Turning Your Master Black Belt into a Strategic Process Improvement Leader

Donna Powers

New Master Black Belt leaders will be the designers of healthcare’s future when it comes to performance improvement, safety, quality, financial impact and patient satisfaction metrics. And if they are the cornerstone of a successful Six Sigma deployment program, then we as an industry need to take a hard look at the education and mentoring provided to them in contrast to the real life expectations of the position.

Operational Definitions for a Master Black Belt

The operational definitions for a Master Black Belt are centered on assisting clients in setting strategy for Six Sigma implementation, guiding Champions with project selection and scope, training and mentoring of Black and Green Belts in the use of process improvement tools and maintaining the integrity of measurements, improvements and tollgates.

How Does a Master Black Belt Become a Strategic Process Improvement Leader?

Becoming a Master Black Belt involves a great deal more than just learning advanced statistical process improvement tools. It’s about philosophy as well as tools. It involves acquiring the skills to be a leader and shifts focus from doing to developing culture change within the organization. A Master Black Belt should be redesigned from a tool master to a strategic process improvement leader.

A Master Black Belt needs passion for continuous culture change. I think you must believe in zero defects before you can inspire confidence institutionally.

A Master Black Belt also needs soft skills such as presentation delivery, interpersonal relations and communication. The ability to bridge the knowledge divide between Six Sigma and a complete lack of statistics knowledge is critical. In a typical healthcare organization 80 percent of people are not comfortable with statistics, and thus statistical support needs to be user friendly, easily analyzed and very visual.

In addition, a Master Black Belt needs to be able to justify the investment. Changes that are not statistically significant can be "real world" significant. You can have success beyond p-values.


Decades of clinical expertise, operational knowledge and leadership experience prepared me well for the work that I do. The Master Black Belt certification training alone would not have. I wanted to gain insight into the way Master Black Belts were functioning and which aspects of their role were most important to them. Were they functioning as tool masters or as strategic process improvement leaders? Were they guided by job description, organizational mission or by personal attributes?

I asked Master Black Belts both in and outside of healthcare to list the five most important aspects of their role as Master Black Belt and rate them. The response rate from the survey was 50 percent and equally split between healthcare and non-healthcare. I affinitized the data and aggregated the scores.

In order of importance to the Master Black Belts, the results are as follows:
  1. Link to management
  2. Coaching and mentoring
  3. Training and development
  4. Project management
  5. Leadership
  6. Change management
  7. Meaningful measurements
  8. Other (including circle of influence, recruitment and customer satisfaction)

(Click on diagram to enlarge.)

The first four categories accounted for 72 percent of the total score and are consistent with the major responsibilities in a typical Master Black Belt job description. Each category carried a weight of 15 to 22 percent of the total. What surprised me is that the rest, beginning with leadership and including meaningful measurements accounted for 28 percent of the total score and each category represented 5 to 8 percent.

These results beg the question: Are we so focused on teaching process improvement tools and mentoring Six Sigma projects that we have lost sight of the bigger picture? We all teach that Q x A = E, but when it came right down to it, the Master Black Belts surveyed put leadership, change management and metrics at the bottom of the list. Are these potential reasons for Six Sigma failure?

Leadership and Change Management

As the leadership proverb says, if you think you’re leading and no one is following, then you’re only taking a walk. People want to follow great leaders. So we have to define qualities of good leaders and then develop the characteristics necessary. A good leader in your organization will be able to tie together the global network of Six Sigma and manage the pipeline. A good leader will plot the course for continuous process improvement, develop talent and facilitate team building.

To change culture you must have a really good frontline push of ideas and you must help transition project ownership to process owners after control. So you need a circle of influence. Know the right people in the organization and know the right people to go to for answers. Establish a network quickly and build contacts. You need a core team of dedicated support and must have the ability to influence across departmental boundaries. Gaining buy in and operating with persuasiveness beyond your own sphere comes with solid working relationships with peers across the company. No matter how good your solution, without acceptance, you're sunk.

Meaningful Measurements for Process Improvement

As Master Black Belts we know that accurate and reproducible data is the cornerstone of success. The motive of measurement should be to gain insight. Although measurement continues to demand increasing attention, measurement initiatives continue to exhibit a high failure rate, and the value of measurement goes unrealized. Assuming they don't fail, it appears that what we measure and what we are interested in are often not aligned.

Take a look at your process improvement metrics—are they the right ones? The value of any process improvement metric is not the numbers but the actions that the metric initiates. At the heart of a successful metric program is the motivation. Choose a critical few—the ones you are going to act on.

Making Process Improvement Leadership Happen

To have a successful performance improvement culture you must pull together a guiding team with the right attitude and skills. You want the right people, in the right place, with the right results, the right way. Recognize the responsibility of leaders is to develop future leaders. Create a formal, structured process to hardwire strategic process improvement leadership development. Reinforce the process by linking performance, development and succession. And finally, develop current leaders so that they can develop future leaders.