Setting a Standard for Lean Six Sigma Belt Certification

Bill Hathaway

Does anyone else find it ironic that Lean Six Sigma—a successful methodology with a history of almost 25 years—still has no widely accepted independent standards to guide professional certification?

In the Define phase, we teach the need to turn customer requirements into operational definitions so we can clearly understand, in objective and practical terms, how to meet customer requirements. Absent an operational definition, we're guessing, and we run the risk of failing to meet those requirements—and that is just what is happening in this industry.

If we were to sample any 10 "certified" Black Belts, we would almost certainly find 10 very different levels of qualification. Early on, when companies such as GE provided their own certification for their own internal purposes, variability didn't matter much. But now, with a well developed market for "belts," hiring managers are often disappointed by the capability of "certified" Lean Six Sigma professionals.

The lack of a globally accepted standard for Belt certification also leaves Lean Six Sigma open to unnecessary criticism from skeptics who like to deride the importance of process improvement. Of all professions, ours should be the last one to have to deal with this mess. Let’s raise the bar on certification standards.

So, How Did We Get to this Sorry State?

Almost daily, someone on a blog, LinkedIn group or Lean Six Sigma forum asks about Green Belt or Black Belt certification. How can I get it? Who offers the most respected certification? Will a certain certification get me a better job? The answers are highly subjective and never the same.

Throughout the history of Six Sigma (now Lean Six Sigma, really), no one has ever stepped forward to take ownership. There is no international governing board, and no government department to codify a set of rules or regulations.

Corporations like GE and Motorola put a structure around the methodology but had no interest in establishing or sharing an overarching standard, especially with competitors. Consultants and trainers jumped at the chance to spread the word and make a living, but had no real incentive or clout to create a standard. If one of the definitions of a successful deployment is to graduate as many belts as possible, then why not make it as easy as possible to be certified?

Indeed, the recent proliferation of schools, organizations and training providers that offer belt "certification" has only served to water down the very definition of the standard. Is it knowledge? Is it practice? Is it just an exam? At this point, who knows?


Lean Six Sigma Belt Certification Should Reflect How People Do the Work

Certification should endorse those activities and competencies that belts actually use in their process improvement work.

In the movies, it’s now a clichê: the heroic doctor who performs an emergency operation for the first time, one that he or she has only ever "read about." In real life, would you really want to be attended by a doctor with no practical experience? You’d probably be dead. Extending the analogy to Lean Six Sigma, would you really want to unleash a "certified" but untested Black Belt on your company’s most important—and lucrative—processes?

The successful Belt is one who completes projects, delivers savings and removes waste. Yet the most common failing of existing "certifications" is that they require theory but little or no practice. To hurry along certification, some companies rely on simulated projects or project affidavits, but these are suspect and not the same as real projects. Many training providers lack the appetite for verifying experience because it’s hard to do, slows down the graduation process and requires a longer-term effort.

Should you be able to pay for and receive a Black Belt certificate without ever doing a project? Without a true measure of technical competency or project work, the definition of Black Belt or Green Belt becomes trivial.

A New Standard from The Ohio State University

Now is the time to put an end to the practice of conferring Lean Six Sigma credentials without any objective standard. This isn’t Little League soccer, where everyone gets a trophy for simply playing a game. Certification must be:

  • Proposed by an objective body
  • Inclusive of both theory and practice
  • Testable and transferable
  • Enforced by academics, industry and consultancies

In the past year, the Center for Operational Excellence (COE) at The Ohio State University (OSU) has worked with a council of academic faculty, industry leaders, and member companies to develop just such a robust, objective common standard. This rigorous, third-party standard, which reflects the most common scope of industry expectations, is now available for public use (

The COE, an objective organization that does not provide certifications, has proposed the common standard as a way to bring greater uniformity and value to the Black Belt and Green Belt certification process. They aim to reverse the fragmentation of our industry and maintain belt certification that reflects both practice and theory. They are open to your feedback as they work to find common agreement on a single, rigorous, and global standard.