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Who Makes Six Sigma Work?

Published
  • August 01 2003, 1:00am EDT
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Having reviewed how Six Sigma is defined and its key components, process flow and methodologies, let's now focus on the "who" of Six Sigma. This is the cadre of players with martial arts monikers: black belts (BBs), green belts (GBs) and ­– the most accomplished of all –­ the master black belts (MBBs). What does a breakthrough management strategy have in common with karate?

Legend has it that the martial arts metaphor originated in the mid-'80s when a plant manager reported to Mikel Harry and his Motorola team that Six Sigma tools were "kicking the heck out of variation" in production. The Six Sigma black belt does, in fact, parallel its martial arts counterpart in numerous ways:

  • Focus on mental discipline (leverage disciplined methodologies).
  • Strike when the opportunity presents (attack business "pain points").
  • Depend on speed and decisiveness (empower agents of change).
  • See all sides (analysis based on data-driven, fact-based approach).
  • Learn by repetition (apply project-to-project lessons learned).

The success of any Six Sigma project relies on orchestrating a cast of key participants that include executive leaders, Six Sigma champions and the MBBs, BBs and GBs. The relationship between the various players is depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Six Sigma Cadre of Players

Executive Leadership: Executive management must lead by establishing corporate-level goals and business targets that are communicated to the organization. Six Sigma project alignment with strategic business goals is imperative. Executive management develops a comprehensive plan for Six Sigma program rollout and spearheads the enterprise deployment. Leading execs must also establish appropriate compensation and reward structures to encourage commitment, participation and support.

Project Champions: Project champions are senior-level executives and managers who coordinate the business road map by selecting new prospective Six Sigma projects and ensuring that current projects remain within budget. They also run interference for BBs to eliminate roadblocks and ensure projects are completed on time. Project champions have a mastery of basic and advanced statistical tools and Six Sigma concepts. One project champion is typically required per business unit, manufacturing site or service facility.

Master Black Belts: These are expert consultants in both statistical techniques and Six Sigma methodology. They work closely with project champions to structure and coordinate project selection and develop the enterprise-wide Six Sigma training campaign. In their role as mentor, trainer and coach, the MBBs train new BBs in Six Sigma methodology and statistical techniques, and assist BBs in applying statistical techniques to project implementation. In this full-time position, MBBs must have strong leadership, communication, teaching and mentoring skills.

Black Belts: These are technical leaders that create, facilitate, train and lead teams implementing Six Sigma methodology. They can come from a wide range of disciplines (an engineering or statistical background is not required) but must have a mastery of basic statistical tools. BBs must possess strong management, communication, presentation and training skills. As agents of change, BBs must be able to think creatively and critically, and unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. They are tasked with leveraging Six Sigma methodology to resolve problems and deliver significant improvement to the bottom line (documented impact typically averages $150,000-$243,000 net-savings per project).

Green Belts: GBs are Six Sigma project leaders who deliver small-scale, focused department-size projects. They facilitate team activities and incorporate quality tools and Six Sigma methods into daily operations. The GBs are familiar with basic statistical tools and dedicate approximately 25 percent of their time to implementing Six Sigma methodologies. They provide basic process knowledge and assist BBs in collecting and analyzing data.

The amount of training required for each role varies from a one-week introduction to basic statistics and Six Sigma for GBs to an intensive five-week course in sophisticated statistics and Six Sigma methodologies for MBBs.

It is important to realize that even with the right players in place equipped with the necessary training, Six Sigma projects will only be successful if the employees are "empowered" to explore new ideas and approaches, and are allocated the necessary resources to implement change.

Future columns will illustrate each player's role and contribution, specific skills and expertise and how they are applied during project development and implementation of the corporate performance management dashboard.

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