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How to Identify and Select a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt
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Written by Steven Bonacorsi   

Lean Six Sigma Black Belts are most often referred to as Change Agents and there is no doubt that the Black Belt role is a leadership position within an organization. Black Belts are full-time Lean Six Sigma project team leaders responsible for implementing process improvement projects DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) or DFLSS (Design for Lean Six Sigma) within the business. Black Belts are knowledgeable and highly skilled in the use of the Lean Six Sigma methodologies and tools, as well as facilitation and change management, and lead subject matter experts to increase customer satisfaction levels and business productivity.

Black Belts have typically completed four weeks or 160 hours of Lean Six Sigma training, and have demonstrated mastery of the subject matter through the completion of project(s) (usually a minimum of 2 projects) and an exam (usually a pass of 80%). Black Belts coach Green Belts and receive coaching and support from Master Black Belts. It is generally expected that a Black Belt will move into a Master Black Belt or significant business role after the Black Belt assignment is completed in 18 months to three years.

Six Sigma Black Belt Qualities

What should you look for in your Black Belt? Here is my personal top ten list. Notice that I bulleted the list instead of numbering. This was done on purpose, as a numbered list usually indicates that one point might be more valuable than another. In this case, all ten qualities are considered essential and should have equal weighting.

Customer Advocacy - Black Belts should readily communicate the understanding that customers are always the recipients of processes, and that customers (internal or external) are always the final judge of product or service quality. Understanding customer needs is the key to process improvement. Hence, a Black Belt candidate should speak clearly about how eliminating process variation is a key to business improvement.

Passion - No cold fish are welcomed in Lean Six Sigma. Black Belts must be self-motivated, have initiative, and have a positive personality. At times they are expected to be a cheerleader, to pick up the team and help them move forward productively. Passion also gives them fortitude to persevere, even when the going may get tough on a project.

Change Leadership - Black Belts have demonstrated performance as a change agent in the past, regardless of their job duties. During the interview, ask them how they challenged the status quo in their last role. They didn't? ...well, they may not be the right person for your Black Belt position. Changing the organization and how business is accomplished may upset employees. Change agents and change leaders have a way of accomplishing positive change while engendering support for the change.

Communication - Black Belts are effective communicators, which is essential for the many roles they serve (trainers, coaches, and mentors). Black Belts should be able understandably speak to all audiences (from shop floor employees to executive management). Understanding the various needs of audience members and tailoring the message to address their concerns is the mark of an effective communicator. Once a Black Belt has these qualities, creating Power Point presentation slides (a requirement in corporate America, right?) is a snap.

Business Acumen - Black Belts are business leaders, not the quality managers of the past. As such, they should have business knowledge and the ability to display the linkage between projects and desired business results. How is a project making the company stronger competitively and financially? You can ask questions during the interview to determine if the Black Belt candidates have made this connection in their prior roles.

Project Management - Lean Six Sigma is accomplished one project at a time. We should not lose sight of the fact that the Black Belt must manage projects from scope, requirements, resources, timeline, and variance perspectives. Knowledge of project management fundamentals and experience managing projects are essential.

Technical Aptitude - The Black Belt candidate need not be an engineering or statistical graduate, but in some cases this is beneficial -- provided the other top ten qualities listed are also present. In all cases, a Black Belt is required to collect and analyze data for determining an improvement strategy. Without some technical aptitude (computer/software literacy and analytical skills) the Black Belt will be frustrated in this role.

Team Player and Leader - Black Belts must possess the ability to lead, work with teams, be part of a team, and understand team dynamics (forming, storming, norming, performing). In order to effectively lead a team, a Black Belt must be likeable, get along with people, have good influencing skills, and motivate others.

Result Oriented - Black Belts are expected to perform and produce tangible financial results for the business. They must be hard working and quick to demonstrate success.

Fun - Black Belts should enjoy their jobs if they are passionate about them. By having fun, you encourage others to do the same.

Qualities that did not Make The Top Ten (But Are Important)

Trust and Integrity - These are requirements and are not negotiable.

Deep Process Knowledge - Lean Six Sigma involves having a team of subject matter experts working to eliminate defects and improve a process. Obviously, someone on the team must have a deep knowledge of the process being investigated. This does not have to be the Black Belt, but it can be.

Been There - Done That - Sometimes a team gives credibility to a Black Belt that has "been through it." When the team is forming, this can help accelerate the acceptance of the Black Belt, but it's not a requirement.

Knows Lean, Six Sigma, ISO, TQM, etc. - Remember, you are building your business leadership pipeline one Black Belt at a time. Having a specific and detailed knowledge of Lean Six Sigma is not a prerequisite -- they will go through training; having the top ten list of qualities for a Black Belt (listed above) is.

Diverse Work Experience - This will enable the Black Belt to appreciate more than just one aspect of a process improvement project. For example, if a Black Belt is fresh out of a statistics college program, she or he is likely to predominantly utilize newly acquired skills and tools. Black Belts with a diverse background can appreciate projects and issues more holistically.

A Degree - While having a degree supports the idea that a person has developed independent thinking skills, not having a degree does not imply that the Black Belt candidate does not have independent thinking skills. This quality is very debatable as I have seen excellent Black Belts with and without degrees.

If you are hiring a Black Belt versus selecting and developing on from the inside, I would suggest the following attributes are the most critical in selecting the right candidate.

Team Facilitating - Build a successful and cohesive team using development tools, resources, training, goals, performance measures and a flexible interpersonal style. Ability to effectively facilitate the completion of team goals.

Problem Solving - Identify present and potential troublesome situations and their causes. Investigate to a level that reveals total impact of the situation. Identify trends and patterns and develop measures to solve or prevent repeat occurrence.

Process Orientation - Ability to understand customer requirements, define and understand processes, and their effectiveness, efficiency and adaptability. Black Belts have the ability to take a systematic view of activities from a broad perspective. Experts in analyzing processes and establishing a vision for optimization.

Change Facilitation - Encourage individuals to seek opportunities for different and innovative approaches to addressing problems and opportunities. Facilitate the implementation and acceptance of change within the workplace.

Communication Skills - Convey or absorb information and ideas through a variety of media to individuals or groups in a manner that engages an audience and helps them understand and retain the message.

Computer Knowledge - Understands and uses the basic office tools available on a personal computer. Can do basic word processing, spreadsheets, e-mails, presentations and web browsing.

Program and Project Management - Identify customers, deliverables, project scope, plan and resources. Black Belts are skilled in removing obstacles, while make decisions that keep the team focused on meeting the quality, cost and timeliness goals.

Analyze Costs and ROI - Utilize cost analysis methods and procedures to determine resource allocations and evaluate alternatives in shop and office areas. Black Belts use established principles and practices, gather data, interpret information, and explain fluctuating elements and risks in investments.

Steven Bonacorsi is a Senior Master Black Belt instructor and coach. Steven Bonacorsi has trained hundreds of Master Black Belts, Black Belts, Green Belts, and Project Sponsors and Executive Leaders in Lean Six Sigma DMAIC and Design for Lean Six Sigma process improvement methodologies.

Bonacorsi Consulting, LLC.
Steven Bonacorsi, President
Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt
14 Clinton Street
Salem NH 03079
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