Over the last twenty years, Six Sigma has moved on from being just a concept and a goal. It is now a business necessity to deliver operational excellence and customer satisfaction. The hard benefits of Six Sigma have been well-documented; several companies across the globe have reported savings of billions of dollars from their Six Sigma implementations. Lead implementers such as GE have benefited beyond the financial returns from Six Sigma. They have succeeded to integrate the methodology as part of their operating culture. More importantly, they now use the process as a key input to building future leaders.

The critical success factors for successful Six Sigma implementation include:

High level of senior management involvement to ensure that the implementation delivers long-term benefits to the business A complete infrastructure that works to integrate the Six Sigma process into the operational policies to ensure that the deployment weaves into the culture Carefully selected, full-time personnel who are assigned the role of Black Belts to lead project teams to success
The role of the Black Belts has been well documented. They are full-time personnel responsible for leading improvement projects within the business. They are carefully selected and nurtured to serve this role. After two to three years, they are then reassigned meaningful operational roles within the business. Equally important, if not more so, while benchmarking the best implementations, companies have effectively used this two year tenure as a key intervention to groom future leaders for their businesses. It is not surprising that Jack Welch while Chairman at GE said that he would not be surprised if the next CEO of GE after Jeff Immelt would have tenured as a Black Belt some time in his/her career.
In India many leading Indian companies have registered growth rates in excess of 20% compounded annually over the last three years. Today these companies have aggressive growth plans within the country. They are also scanning new opportunities across the globe. However, the one factor that can limit the rapid future progress of such organizations will be the ability to identify, train and groom future leaders. Many of these companies have an active Six Sigma implementation process that has delivered substantial financial savings. Learning from the best, they can now leverage this success to overcome the shortage of talent. They must invest into leadership development as part of their Six Sigma implementation.
Most literature on leadership focuses on the attributes of a leader. Simply defined, leadership is the ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute towards the effectiveness and success of the organizations.

Some of the critical leadership attributes include:

  • Lead challenges from the front
  • Ability to listen and set the direction
  • Mentorship and ability to manage change

All these abilities are put to test during the tenure of a Black Belt. For example:

  • Black Belts are assigned to challenging projects that do not have a known solution. Very often, several teams have tried to work on such projects with little success.
  • They lead cross functional teams and are required to manage change issues without any real authority.
  • During their tenure, they motivate and mentor Green Belts who in turn juggle between working on projects and meeting the demands of their routine and regular work.
  • Without an active hierarchy within the business, Black Belts engage with the leadership (Champions and Executives) and also with peers and juniors to get their projects to succeed.
Carefully selecting, training and mentoring Black Belts is therefore a two-pronged strategy to generate financial gains over the short term and leadership development over the longer term.
What are the best practices that such companies actively use to select and nurture Black Belts to take on future leadership roles in business.

Leadership Attribute

Black Belt Responsibility

Leading challenges Taking on projects to achieve breakthrough results.
Leading from the front Team Leader for cross functional teams and getting the necessary knowledge from Subject Matter Experts.
Change management Implementing solutions cross functionally and sustaining gains for long standing problems of the company.
Mentorship Facilitating Green Belts on their projects to ensure these smaller intra-functional projects are successful.
Communication Skills Communicate with Senior Management, Champions, Deployment Leaders, Team Members/ Green Belts and others in the organization on various aspects of the project.
Ability to manage variation Controlling process variation and taking decisions based on use of statistical tools.
Project management Ensuring completion of projects (own and mentored projects) on time with optimal use of resources.
Black Belt Selection
If these people are being groomed as possible future leaders in business, the selection of the right candidates as Black Belts is crucial. Many companies in the haste to get their Six Sigma deployment off the ground, delegate this important task to the operating managers. This may be sufficient from a Six Sigma perspective but not from a longer term view to build leaders.
At the best companies, the tenure as a Black Belt is assigned after careful consideration and active selection. The criteria are well-defined and communicated to all within the business.

What are some of the salient points while defining the rigorous criteria?

  • The expectations from the role
  • The opportunities and benefits from the role and the likely growth that the individual can expect on successful completion of the tenure.
  • Superior past performance for several years
  • Prior experience with project activity
  • Minimum years of experience in the business
The process of selection must involve people from senior management, HR and Six Sigma deployment. This requires detailed planning to ensure that the selection is not compromised to accommodate the speed of implementation. Taking time here, particularly in the initial years of deployment, sends the right message to the organization about the importance of the role. In fact selecting the right people also ensures that the Six Sigma implementation is successful.

Training for Black Belt

Once selected, the Black Belts need to be provided the tools, skills and knowledge to deliver their role. The training should be comprehensive and balanced between the methodology and tools, team skills and change management. The training should include at a minimum the following:
  • Gaining competency on the Six Sigma tool set: This comprises four to five weeks of intensive classroom training on the methodology and the tools to solve business critical problems
  • Team Facilitation Skills: Black Belts are required to lead teams while working on selected problems. The team members are subject matter experts and could be from various departments/functions.
  • Change Management: Very often, the issues selected are of long standing nature. These are areas where resolutions of problems have yielded little or no success in the past. The progress in such cases could require breaking away from established conventions and working methods. In such instances Black Belts need to overcome resistance to change issues invariably.
In addition, some of the best companies, who have integrated Leadership Development programs, insist that the Black Belts must complete such a process during their tenure.

Application of the New Knowledge

As this training is new, the Black Belts need to be actively supported and mentored during the process. This role typically is owned by the Master Black Belts. All learning converts to competence through theory, practice and then action. While acquiring new competence, people move through a cycle of subconscious incompetence to subconscious competence. This can take several experiences (projects) to achieve. This in turn happens through repetitive application of the learning in different assignments. It is a mistake to assume that working on a single project is sufficient to internalize and gain expertise on the new knowledge. At the best companies, Black Belts need to complete at least four projects over their tenure to demonstrate their competence for leadership positions.

Organizations should plan the tenure of Black Belts carefully to ensure that their initial assignments are in familiar surroundings of people and domain. Later in their tenures they could move on to projects covering newer domains and people. This provides the Black Belts challenges to learn more about new business domains and interact/ influence newer managers and employees with their ideas. They then get an opportunity to hone their leadership skills. After all, the softer leadership skills of persuasion, motivation, influencing others and leading by example are more significant leadership traits than the hard tools of Six Sigma.

Another key leadership skill is the ability to mentor others. This can be effectively achieved by getting the Black Belts to mentor Green Belts on their respective project activities. This provides them with increased responsibility of not solving problems themselves but enabling and motivating others in teams to gain competence and confidence under their stewardship. After all, to quote Dwight Eisenhower, ?Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do what you want done because he wants it?.

Assessment and Reviews

During the leadership development process, quarterly feedback to the individuals involved enables them to make behavioural changes, if needed, during their tenure itself. The feedback sessions should be a mix of formal and informal reviews. These should encompass all the leaders and team members that the Black Belt has actively interacted with during the period. Doing the assessment and providing feedback at the year end, or at the time of regular performance appraisals or at the end of the tenure period is counterproductive. This will only serve as an evaluation rather than a process of change and competence building. Also, the assessment and feedback will further lose relevance if the barometer of success is the project completion or results only.

Post the Tenure
Those who have gone through the process and have demonstrated enhanced competence over the two year tenure should be assigned new jobs carefully. Such jobs should utilize and challenge the skills that they have gained during the training period. Challenging roles should be identified for such individuals such that they continue their development and are able to interact with the senior leadership team on a continual basis. The temptation to get them back to a senior position in the same areas from where they come from or retain them to continue in the Six Sigma role will not benefit the organization over the longer term.
In many instances, managers think short-term and are not willing to let go of their carefully selected Black Belts to other functions and Divisions of the business. Even the senior leaders shy away from making such commitments at the start of the initiative. This becomes a deterrent in the growth of the Six Sigma initiative and also the growth of the individual. It is not surprising therefore that many companies see several of the Black Belts leave the company during the tenure period itself. There is an acute shortage of good leaders in Indian business. With the ambitious growth rates that we are expected to see, the future of many companies depends upon their ability to have the right leaders to make their visions a reality. The time to invest into building capable leaders in now and using Black Belts will provide companies an immediate return on their investment.
One in a series of thought articles from Breakthrough Management Group India
BMGI is the world's leading provider of consulting for Performance Excellence. Specializing in Lean, Six Sigma, Innovation, Strategy Deployment, Enterprise Process Management, and Environmental Certification, BMGI works with leading organizations around the globe to help "in-source" new capability and develop new core competencies. Headquartered in Longmont, CO, US, BMGI developed a loyal clientele that today exceeds 200 active businesses in industries as diverse as healthcare, airlines, financial services, telecommunications, chemical, and discrete manufacturing. BMGI has offices in 12 countries and has more than 150 employees worldwide. Our India office is located at Mumbai.
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The Bottom-line Over the next few years, sustainability reporting will become a fundamental method for measuring, disclosing, and strengthening the contributions of business to sustainable development. Correspondingly, sustainability reporting will become an essential component of any integrated approach to corporate responsibility. The experience across the globe has demonstrated that investors, consumers and regulators reward a corporation for its sustainability performance, if it is brought to their attention in a credible and structured manner. Does your organization report CR performance? If yes, then is it aligned to GRI guidelines "If not, then is this not the right time to start"

One in series of thought articles from Breakthrough Management Group India BMGI is the world's leading provider of training & consulting for performance excellence. Specializing in Innovation, Strategy Development, Six Sigma, Lean, Enterprise Process Management and Environmental Certification, BMGI works with leading companies around the globe to help "in-source" new capability and develop new core competencies. Headquartered in Longmont, CO, USA, BMGI has developed a loyal clientele that today exceeds 200 active businesses in industries as diverse as healthcare, financial services, telecommunications, chemical and manufacturing. BMGI has offices in 12 countries and has more than 150 employees worldwide. Our India office is located at Mumbai.