Six Sigma
Last Word


Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

Black-Belt Careers

A new training model extracts talent from within the organization.

In his September 14, 1999, column in The Wall Street Journal, Hal Lancaster describes how achieving black belt status in six sigma is enhancing career opportunities at a number of top companies. He claims that Jack Welch tells managers to master the six sigma discipline that leads to black belts if they want to move up at General Electric. Senior managers at AlliedSignal see their black belt program as a prime source for developing management talent. Lancaster quotes Jeffrey Shrull, a black belt at Weyerhaeuser, as calling six sigma the "hot-button issue of the day."

 My long-time friend Rick Dmytrow, who has become perhaps the most respected head-hunter in the quality world, recently told me that he has jobs for every black belt he can get his hands on. He says that even a new graduate with a degree of any level in statistics is a hot prospect in the business world these days.

 Why is black belt training providing such a career boost in so many companies? There are many reasons. In the past 10       or 15 years, many companies have consolidated resources and downsized          corporate staffs, often eliminating or shrinking the operations research, statistics or other analytic departments that were once available to support the business units, manufacturing plants and service operations. Many other companies never had strong departments in these areas and didn't add them as the company grew. At the same time, most businesses are becoming far more complex, and customer demands for defect-free, highly reliable products and services are increasing rapidly.

 Many companies have tried to fill the gaps in their talent and experience pools by hiring teams of outside consultants. The results have often been disappointing. After spending large sums of money having business operations radically redesigned only to find managers, workforce members and customers emerge thoroughly confused and rearranged, the companies have often achieved far less than they were promised. In many cases, the outsiders just don't have the knowledge of the company, the industry or the market to make the changes needed. In other situations, they aren't given the time and support they need to implement the required changes, and their work just becomes another unused study.

 Many organizations are now opting instead to recreate the talent and ca-             pabilities inside without recreating the corporate departments that, in many companies, hadn't been tied closely enough to actual operations and bottom-line results. To do so, company leaders select a number of their top-performing managers, researchers and operations people for intensive training as green belts, black belts and master black belts. In large, well-managed organizations, statisticians, industrial engineers and operations research specialists who had been retained in central locations are now often becoming the master black belts. They help train new green and black belts, provide analytic support for solving complex problems, and serve as experienced consultants to senior managers and black belts throughout the organization.

 The primary reason for the career boost to people trained as black belts is the new skills set they possess. Much has been written about the intense statistical training they receive. These methods include basic problem solving, statistical modeling, regression, data analysis, hypothesis testing, process capability analysis, analysis of variance and design of experiments, reliability prediction and estimation, failure mode and effects analysis, and statistical process control. Many of these subjects are poorly taught in even the best engineering schools and are often ignored, or covered in such a superficial fashion as to be a waste of time, in business schools.

 Perhaps even more important, however, is the heavy emphasis on problem solving and the mandatory requirements to lead a project team in applying these methods to solve a significant problem within the organization. Here, problem-solving methods become real and black belts learn when and how these statistical tools are actually used. Most also receive a heavy dose of project management skills and team skills.

 The CEO, president, CFO and other senior managers are often present at black belt presentations. The CFOs are playing a major part in assuring that the projects have real bottom-line results that are seen by the company. This exposure is one of the key factors in the rapid promotion of many black belts.

 Many senior managers believe that the combination of this training and practical experience provides essential skills for the future. According to Raymond Stark, corporate vice president of six sigma and productivity at AlliedSignal, his company "uses black-belt training both to develop future managers and to sharpen the skills of line problem solvers."

 Even without considering the career-enhancement possibilities, many people in leading organizations are realizing that the new training offered in useful statistical methods, project management, problem solving and team leadership is the right thing at the right time for them. These are skills that are going to be valuable for a long time—in their current organizations or in those they may join in the future.

About the author

 A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. in Wilton, Connecticut. Lately, he has been spending most of his time either teaching or coaching black belts. He believes that, for a statistician, this is like returning home. Godfrey appreciates all comments, questions and ideas from readers—especially your pet peeves.  Contact him by e-mail at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .

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