Black Belt Certification Part 1: Who Should Certify?

BB certification 1

Over the years I have been involved in the design, installation and delivery of a number of Process Excellence (PE) systems dedicated to the training, coaching, and certification of the leaders and employees of organizations. These PE systems have included both technical as well as behavioral tools and concepts from the areas commonly referred to as “lean” (the interlocking set of philosophies, tools and techniques related to the creation and flow of value) and “six sigma” (the systemic analysis of a system of data so as to understand that system and design the system to achieve new and/or better outcomes more consistently and/or robustly).

These PE efforts sometimes used the term “Black Belt.” In other cases titles such as “Process Expert” were use. For the purposes of this note I’ll refer to this kind of role generically as a “Process Excellence professional.” The label doesn’t matter as much as the idea of roles, either full or part-time, that are dedicated to PE, where process excellence encompasses the ideas of process continuous improvement, transformation, or design.

One perennial question is whether PE professionals should undergo “certification” and if so, how to go about training and certifying them. For this note I’ll simply define “certification” as a process of confirming that a set of objectives or standards are satisfied. Clearly there are many types of certifications that exist in a wide range of professions but in this case we’ll focus on the certifications commonly referred to as “Lean Six Sigma” or “Six Sigma” certifications of “Black Belts,” “Green Belts” etc.

Overall I think there is a value to PE professional certifications, but under certain conditions.

Part 1: Organizations should conduct the training and certification of Process Excellence professionals internally.

Based on experience with both situations — PE training and certification through external groups vs. owned by the organization — I have found that the internal approach has far greater upside potential in terms of performance and sustainability whereas the external approach, while seemingly safe and easier to start, is also synonymous with efforts that are often “check the box” exercises and limited in their sustainability.

One reason why internal PE training and certification efforts is superior to the external approach is that the internal ownership forces an organization through the process of ingesting and internalizing the breadth of technical and behavioral tools and concepts that encompass PE. This internalization fosters a more profound understanding and appreciation of the concepts. This then facilitates the organization’s adaptation of the ideas and tools to its particular needs and culture. Even if an external group customise the training and certification systems, this is not as effective because it removes the benefits of the organization slogging its own way through the learning curve. It’s a bit like preparing for a marathon by having someone else do your morning runs while wearing your workout watch.

Another benefit of internal development is that it builds an important organizational capability: the capacity to continuously improve and evolve its PE system. Buying PE training off-the-shelf freezes the organization to a static model; no matter how good the material is, the ability to upgrade one’s own PE knowledge and training system is far more valuable than a good, but static one.

I am not suggesting that organizations create everything from scratch; almost every PE tool and concept, at a technical level, already exists in good form either from publicly available sources or from cost-effective suppliers and sites and that an organization should use this raw material. But this content material is simply an input to the design of an organization’s own PE curriculum and training aids such as case studies, explanations and training exercises.

Internal design and ownership of PE training and certification is important for another reason: textbook approaches tend to treat organizations as essentially generic when they are not. Reality is messier: unique combinations, from organization to organization, of things such as the nature of the specific processes, products and services; an organization’s readiness, its history and culture; the personalities, abilities and competencies of senior leaders; the strategic context each particular organization faces.

As PE professionals we say that “a process is a process.” That is true in the sense that Process Excellence is just as relevant in a manufacturing setting as it is in the service sector. But at the granular level of actual process improvement or redesign, we should not apply a standardized and cookie-cutter set and sequence of the same tools and concepts. PE requires observation, diagnosis, and customization of tool selection, sequence and application at a specific place and point in time and not the application of a fixed cookbook.

(Note: when you have a situation where the subject matter is stable and consistent, standardized external training and certification is both possible and preferable. For example the operation of a Boeing 777 or the techniques and procedures of scuba diving. There are also subsets of process quality, such as the methodologies of calibrating measurement instruments in a specific industry, that are stable and well-formed topics that similarly lend themselves to standardized and externally managed certification.)

Several years ago, Mikel Harry, one of the developers of Six Sigma at Motorola and who later helped to disseminate it across the business world, wrote a book titled Six Sigma Knowledge Design: Illuminating the path to succesful deployment (2001). He argued convincingly, among other things, to avoid rigid cookbook approaches to curriculum design and Black Belt certification. It is a book that is well worth reading.

Next in Part 2: The role of external resources is as a bootstrap to organizations to help them reach a critical mass of internal PE experts.