Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D  |  04/08/2013

Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D’s default image

Six Sigma Certification: What's it Worth?

A Six Sigma certificate is only as good as the skill set upon which it's based

As more companies embrace Six Sigma, the need to hire and train employees in the methodology grows. One issue facing beleaguered managers and human resource departments is how to determine whether an applicant truly possesses the Six Sigma skills required by the company. If he or she has a certificate, does it have any value? If not, how does your organization verify employees' Six Sigma skills? Once you get beyond the marketing hype of Six Sigma, what will really help your organization eliminate or even prevent problems?

These questions and many more based on your particular needs should be addressed as you review what you and your organization will accept as qualified certification.

This article presents commentary on important items that apply to the value (or lack thereof) of Six Sigma certification in your organization.

Understand your needs

Whether you decide to grow your own Six Sigma practitioners or hire from the outside, management must understand the role that it wants Six Sigma to play in the organization. Just stating in a job posting that a person must be Six Sigma-certified is meaningless unless the organization knows what it really wants.

The first step in any good Six Sigma program should be a needs assessment of the organization. Management must understand the skills that current or future employees have or should have and then review the gap between the organization's goals and its use of Six Sigma. Some of the questions that should be reviewed include:

• What related tools and techniques (as prescribed by typical Six Sigma processes) does the organization currently use?
• How well do current employees really know how to use these tools and techniques? Should future employees know these techniques as well?
• What level of understanding about Six Sigma deployment (e.g., methodology, team building, change management, voice of the customer, cost of poor quality, etc.) should each employee have? This includes top management, middle management, engineers, staff workers (especially human resources and accounting), and general workers.
• What internal resources already exist to teach any of the needed tools, techniques or methodologies?
• Are there any specific industry needs that should be considered before your organization implements Six Sigma?
• Are there any potential barriers to certifying individuals in Six Sigma that are counter to your work practices? For example, some unions don't allow testing of the unionized workforce.
• Is management at all levels training in the concepts of failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) so that a business-process FMEA can be developed for deploying Six Sigma? If not, how will this training and development occur?

What's behind a certificate?

Once you understand your needs, you'll have a better idea of what to look for from a potential Six Sigma-certificated employee. In the same way, if you're looking to hire an outside organization to train your employees and issue a certificate, you'll have a better understanding of what kind of knowledge and experience that certificate should guarantee.

Someone claiming certification to some level of Six Sigma (Champion, Yellow Belt, Green Belt, Black Belt, Master Black Belt, etc.) is probably referencing a test that he or she passed to demonstrate his or her understanding of the appropriate level of Six Sigma theory (e.g., the ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt or International Quality Federation programs). Many consultants, universities and professional organizations use these exams to verify that examiners understand the material from the training process. Many organizations (e.g., GE, Honeywell, Motorola, Ford, etc.) have also established Six Sigma certification programs that indicate the performance level gained while working on Six Sigma projects. Black Belts typically have to complete two successful projects in order to be considered certified.

Review the program you're considering to understand its body of knowledge (BOK) and how the issuing organization's process is maintained. In all cases (internally developed, consultant, university or professional organization), will the certification process meet the needs of your customers to provide defect-free products and services in the future? There are many good, fair and poor programs out there for certifying people in Six Sigma, and the cost varies greatly.

There are a variety of programs on the market. For basic problem-solving Six Sigma pro grams, the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control) process is commonly used; however, for design for Six Sigma, there are many models.

Questions that should be asked of any certification provider include:

• How long has the program been in existence?
• How is the material updated?
• How are certificate holders checked or re-evaluated to ensure that they maintain a certain level of proficiency?
• How often is the certification process itself reviewed and updated to meet evolving trends?
With the sheer number of certification programs available, it may not be enough anymore to just say that a candidate has a Six Sigma certification.

No one particular industry or organization controls the BOK of what makes up Six Sigma. This has allowed many professional organizations and a wide array of consultants to personalize the methodology with their own particular twists, such as process Six Sigma, transactional Six Sigma, lean Six Sigma and so forth.

Before a group or organization decides to offer a Six Sigma certification, they must decide what BOK will be used in the process. Because the Six Sigma methodology is still evolving, there is no one right set of tools, techniques, processes or procedures that are used exclusively for Six Sigma. The organization must establish where it wants the focus to be. Many studies were conducted by the ASQ to ensure that its BOK offered a wide coverage for the exam base at the time of development. The current ASQ BOK for its Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) program can be found on the Internet at The ASQ periodically resurveys the field to watch for changes in the process that may require an updating of its BOK. For other organizations, changes may or may not occur during the life of the certification process.

The Institute of Advanced Business Learning Systems Inc. ( offers one of the newer nonprofit organizational certifications that goes beyond a simple exam. The model of its certification process is the ASQ Fellow Membership process that was developed many years ago to identify masters in the quality profession; it's still a highly sought-after membership level today. Less than 1 percent of ASQ's membership is at the Fellow level.

IABLS certification uses a review process of the candidates' credentials to verify that they've reached the particular level of desired skill and knowledge to be considered a Green Belt, Black Belt or Master Black Belt. Candidates must submit their background in the areas of technical experience, work-related positions, training received, presentations, talks and publications, teaching/coaching, teaming skills, professionalism and change management. The information they provide is verified and qualified against the state criteria. They then go through a double interview by Six Sigma practitioners to verify their understanding of the methodology. This process moves further into the realm of validation and verification of a candidate's background and understanding than a simple exam.

To obtain Black Belt certification from the International Quality Federation, the applicant must pass a rigorous examination targeted at technical knowledge. In addition, to obtain Master Black Belt status, the candidate must provide evidence of teaching and leading Black Belt projects. Green Belt status just requires passing the examination.

The IQF also provides the sponsoring organization with criteria for assessing the candidate's effectiveness by evaluating his or her ability to achieve significant, tangible results by applying the Six Sigma approach and the candidate's ability to lead organizational change as demonstrated by his or her leadership, teamwork, project management and communication skills. The sponsoring organization can be the candidate's employer, an organization for which the candidate volunteers or a university. IQF evaluation criteria are available at

If you do decide to hire outside trainers, please remember to share with them your organizational goals and needs assessment to help ensure that your people are taught useful information in a timely manner. Otherwise, they may try to retrain your personnel in tools or techniques that they may already know, or worse, they may teach different applications of some Six Sigma tools because of different industry practices.

What's in a piece of paper?

We've been discussing the importance of verifying whether a certification ensures that the applicant has the knowledge and experience to support what the organization does or wants to do. But maybe a bigger question is, "Is a certificate even necessary?" Does certification really matter to your organization? If the certification is used as a verification of a person's entry-level knowledge or skill based on some recognized BOK within your industry, then maybe. Otherwise, just because people passed a test doesn't mean they really know how to apply what they've learned.

A common question is, "Who certified the original founders or early practitioners of Six Sigma?" There are a number of individuals who have been closely aligned with the development of what is called Six Sigma today who have no direct "certification" in the field but can still be classified as Masters (Master Black Belts or above) given their level of involvement in furthering the Six Sigma methodology. This is very hard to explain to some managers and human resource personnel who do not understand the marketing aspect of Six Sigma.

Just because a person has passed the exam or the requirements set by an organization doesn't mean that the person really understands how to use Six Sigma and its various tools. Many Black Belt failures have more to do with support skills and people skills than technical skills, which is the focus of most exams. We have seen people who are very good test-takers pass exams, such as the ASQ CQE or CSSBB, only later to discover that they really don't understand the methodology. This problem is becoming more recognized. One well-known banking organization refuses to even interview prospective Black Belt candidates if they come from certain organizations. The bank has determined that the process used within those companies doesn't produce candidates that will perform well within the banking industry.

The reverse is also true. We've seen individuals who aren't "certified" to known Six Sigma programs, but who've developed a very high knowledge base. Just look at the authors of the early Six Sigma books that came into the market three to five years ago--virtually none of them were "certified" by today's standards.

What does all this mean? It means that the paper is only as good as the body of knowledge and experience behind it. If your experience with employees certified by a particular organization has been positive, then you can probably trust the value of the certificate. Otherwise, you must investigate the certifying organization's body of knowledge and criteria as described above.


With the sheer number of possible certification methods available today (any Web search will yield hundreds of hits), it's a real challenge for managers, human resource personnel and practitioners to decide what course of action they should take when hiring or training Six Sigma personnel. Some smaller organizations refuse to even offer certification out of fear that once a person becomes Six Sigma-certified, he or she will bolt to another organization for a higher-paying position. Thus, there are a number of people who have mastered Six Sigma skills but who don't have a certificate.

Because many classified ads state that the candidate must have a Six Sigma certification, a mentality may be developing to take the simplest exam that can be found in order to get certified. Thus, managers must look for other means and methods to ensure that the people they have, or plan to hire, truly have the appropriate knowledge and skills. This could mean that your organization should review some of the certification processes currently available and require that internal or future hires meet that criteria. Another alternative could be to hire someone to assist in qualifying current or future personnel in the knowledge and skills needed for your industry.

The value of a Six Sigma certification process starts with a management review of what Six Sigma skills are needed to meet customer demands. Your organization may choose to only interview candidates from certain companies or whose certificate is from a certain organization based on past positive experiences, or you may need to grow a program internally to meet your special needs. The challenge will be to monitor the progress of the Six Sigma personnel within your organization and make changes as situations dictate.


About The Author

Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D’s default image

Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D

Roderick A. Munro, Ph.D., is an ASQ Fellow, CQE, CQA, CQMgr; Fellow IQA and IRCA QMS Lead Auditor. Munro is currently a business improvement coach with RAM Q Universe Inc. and works with clients to develop Six Sigma programs that are effective for the bottom line. He is on the editorial review board of the Six Sigma Forum magazine and has published articles about the Six Sigma and automotive industries.