that I think the PE profession requires. Tools such as exams and projects reports are useful, but the impartial and experienced observations of a sensei/coach of a Black Belt on the job is, for me, an essential link in the chain of developing PE professionals. The development of these sensei, especially internally, takes time but that is precisely the message of Point 1 above: “certification” is a manifestation of an organization’s PE maturity and therefore will take time to establish. Lastly, in some cases, some external institutions charge significant amounts of money for certification; in other cases it is free but of course nothing is free — our time has a value.
  3. On the other hand education in PE is valuable and useful. On a very simple level, I look at “education” as a vehicle for enlightenment and awareness. It can enrich our perspectives and help us not only to consider new ideas but also to, in some cases, think differently (or in some cases, think better). Training, on the other hand, has specific task objectives in mind, a need to impart through knowledge and practice those things that are needed for someone to get something done. I am not an adult learning expert, and so perhaps my definitions are crude, but I’ll use them for the purpose of this post. Whether online or in class, whether free or for purchase, I do think that there is tremendous value in PE education, to open people’s eyes through examples, exercises or field trips the nature of and potential for PE. My suggestion, is to carefully look at the various offerings that are out there and to understand how much of the program is about education and building a vocabulary and understanding of PE vs. how much is about training on how to use various tools and methods. Unless you are in a position to apply these tools in a real-life situation with feedback from a coach you should not invest too much time or money in PE tool training; instead focus on your PE education.
  4. Be realistic in your expectations of PE training. If you are in the situation where you can apply PE tools and concepts, then PE training has a benefit in addition to PE education. But be clear-eyed about your context and what you define as success. For example, if you pursue on-the-job and classroom PE training as a member of an organization committed to process performance improvement, then as a PE professional you have the opportunity and the responsibility for a much greater scale and breadth of impact. The kinds of tools and skills you will require to help bring about large-scale systemic change is very different than if you are a solo practitioner who is trying their best to apply these tools within the narrow scope of their job responsibilities or perhaps of their work group. In the case of the individual on their own, understand that you may not have the opportunity to use certain tools or concepts because of the seniority and authority of your role. For example, learning how to do an end-to-end process map is theoretically interesting but not very useful if your span of practical influence and authority is limited to your job. If instead you focus on learning and applying tools that are useful within your smaller area of work, then that is not a failure but rather progress within your current context. Good PE training should be tailored to the realities of your current situation; PE education provides you with the understanding that although you might currently work at a more tactical level, there is a wider possibility to PE than just your current sphere of influence. Your PE training is geared to what you can do now; your PE education should provide you with the larger vision of PE possibilities. For more on this point, please see Managing Your Expectations.

Many years ago, Mikel Harry, one of the founders of Six Sigma, made the distinction between the quality of business — that is, achieving our rightful entitlement to value as both a customer and a company — and the business of quality — the rather large industry of organizations selling PE training, conferences, tools, and consulting. There is a need for these PE products and services, but I urge careful scrutiny in what individuals and organizations buy.