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Mike Micklewright

Six Sigma

Black Belt for Sale

It’s not about a certificate.

Published: Friday, September 12, 2008 - 11:42

Question: What is the proper way of wearing a Black Belt once you’ve earned it?


as in ….

I’m a changed man. I’m an American Society for Quality (ASQ)-certified Six Sigma Black Belt. To obtain the ASQ Black Belt, I had to pass a test and then show proof to someone within ASQ that I had completed one project (I was exempt from showing proof of another project, because I had years of quality experience).

Early in my career, at the Saturn corporation of General Motors Corp. and at Seaquist Dispensing in Cary, Illinois, I had performed hundreds of designed experiments, failure modes and effect analyses (FMEAs), correlation studies, and process capability studies. These processes would be qualified today as major parts of a Six Sigma project, as long as they included a lot more of the somewhat unnecessary paperwork associated with a Six Sigma project.

I felt that I didn’t have to study much or take a class, because a good deal of what I had practiced and taught for years would be on the test. However, I wanted to be prepared for what to expect. So, like so many others, I purchased the Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) primer from Quality Council of Indiana. I took many of the practice tests provided with the primer. When I didn’t understand a topic, I memorized answers. As I did this, I would find the location of the proper answer in the primer and read it. Then I would record the topic on a little post-it note on the page in the primer. By the time I took the test, the primer was loaded with yellow post-it notes sticking out in every direction. I had learned where topics were located in the primer.

If I was gaining knowledge through this study methodology, it would have been worthwhile. But quite honestly, I gained very little knowledge. A primer is defined in www.answers.com as “A book that covers the basic elements of a subject.”It’s a book created to help one pass a test. This is what I was gaining. I was gaining the knowledge of how to pass a test so that I could become certified. I wasn’t gaining much in the way of knowledge. W. Edwards Deming would have been ticked off!

Once I passed the test, I had to show proof of a project. It’s difficult for a consultant/trainer to do so, because many of us aren’t involved in actual projects any more. We’re paid to consult, train, and facilitate. Even though I had performed hundreds of projects early in my career, I needed to show a brand-new project using the Six Sigma methodology. I convinced one of my clients that we work on one together. It was a simple little project, but we made it more complex by incorporating as many of the Six Sigma tools and forms as possible to make it look more like a Six Sigma project. It was, of course, accepted. Much of the effort that was put into the project was wasteful. But, when it comes to certifications (ISO, Black Belts, etc.), the ends justify the means. I was an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt!

What?! Did I become a certified Six Sigma Black Belt?
Believe me, I resisted becoming a Black Belt for a long time. When I first began my consulting career 14 years ago, my bread and butter was teaching and facilitating design of experiments (DOE). I also did a lot of work in the areas of statistical process control (SPC), FMEA, ISO standards, and lean. Eventually, my work became all ISO 9001- and lean-related. I wondered why the market for doing proper DOE had dried up when there was so much interest in it in the 1980s and 1990s. The answer was that it, along with SPC and FMEA, had been swallowed up by Six Sigma along with many other tools, many of which are never used. Clients were no longer interested in receiving knowledge and an education in certain process-improvement tools, they wanted the entire package and the right to call themselves “certified Black Belts.”

When I informed clients and potential clients that I could provide the knowledge of improving processes without going through extensive Six Sigma training and that I had plenty of documented proof of successful projects, all they cared about was if I was a Black Belt, that they receive Six Sigma training, and that they become a certified Green or Black Belt.
So I succumbed to the pressure and became a Black Belt.

Another DOE expert is beaten by Six Sigma
A couple of years ago, my former mentor at the Saturn Corp., Philip J. Ross, called me out of the blue and asked me how my business was. His business was very slow at the time. Ross is an expert in DOE and had authored the book, Taguchi Techniques for Quality Engineering (McGraw-Hill Professional, 1995). He’s great at resolving problems and preventing problems. I asked him if he had jumped on the Six Sigma bandwagon and predictably, he said he hadn’t.

Now, one might think that Ross should have kept up with the times and that it’s his own fault for his business suffering because he didn’t change with the times. He may have resisted, like I did.

However, I prefer to think of it as such. Companies out there are big fools for not hiring an expert such as Ross to teach people the theory and knowledge behind designed experiments to truly resolve and prevent problems. Companies are big fools for falling onto the Six Sigma bandwagon and setting targets for the number of Black Belts that they have trained (so that the Black Belts can record it on their resumes and jump ship), rather than obtaining the knowledge to do true process improvement.

Why do I want to sell my Black Belt?
I’m an avid reader of anything related to quality, lean, and business and so hopefully, as I continue to gain more knowledge, my viewpoints will change and improve.

I became a Six Sigma Black Belt, but I never pushed it or tried to sell it too much. At one point, I updated my web site to include Six Sigma services. A couple of years later, I removed any reference to Six Sigma after coming to grips with the many problems of Six Sigma as a whole and as I became even a bigger fan of Deming (while impersonating Deming at conferences and corporate events).

At a couple of trade shows, as I tried to hawk all of my services with the tagline, “Continuous Improvement in a World of Standards,” I also made fun of earning a Six Sigma Black, because there’s no standard in how one is earned and the qualifications of a Black Belt can vary tremendously.

In the photograph below is a stand with Black Belts hanging from it. Two signs read, “Earn Your Black Belt Easily” and “Take One.” I gave away 300 black belts at a cost of $1,000, attracted a ton of traffic to my booth and a lot of laughter (but no business).

Seven Sigma?
In my stand-up comedy routine, I talk about how I’m going to compete with Six Sigma by rolling out my Seven Sigma program, which would include no tolerances for supplier parts (everything has to be dead nuts perfect), a 50-percent cost reduction target for suppliers each year, and a process to get us there called DMAICB (define, measure, analyze, improve, control, bankruptcy). Who cares if your company is bankrupt, you’ll be the first Seven Sigma company ever!

What are the problems with Six Sigma?
Here are just a few problems with Six Sigma. There are more.

  • It’s an elitist system.

Deming repeatedly stated that quality is everyone’s responsibility. Nowdays, people wait for the Belts to do all of the improvement activities. Improvement activities cannot happen unless it’s a Six Sigma project handled by a Belt. Lean, in some companies, is also going this direction in which the only people eliminating wastes are those who are lean experts, or senseis.

From Quality Digest magazine, in a “Last Word”column published in August 2001 and titled “The Emperor’s New Woes, Revisited,” an anonymous trained GE industrial engineer writes, "I explained that while I was doing this [Six Sigma] project, I had found and fixed several other processes. I was immediately admonished by one of the Black Belts for doing so. She told me I should’ve turned these into Six Sigma projects. I explained that it made more sense to me to quickly make the fixes so we could start reaping the benefits right away. Her retort was, 'If you didn't do it in Six Sigma, then it didn't happen.' Of course, her metric of preference was dollar savings from Six Sigma projects. She couldn't care less that what I did was the right for the business. She, like many other Six Sigma 'devotees,' was only interested in managing her career.”

I joke in my comedy routine that one of my clients is doing so well in their lean initiative, that it’s doubling its lean department.

Whole new wasteful bureaucracies are being established in the name of getting rid of waste. How ironic.

  • Six Sigma training is wasteful.

I talked with an acquaintance of a large company. He said they trained 800 Black Belts. I asked him how many of those Black Belts were actively using what they learned. He said about 5 percent. That’s 40. I asked of those 40, how much of what they learned in class do they actually use. He said 5 percent. That’s two.

Effectively, two out of 800 trained Black Belts were using everything they learned. That’s 1 out of 400, or 0.25 percent effective, or 99.75 percent ineffective. Or, should we reverse the number and state this in Six Sigma terms and claim that the Six Sigma training for this company has 997,500 defects per million (if a defect is defined as not using what was taught or unused inventory of knowledge).

Need I say more? For more information, see my article entitled, “Lean Six Sigma–An Oxymoron

  • It’s the Black Belt that matters, stupid!

A lady called me from St. Louis about five years ago. She managed a department. She had five people who reported to her. They all had Green Belts from different companies and different training sources. She wanted them to all be certified Black Belts. She was mostly concerned with whether or not I could certify them as Black Belts (apparently she didn’t know that because there was no standard, my dog could certify them). I told her that because the training from different sources can vary tremendously, she should consider, at a minimum, a refresher Green Belt training session for consistency sake and so that all six people could be on the same page before moving on to Black Belt training. She disagreed. She was trying to keep costs down.

So then I told her that I could provide training using my own materials for DOE, SPC, FMEA, and other tools at a much lower cost (rather than what I had been doing, which was purchasing expensive materials from another source and passing the cost of the material along to the client). I asked her what it was that she really wanted: the knowledge of process improvement or the certificate. She snapped back, “What part of certification do you not understand?”

Knowledge isn’t important. Certification is all that’s important (this goes for ISO 9001 as well). Becoming a Green Belt or a Black Belt, or a super-duper, triplewide, Master Black Belt is a resume padder. It’s obtained by way too many people to promote themselves rather than promote continuous improvement. The company pays for the training and the trainees leave the company with their new Black Belt for higher-paying jobs. Isn't it crazy that top management fails to see this?

It all starts early in life. As I proofread this article, I’m watching the local news. Apparently at some of the Chicago public schools, they will start paying $50 to each child for each A they receive and $20 for each B or C they receive. This is ridiculous! Kids aren’t learning to learn for the joy in learning and to improve themselves. They’re learning for money. This is no different than employees learning Six Sigma for the Black Belt that will give them more money in another company.

Deming would have been ticked off!
The GE industrial engineer quoted above stated, “No matter how well we perform our jobs or what our knowledge or contribution to the business is, we won’t be considered for any promotions unless we are Green Belt-certified.”

I have seen many “certified” Black Belts who have no idea of how to set up a designed experiment and some that don’t even know how to complete a fishbone diagram, yet they are certified.

I know of a former client who lost her job and asked me what Six Sigma was so that she could put it on her resume.

I keep having to remind myself that in the world we live in, “It’s the certificate, stupid, not the knowledge!”

Open up the specs, stupid
What’s the easiest way to get to 3.4 defects per million opportunities? There are two options:

  1. Open up the specifications
  2. Increase the number of opportunities that you count

Specifications are arbitrary, so are the number of opportunities. Both of the options above will decrease the DPMO, but won’t improve quality.

The focus must be on variation reduction, just as Deming, Juran, Shewhart, Taguchi, and Shingo taught us. Six Sigma doesn’t provide this focus to many people.

Are there other options?
1. Seven Basic Quality Tools
Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa is known for “democratizing statistics” by making statistical analysis less complicated for the average person with the Basic Seven Tools (scatter diagrams, check sheets, flow charts, histograms, control and run charts, pareto diagrams, fishbone diagrams).

He said that good visual aids make statistical and quality control more comprehensible to the average person and that as much as 95 percent of quality-related problems in the factory can be solved with these seven fundamental quantitative tools.

Ninety-five percent? Is this not something one must wonder and think about? One can teach these tools effectively in about 16 hours.

What is more effective, teaching one Black Belt for 160 hours or teaching 10 employees the seven basic quality tools in 16 hours? These are the questions that must be asked.

2. The Toyota Way (McGraw Hill, 2004)
This book refers to no complex statistical tools to explain the principles behind Toyota’s success.

From page 253, author Jeffrey K. Liker writes, “…Toyota does not have a Six Sigma program. Six Sigma is based on complex statistical analysis tools. People want to know how Toyota achieves such high levels of quality without the quality tools of Six Sigma. You can find an example of every Six Sigma tool somewhere in Toyota at some time. Yet most problems do not call for complex statistical analysis, but instead require painstaking, detailed problem solving. This requires a level of detailed thinking and analysis that is all too absent from most companies in day to day activity. It is a matter of discipline, attitude, and culture.”

This is consistent with what Ishikawa claimed.

3. Kaizen and The Art of Creative Thinking (Shigeo Shingo, 2007, Enna Products Corp. and PCS Inc.)
Shingo’s scientific thinking mechanism provides the insight into how creative ideas to problems are developed. In this book, there is no mention of statistical tools. This book is also very consistent with the comment made above by Jeffrey Liker.

4. The Idea Generator, Quick and Easy Kaizen (Bunji Tozawa, Norman Bodek, 2001)
The focus of this book is on generating a culture and system that encourages all employees to think up and generate easy improvement ideas and implement them themselves. There are no complex statistical tools referenced in this book at all. This is very consistent with all of the above.

This book is truly about continuous improvement (little improvements made every day by every person) rather than continual improvements (scheduled Six Sigma projects or five-day kaizen events)

There are many different alternatives. It all comes down to effectiveness of the improvement process. Six Sigma has proven to be ineffective at many companies.

Black Belt for sale
So I’m putting my Black Belt up for sale to the highest bidder. I have no use for it. It has watered down lean efforts; it has watered down variation reduction efforts, it has created bureaucracies, it has isolated people.

I know that it’s perhaps not the best time to sell my Black Belt because pretty much everyone now has one anyway, and they are so easy to get. It’s pretty much like selling a house right now—not a good market.

But nonetheless, I know that there are still many people out there who need one and would like to obtain a Black Belt in the easiest possible manner. If you can buy a degree (basically), if you can buy an ISO 9001 certificate, why can’t one buy a Black Belt?

Please submit your offers in writing by responding to this article. If I don’t receive a bid for $3, the price I paid for it, you might see it on e-Bay soon.


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.


A Good Laugh, Kind Of..

Thanks for a laugh, but not much more.. How is another tiny collection of anecdotes and tired observations considered newsworthy? Although it would be my own 30 minutes of fun to pick apart each point, I'll limit myself to (what seems like) your key points:

    1. The Certification Process - maybe you don't these very often, since your comment on the shallow (ie, crammable book knowledge) nature of the testing applies not merely to ASQ, but to almost every other certification on the planet. Try taking a PMP - I found it doubly liable to being passed based on a 4 hour cram session. In fact, take any university exam on the planet and the same applies; so your pithy and never-before-heard observation about CSSBB certification may actually be related to the entire approach of certifying based on knowledge alone?.. but you're an improvement professional so let's hear your suggestion on better options.

      2. An Elitist System - well you've already answered this by alluding to the same problem in Lean with senseis. In fact ANY programme that has specialists has this liability, but only if you're referring to hopelessly misdirected deployments with no change management, no engagement of the workforce, no skills development for the shopfloor, etc. The fact that the same criticism has been applied to MBAs for decades should also not sway your thinking that this is a Six Sigma evil..

        3. Training is Wasteful - you could think this one through a little more. Are more people typically trained that have the time and business scenarios to apply 6s? Yes. Would the same issue apply to taking first-aid lessons? Yes. Do people learn a vast Body of Knowledge only to apply 5% of it at any one time? Yes. Would the same issue apply to a Doctor seeing his usual schedule of patients? Yes. Sorry, no new insight here, and in fact nothing that is problematic when you view training as an integral part of employee development. But you're a consultant so what you're really peddling is A Better Way Out Of This Mess so you need a Mess to fix.

          4. Achieving 3.4 DPMO By Abuse - um, try reading every (or any) good reference on 6s to see how universally this is a known liability, and how any Black Belt worth her salt will shun fudging the numbers because (guess what) you don't get a quality outcome, you don't improve customer delight, and you don't create value by doing so, in fact you get caught pretty quickly. Perhaps you should try creating a track record of 6s projects to see how long you'd last trying the Success By Fudge approach.

            5. Simpler Approaches (ie 7 Quality Tools) - no disagreement here, but here's your moment of zen - how does a consultant who specialises in DoE and SPC advocate the 7M tools for 95% of improvements? Do your billable hours come from teaching scatter plots and implementing check sheets? If not, and if you do still in fact use DoE/SPC/etc then your own argument is dead in the water - 6s includes exactly the same type and complexity of tool across the board. If you look harder, you might realise that your problem isn't with Six Sigma, but with the philosophy of applying statistics to industrial problems, since 6s is a mere wrapper - a toolbox of sorts. If your problem with with using advanced tools is industry, you should perhaps spend a few moments talking this through with a professor in any business school; in return you'll get a brief education in how the past 100 years might prove you wrong.

              And the list goes on..

                Suffice to say, whilst rehashing the same old criticisms and offering little in the way of new personal insight, you've also conveniently glossed over the considerable benefit and strategic success that comes from 6s programmes, as well as destroyed some of your own credibility in the process. I mean you made it blatantly clear that the motivation for your foray into 6s was not from a desire to grow your own knowledge, but due to clients locking you out. I can assume your psychology went instantly into fault-finding and why you've always been a super consultant and how could clients possibly be sucked in by this new fangled guff when what you've done for years has been just fine.

                  If I've been harsh let me just say that there's nothing wrong with a balanced thought piece, and 6s has PLENTY of problems, but look at any quoted Lean/TOC/ISO success rate and you'll see they're all under 20-30% so again, there's nothing unique about 6s to merit picking on it as you've done, and nothing in your article provides readers with a balanced education on how to better themselves or their operations. Sorry.


                  Hi Mike,

                  Great article. Unfortunately logic has no effect on religions. I've just about given up. Scores of ignorant masses still flock to sites like isixsigma.com with the same old farcical questions and even more fanciful replies, while the forums like Deming wilt.

                  I still see a great parallel in six sigma and global warming. Both are religions based on utter nonsense. It amazes me how the masses still believe the world is warming when global temperatures have been falling for 10 years and even the IPCC 2007 fails to publish temperature from its own Working Party No1 after 1998. Six Sigma is no different. No one looks at the facts. The data is irrelevant ! Bow down to the great gods of Six Sigma and global warming !!

                  Good luck !

                  Best regards,

                  Dr Tony Burns