It’s Time to Rethink the Green Belt Role: Systemic vs. Atomic

A central feature of most if not every Green Belt deployment in organizations is some form of training (the length and topics vary somewhat from place to place but seem range from 5 to upwards of 10 days) and the requirement to conduct a project or projects. In some instances there is certification based on various criteria. There is no a standardized criterion nor single governing professional body but it is not unusual for certification by either the company or a consulting firm to require completion of a project.

Depending on the organization, the extent of actual engagement of the employee in “Green Belt” might well end after one project and their certification. In other cases there might be the expectation that the employee completes other projects or uses their skills as a team member on other projects.

One of the important considerations of this typical Green Belt approach to the engagement and application of employee time and energy is the opportunity for a lot of small, often disconnected projects that consumes considerable resources. Depending on the situation, the Green Belt projects might appear to add up to a significant cost savings; in some cases organizations also believe this approach spreads the mindset and skills related to process thinking and improvement.

Yet in my capacity as an advisor to several organizations I am also observing an increasing opportunity cost to this doctrine. Specifically there is an increasing disconnect between the work of the Green Belts and the systemic issues that are most vital (and in some cases threatening) to the health and prospects of the organization. To use the old but often apt cliché many if not most Green Belt efforts in organization are rearranging deck chairs on the ocean liner.

I hypothesize that several factors make the disconnection grow larger between the traditional design of the Green Belt role and the contemporary needs of organizations. First, many organization are now much more mature in their pursuit of process excellence and the ability to achieve strategic breakthrough performance improvement through the summation of many Green Belt and Black Belt projects is or has already waned. Second, irrespective of the whether or not an organization has a mature process excellence culture and capability, an increasing number of issues faced by organizations requires radical and systemic responses, improvements, and redesign.

A simple example is the inexorable increase in the globalization of many industries exposing less efficient firms to competition even faster than 20 years ago. In 1992 Chinese firms and operations provided a much different set of challenges to western firms than they do today. The nature of software and the availability of cheap data storage and computing power likewise have both enabled and often demands systemic rather than disconnected responses and strategies.

Put another way, for a variety of internal and external reasons, organizations whether they call their process improvement effort something like “Lean Six Sigma” or not and whether or not they have something like “Green Belts” and “Black Belts” need to consciously architect their efforts with much more consideration for systemic efforts and interventions than in the past and that the nature of system thinking, design, and change is considerably different than the classic Lean and Six Sigma tool application which tends to favor action at an “atomic” level, at the level of the individual Lego block such as a specific operation, line, or department.

Management thinkers as diverse as Jim Womack and Michael Hammer have and do promote the concept of industry-level action that looks at the entire supply chain from end to end, but usually there is a gulf between the desire for systemic action and the reality of what employees are taught, asked and incented to do.

This is not to say that the bottom-up approach is inherently wrong; merely, it points out the need for a much more conscious choice between an effort that is primarily oriented to smaller local efforts aimed at quick wins (which might be suboptimal) but that generates learning and engagement as compared to a top-down systemic effort (or some combination of the two).

Seemingly “grassroot” and local issues often requires system thinking and action to get at the fundamental root issue. Often, we must think globally in order to identify and solve the root issues but execute at a local level, a mode of deployment quite different from problem solving and implementation entirely at the local level.

As this series continues, I’ll share my thinking on some options for either the replacement or the redesign of the Green Belt concept.