Why Six Sigma Practitioners Need More than Just Certificates

Many Six Sigma project failures have more to do with support and people skills rather than technical deficiencies, writes Sudeshna Banerjee. That’s why a Six Sigma certification is only as good as the relevant experience to back it up. Here’s how to get the most out of a training programme and what to look for in your Six Sigma candidates.

Just ten years back, the term Six Sigma Black Belt was often met with a blank "what is that?" look. Now, in complete contrast, a lot of professionals are aware of what a Six Sigma Black Belt does. Indeed, there has been the proliferation of new "belts" over the last couple of year. In addition to the well known Green Belt, Black Belt and Master Black Belt certifications, I often hear now of Yellow Belts and White Belts. It is good to see that as more companies embrace Six Sigma, the need to hire and train employees in the methodology grows. But with proliferation has also come subject matter dilution.

I believe the first task that any organization that decides to invest in Six Sigma, must do is to understand its own needs (Big Ys of the organization) and the role it wants Six Sigma to play in the organization. I once attended an interview with an organization where the senior management’s understanding of Six Sigma was limited to extensive process mapping and starting an Idea generation scheme. Both of these were valid but demonstrated very limited understanding of how Six Sigma could impact the organization.

In my years spent as a Six Sigma Black Belt across multiple organizations, I have seen models where the organization has developed its own content, training material, certification syllabus and case studies from scratch versus other organizations which have hired external consultants to train, develop curriculum and certification models as their preferred deployment model. Guess what? Both approaches work well!!

In fact, since the Six Sigma curriculum and material is well publicized and has been around for more than two decades, it probably not worthwhile to reinvent the wheel. Instead, organizations with limited resources may well choose to concentrate on deploying Six Sigma instead of creating material and curriculum.

If the organization does decide to hire outside trainers to develop training modules and curriculum towards certification, it is important to share organizational goals and needs to help ensure that employees are taught useful information in a timely manner. Otherwise, it is quite possible for the training consultants to reuse material that has been used in the past without really checking the relevance of the material within the organization. Imagine the time and effort lost in that case! The organization also needs to ask fundamental questions around length of the program in existence; how often is the material updated. I would strongly recommend that case studies and data tables be picked from within your own organization to make the material interesting and relevant to employees. Other questions need to include the process of evaluation to obtain a certificate and how often is the certification process itself reviewed and updated to meet evolving trends? In all cases, whether the training material is internally developed or developed by consultant, university or professional organization, it is important to ascertain if the certification process meet the needs of your customers to provide defect-free products and services in the future?

To grow healthy plants, the gardener first needs fertile soil to plant seeds. Similarly, it is important to get employees across levels to get enthused about starting their process excellence journey. For organizations that are just venturing into the Six Sigma territory, I recommend starting this with a strongly driven Kaizen or continuous improvement programmes which engages employees across all levels. This can be made more targeted with a basic Lean process orientation to facilitate a culture of questioning status quo and generation of maximum process improvement related ideas which the employees can implement themselves with minimal cost impact.

This continuous improvement initiative can be followed up with basic problem-solving Six Sigma programs, the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control). For organizations that are more evolved and are not targeting low hanging fruits alone, I would recommend Design for Six Sigma. This programme strives to generate a new process where none existed, or where an existing process is deemed to be inadequate and in need of replacement. DFSS aims to create a process with the end in mind of optimally building the efficiencies of Six Sigma methodology into the process before implementation. DFSS needs a highly questioning organization which is constantly challenging status quo. Kaizen and DMAIC can create this culture in the organization which is then fertile for new product development or process reengineering using DFSS.

No one particular industry or organization controls the Six Sigma Curriculum or the Body of Knowledge as it is more commonly called. 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. Organizations can use this in their favour to customize the training material to their specific needs. In fact, I recommend any organization which wants to implement Six Sigma for the first time should concentrate on training their employees on simple tools and techniques like seven QC tools ; Value stream mapping ; Process mapping and analysis before entering into complex data analysis. Complex data analysis needs clean and reliable data which may not be available with many organizations in the initial stages.

Let’s evaluate the importance of the certification itself. I think it is a well known fact that certification itself does not mean much because, in most cases, all it implies is that the certification holder has cleared a test with the certifying body. 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 project failures have more to do with support skills and people skills than technical skills, which is the focus of most exams. It does not help us understand whether the individual knows how to apply any of the knowledge gained. The reverse is also true. We've seen individuals who aren't "certified" to known Six Sigma programs, but who have developed a very high knowledge base.

In fact, certain organizations have clear hiring criteria when it comes to hiring Green Belts, Black Belts or Master Black Belts. The enclosed table shows how some realistic criteria can be laid down for these roles, so that adequate weight age is given to experience for all these roles and not just the examination cleared. Based on my observations in many organizations, I have put together an indicative table of what organizations could view as relevant experience in addition to the examination cleared by the candidate.


Exam cleared

Approx. length of experience in the role

Additional criteria (indicative and may differ from one organization to another)

Green Belt

Green Belt exam from reputed organization

1-3 yrs

  • Minimum 5 days of training
  • Pass a written examination,
  • Complete minimum of 2 projects

Black Belt

Black Belt exam from reputed organization

3-7 yrs

  • Minimum 2 weeks of staggered Black Belt training
  • Pass a written examination
  • Complete minimum of two projects done as a Black Belt. Projects need to be of strategic importance to the organization and adequate complexity to be demonstrated
  • Mentor minimum of two GB level projects
  • Take demonstrate proficiency by assisting MBB in taking some modules in the GB training.

Master Black Belt

Master Black Belt exam from reputed organization

7-15 yrs

  • Minimum 2 weeks of staggered Master Black Belt training
  • Pass a written examination
  • Needs to be a certified Black Belt
  • Complete minimum of two projects done as a Master Black Belt. Projects need to be of strategic importance and have enough scope and complexity to show case analytical ,deployment and implementation skills
  • Six Sigma training leader proficiency in conducting Black Belt and Green Belt training modules.
  • Six Sigma Deployment leader for at least one organization for minimum period of 1 year

The certificate is only as good as the body of knowledge and relevant experience behind it. When I got into this line of work more than a decade ago, there were very few "certified" Six Sigma practitioners. Even Six Sigma heads of various organizations had learnt their craft through experience and not through a certificate. With the proliferation and popularity of Six Sigma, many organizations have started offering certification programmes. Human Resources handles recruitment in organizations looks at the certification as a basic criterion to shortlist candidates. Hence, there is no doubt that the certification is relevant to the process of hiring. However, hiring managers need to put the certification under the magnifying glass and evaluate whether the same is relevant and backed up with the right exposure.