The Lean Six Sigma Belt Structure like martial arts
Source: Bourton Group
A contradiction at the heart of Lean implementation. What do these belts actually mean?
In order to help people at all levels of an organisation understand the basic principles, clear and concise language is essential. However, the moment you begin discussing Lean as a topic, even at awareness level, it is incredibly difficult not to introduce jargon which is not only unfamiliar, but often downright odd. If you try to deconstruct Lean training material and make it more understandable to someone with no background in the subject, you can even become convinced that the jargon has been put there deliberately. We say we’re keen for everyone to gain an understanding of Lean principles, but are we secretly trying to protect improvement as a profession by making the language impenetrable to normal people?
The Belt structure is a perfect example. Many Lean tools originated in Japan and to people there it makes perfect sense, just like with martial arts the belt colour changes the more experience you gain and the more ability you demonstrate. It also provides a comparable qualification that might be meaningful to other organisations if you put it on your CV.
The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has published a list of the competencies they would expect a Green Belt and a Black Belt to be able to demonstrate. Their reasoning is that this should help combat the type of companies who claim they can certify you at Master Black Belt level if you’ll pay $30 for a 1-hour course online. However, the standard’s success depends on all companies hiring on the basis that an individual meets the ISO requirements, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen. Even if it does, what about White Belt, Yellow Belt or Master Black Belt training levels, which aren’t in the standard? Is it even possible to have a meaningful definition of what they are?
The truth is that while any level of Continuous Improvement training will give your CV a boost, the colour of your belt is nowhere near as important as what you can do. If you are able to demonstrate your application of Lean tools has resulted in hard business benefits, any lack of standardisation in training levels between different companies is irrelevant. That, after all, is the value-added activity. Too much focus on the belt levels themselves risks losing sight of what the customer really wants.