Usually, when companies decide to implement Six Sigma, they start by looking at who should be trained as a Black Belt. They want to choose someone with the characteristics Black Belts need to be successful. These can be broken down into six attributes: personal, technical ability, training, experience, aptitude and culture. This article will examine each attribute to see how it contributes to selecting the right candidate. Organizations can use the information when interviewing candidates, knowing that whomever they select will contribute to the success of their Six Sigma projects.
The personal category includes the necessary traits for becoming a successful change agent for the organization, particularly the ability to speak clearly and concisely. Can the candidate make people understand what must be done? Can he or she cut through complex issues and get to the point? Does the candidate possess the ability to influence without authority? Many Black Belts won't come from management positions, so how can they get teams to accomplish their tasks? Can the candidate motivate others without using threats? Can he or she remain calm in the face of adversity? How well does the candidate handle vague and changing requirements and situations? Can he or she present complex concepts in an easy-to-understand manner? Is the candidate an organizer who can clearly get a team focused on the task at hand?
Questions to ask a candidate concerning personal attributes include the following:
• What was your most difficult project experience and why? This question reveals what the candidate considered difficult, how the problem was resolved and the key lessons learned.
• What was your most successful project and why? This looks at what worked in the project and why the candidate considered it successful.
• What do you see as the most difficult thing that a Black Belt has to do and why? This gives you a sense of the candidate's weaknesses and naturally leads to the next question: What could be done to prevent these difficulties?
Technical qualifications assess the candidate's ability to understand mathematical concepts, use a computer effectively, understand complex subjects and ask the right questions. Did the candidate take any courses in math or statistics, and at what level: high school, undergraduate or graduate? How many and what types of courses were taken: surveys, basic, intermediate or advanced? How well does the candidate currently use these skills? How has the candidate used these skills in past jobs? Can he or she bring written reports or presentations to illustrate this ability?
Candidates with some scientific background tend to pick up Six Sigma fairly quickly. Does the candidate have any experience in the sciences, both hard and soft? (Hard sciences include math, engineering, chemistry, biology and physics.) Does he or she pick up technical subjects quickly? Usually, this is where most Black Belts excel. They understand basic statistics, reliability, regression, ANOVA, control-chart theory and applications, sampling theory and graphical analysis. They also understand how to use different problem-solving approaches to best solve the problem they're working on. Is the candidate a critical thinker? That is, does he or she use data to form conclusions? A good Black Belt tends to be logical in approach and isn't emotional.
Questions for this attribute can be directive in nature and might include the following:
• What's the difference between crossed and nested designs?
• How do you analyze a mixed design?
• What types of experimental designs have you worked with?
For organizations that deal with discrete data, questions about a candidate's experience with logistic regression and chi-square analysis are also helpful.
Some organizations give exams to external candidates to see if they really know their stuff, although regulatory requirements prevent some industries from doing this. Other companies present either project reviews or scenarios that must be analyzed. These assess the candidate's critical thinking and give some insight into how well he or she thinks under pressure. Given limited time and resources, how well does the candidate respond to problems? Depending on your industry, you might want to check with your legal department to see if such a test can be given to candidates.
The training category includes what the candidate has learned since starting work and how he or she has applied that knowledge to the business. What has the candidate learned to supplement basic skills and improve his or her knowledge of technical as well as business-related subjects? Is the candidate proficient in statistical tools such as those provided by Minitab, JMP or SPSS? Can he or she create a PowerPoint presentation? If the candidate has some formal education in a science such as math or physics, has he or she also taken courses in public speaking, listening skills or creative writing to become more well-rounded? Likewise for someone who has had a liberal arts education: Has this person taken technical courses to gain an understanding of the business he or she is in?
This category assesses the candidate's interest in continuing education. Not everything can be taught in college. What has the candidate done to learn additional skills that are unique to his or her industry and profession? Is the candidate continually looking to improve his or her skills, both technical and personal? You're looking for someone who's interested in finding new ways of doing things, someone who takes an interest in continual learning and applying those skills in the workplace.
The experience category looks at how a person has progressed in his or her career. Does the candidate's resume indicate increasing responsibility or knowledge of the industry in which he or she works? Has he or she taken positions that expand his or her basic skills? Does the candidate continually look for new challenges to face and overcome? Does he or she exhibit the confidence that comes from success? Is the candidate's creative ability apparent in the projects on which he or she has worked? Is he or she adaptable to changes in the environment when working on projects? Does he or she have the flexibility to examine details but also step back and see the big picture?
Many technical people tend to be detail-orientated, and this must be balanced by an ability to see how various elements fit from an overall perspective. You're looking for a candidate with demonstrable results in performance and growth. Both are important. What you don't want is someone who moves to a new job every year. This should send up a warning flag that the candidate leaves before completing anything. Even in today's business climate, where many companies expect people to change positions every two years, you should see some pattern that shows results. In addition, you want to see changes in position, which indicate a broadening of the individual's experience.
The aptitude category includes a person's ability to grasp abstract concepts and translate them into easy-to-understand processes. Is the candidate attentive to others' feelings? Is he or she empathetic and supportive of the team? Can he or she listen and make others feel wanted and needed? Can he or she create an atmosphere of trust no matter what the situation? Does the candidate encourage the skills that team members are sometimes afraid to try? Does the candidate have an outgoing personality and the ability to present an optimistic outlook on the task at hand? Is the candidate enthusiastic about his or her goals? These aren't learned skills.
Typical interview questions for this category include the
• Why do you want to be a Black Belt?
• What are the strengths you bring to becoming a Black Belt?
• If you had to introduce yourself to a group of people that doesn't know you, how would you describe yourself?
• What would your teammates say about you?
• If you had a difficult project to do in a tight time frame, what would be your preferred way to approach it--as an individual or a team? Why?
• How do you handle setbacks?
• How do you go about learning the fundamental aspects of something new?
The cultural attribute looks at how well an individual fits into the organization's culture. Can the candidate adapt to a changing environment? Does he or she understand the role of a change agent? Is the candidate familiar with the stages of change, and can he or she help a team work through them? How does the candidate handle resistance to change? How well can he or she motivate a team? What kind of temperament does the candidate project? Is it relaxed, easygoing and confident, or inflexible and demanding? What sort of temperament fits with your organization? In an organization that's relationship-oriented, a relaxed, confident candidate is the better fit. In a results-orientated organization, the achiever might be a better fit.
Some questions to ask about this attribute include the following:
• How have you motivated reluctant team members in the past?
• What did you learn from that experience?
• How do you get a team to meet deadlines?
• How do you define the role of the Black Belt in your organization?
• When faced with an ethical situation, let's say false data, how do you address it?
• How do you help your team succeed?
When looking at a Black Belt candidate, a holistic approach is often best. This recognizes that an individual's diversity, not simply his or her technical skills, can help create a powerful team. Focusing on only one attribute can create an imbalance that could hinder personal development. Depending on your organization's circumstances, you might want to bring in individuals who exhibit strength in more than one area. The intent is to create a balance. If an individual has one strong aspect, then the development of weaker aspects should be encouraged. The best Black Belts demonstrate a balance of all the attributes discussed in this article.
It's often asked if there are differences between a Black Belt from a manufacturing background and one from a transactional organization. There doesn't need to be if the candidate is process-oriented. The biggest transition that many manufacturing candidates must make is recognizing that transactional organizations have fewer documented processes, and that most of their data tend to be discrete. Such a candidate must have strong skills in discrete data analysis. The other primary difference is that many transactional organizations tend to have a relationship orientation rather than a project orientation, and the cultural aspect tends to be more important in the hiring process.
Whether internal or external, the hiring process should look at all of the candidate's attributes. After the interview, all interviewers should discuss their conclusions. Selected candidates would then be put on a path to strengthen their weaknesses. If a candidate is new to Six Sigma, then he or she would begin the journey to Black Belt status. If he or she is a Black Belt from another company, then the focus should be a better understanding of the industry into which they've moved.
Jim Bossert is a senior instructor and a quality and productivity program designer at Bank of America. Bossert has worked in senior management positions at GE Mortgage and Nokia Mobile Phones. He is a statistician and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana State University.
Larry Krynski, senior vice president, manages Bank of America's Six Sigma education program for approximately 170,000 associates. A ChE/Master Black Belt, he joined Bank of America in 2001, bringing extensive experience from Allied Signal. Today, Bank of America has certified more than 6,000 Green Belts, Black Belts and Master Black Belts, achieving billions of dollars in productivity benefits