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What is a Black Belt project?

We ask businesses to be fair in setting the scope of improvement projects.  But how can they do this if there is no effective and easily consumable description of where the boundaries are likely to be?

I was talking recently to a group of people attending a Black Belt certification course.  And this question came up more than once:  “what sort of projects should I take on?”.  The simple answer for this is:  “the projects that have the best chance of achieving a substantial shift in on time with minimum variation in the delivery of value for your customers.”

But here’s the problem:  if answering the question for a Green Belt project I’d say the same thing.  We do not wish to introduce arbitrary cut-offs into a continuum of skills and abilities.  So what is a Black Belt project compared to a Green Belt?  It’s quite hard to define.

The more I prodded at this question the less clear the answer became.  In the Lean Six Sigma community, we pride ourselves on effective, non-arbitrary, operational definitions.  Yet our very own “belt-by-belt structure” seems to be creating an unhelpful confusion.

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So many variables…

The problem is, and I suspect for many of you too, that in my gut “I can just tell”.  Just like an experienced decorator who can cost a painting job just by glancing around a property, we draw from years of experience, and in a flash cost up:

  • The nature of the problem
  • The number and likelihood of difficult to influence root causes
  • Number of senior stakeholders (across number of companies)
  • Number of roles to be impacted by the change
  • Team size
  • Repeatability and speed of the process
  • Availability of data and complexity of collecting more
  • Prevailing culture
  • Prior experience of success/failure with change projects
  • Amount of IT/capital that might be required
  • Timeframe vs scale of the issue

That’s a lot of variables.  And they interact.  It’s complex.

Attributes of a Green Belt Project

We can be clear about what the key factors are in a good first Green Belt project:

  • A narrow scope with a focus on one process within one to two internal teams
  • Strong strategic support
  • A small team (4-6 people, all or mostly operators)
  • Relatively fast and repeatable process
  • Ideally no IT or capital expenditure

After this, it’s a whole lot of “it depends” when determining where Black Belt projects start.

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The Role of a Black Belt from the point of view of a Black Belt Project

To help answer this question, we return to purpose: in this case, the role of the Black Belt. At the heart of the Black Belt role there are two sets of driving characteristics.

This simplifies things. Let’s view the two roles from the point of view of a first Black Belt project. This is usually undertaken as part of the certification process:

1. Does the improvement require significantly wider and more technical skills to solve than usual?

If yes, then it would be unreasonable to expect a Green Belt to take it on unsupported, because they are likely to lose too much time to investigating how to do the project, rather than doing the project itself. Most first Black Belt projects fall under this category. It is often this challenge that triggers the need for the training.

2. Does the improvement require significantly wider and more complex Change Leadership to solve than usual?

If yes, then a typical Green Belt may feel it is beyond their sphere of influence. These projects may only require Green Belt level technical tool expertise but require, for example, a team made up of multiple roles from both within the organisation and from suppliers and/or customers. In these projects, the Black Belt needs to be confident to teach-and-do in real time, without looking unsure. Otherwise, they risk failing to keep a potentially politically sensitive and certainly time expensive project moving forward. Unsurprisingly, these projects are less common early in the Black Belt career, but in time they often become the more valuable. Some new Black Belts are, however, skilled change managers and facilitators, and they may feel ready for this type of project.

3. Does the improvement require both high technical and high Change Leadership capability?

In this case, it is unlikely to be a good first Black Belt project. Ultimately, however, I believe it’s where the Black Belt’s ambition should lie. It is in this space where any improvement becomes possible.

A Black Belt Project Selection Checklist

In summary, if you are an organisation looking to build your Black Belt capability, here are a few ideas to help you select Black Belt level projects. These are not rules, but intended to be helpful guidelines and suggestions, and it is not an exhaustive list. They can be taken individually or together. The intention is that they will help you to match your best chances of improving value to your customer with your most capable improvement people.

  • Is the current system of processes predictable and stable, but consistently giving you results you don’t like eg, predictable lateness or numbers of defects?
  • Is it likely that there will need to be some sophisticated mathematical analysis of the problem and the solution beyond the Green Belt’s current skills?
  • Is the issue costing a large and repeatable amount of time, money, reputation etc?
  • Is the issue complex, with the specialists or managers unable to agree on a way forward?
  • Is the issue coming from outside the organisation and requires going into the supply chain or the customer’s processes?

As a parting thought, remember: a core aspect of the change leadership role is to provide coaching and technical support to the organisation’s Green and Yellow Belts, and to help senior managers to identify the best chances for improvement within the organisation. These are projects that the Black Belt should always take on.


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