You just became the proud owner of the title “Lean (Six Sigma) Black Belt” (or any other color for that matter)? Congratulations! But what, in fact, does this exactly mean? In any case, it means you invest in yourself or the organization you work for invests in its people. Good for you. But a lot of side notes can be made about the recent, totally uncontrolled proliferation in belt colors, titles, certificates and certifying organizations related to Lean and/or Six Sigma. Does such type of Lean certification actually imply a certain competence, or is it a fool’s bargain?
No External Certification of Your Lean System
Certification implies that the certifying organization attests that the certified person meets certain, predetermined requirements regarding their knowledge and skill in a certain competency. This has quite some implications. First, it means that there is an agreement about these requirements. This immediately makes it tricky. Then doesn’t Toyota call it the Toyota Production System, Danaher the Danaher Business System and Michelin the Michelin Way? Every organization develops its own production or business system resulting in their own ways of working, based upon the more general Lean principles and concepts. This system should support the organization’s specific purpose, agree with its vision and be aligned to its strategy.
This means that external, third party certification can only be applicable to general knowledge. The applied knowledge of how Lean is used at your company, and the real competency and skill of one of your associates in this application, cannot be certified externally. To put it differently: who, other than your organization yourself, can in fact define the final attainment targets if you want your associates to properly contribute to your organization’s vision and be aligned to your strategy? How would you know whether an external trainer correctly conveys the right messages regarding the themes that are important to you? Particularly if they don’t know your business, your processes and your shop floor and never actually worked in such an environment?
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Lean
Following on from this, it is interesting to ask why organizations often choose for an external training for such important topics. Or is it? When it truly is part of my organization’s vision and strategy it would be important to me to have my teams trained by our own people. People that thoroughly know our mission, vision and strategy. Because of this I am very wary of companies that want me to train their people, if it isn’t part of a train-the-trainer strategy and an effort to develop the company’s own system in parallel.
An external trainer can even be harmful to the proper positioning of internal trainers, coaches and leaders. This can be crucial in the role that these people need to play in the change process that is unavoidable when properly integrating Lean in the company’s vision and strategy. And since we are now talking about credibility: why, in fact, do organizations even shamelessly accept such silly titles such as Black Belt or Change Agent when the whole idea is that they need to intensively and continuously engage with and involve shop floor associates in making the strategy work? Ever thought about what the operators at the machine or line will think and say?
Lean Certification: a Fool’s Bargain?
Finally, certification also implies that there is such thing as a commonly accepted, independent institution that determines and manages the Lean body-of-knowledge and its certification requirements. And additionally, that there is an independent, separate organization authorized and accepted to actually certify people and organizations. But this is not the case. There is no generally accepted and agreed body-of-knowledge or minimum curriculum. There is (at least in the Netherlands) no independent certification body.
The consequence of all this is an uncontrolled proliferation of “certificates” and “certifying” organizations. In fact, it mostly concerns consultants that both train and certify. Interestingly, typically everyone also passes the test… For me, the whole thing just undermines the value of whatever certificate people show me. I’d rather ask them where they worked and what their system was. And what their specific role was with regards to this system.
So whenever you think of sending your people to these type of trainings, request such certificates, or introducing the titles going with them, think again. You might be looking at a fool’s bargain in the end…
Thanks for sharing your views on certifications. My query may be slightly off-topic from the main point of this article.
As a solo freelance business/IT consultant, I have been struggling, over the past few years, with making a decision around acquiring a certificate (Lean or Six Sigma BB etc), knowing fully well that my previous certificates (CSCP, CPIM from APICS) did not add much to my overall expertise in solving business problems. I ended up paying money only to acquire a label.
However, the market out there (for business advice / consulting for business improvement etc) does seem to be dictated by a requirement to hire consultants who wear labels. I see many advertisements, especially from large companies, that simply filter out candidates that do not have a Lean or Black/Green Belt. Sometimes, I think that maybe, to get a foot in the door, I should really acquire a certificate. However, my heart still is averse to that idea. Meanwhile, I see many opportunities slip by, simply because some Project Sponsor blindly eliminates qualified, experienced business practitioners from the selection process, just because they do not have the label.
I have tried approaching small & medium-sized entrepreneurs to help them with their operational problems by adopting the Lean concepts, however, it is an uphill battle to convince them to invest in these ideas, as they simply either ignore the problems around them or think that they are too small to adopt such best practices. I have gained some Lean project experience by working with a small network of Lean SS BB certified consultants, who were kind enough to involve me in their projects, as an external hand. But still this is pretty limited in scale & scope, and I feel that I could contribute much more.
What should be the course of action for people like me, who aspire to serve customers and help embrace the Lean/TPS mindset of continuous improvement, but are not wearing any label? How do I start to get the first opportunities to showcase my commitment to the practice of Lean (and related Improvement concepts) to make our companies & communities better?
Your experience and advice in this matter will be highly helpful.
Let me start with saying that if someone asks me to show my certifications in Lean or in Six Sigma, I would have to disappoint them… I don’t have them. I fulfilled the role of MBB at a GE Plastics JV and I worked in several Lean oriented companies (like Valeo and Alstom). But I don’t have a certificate as a Lean something or whatever. It doesn’t hamper me at all in doing what I what I’m doing. I never had the question either to be honest.
I wish to believe that my resume and myself represent something my (potential) client is interested in, in view of certain challenges he faces. And as well, I hope to always be able to work with clients that look beyond the certification. If they don’t, and use the certificate as a criterion, I would really hesitate to even work with them.
So does a certificate help you get the jobs you are talking about? Maybe yes. But are you going to do what you want to do? And are your clients going to do what they need to do? I don’t know.
Personally I think you should gain the experience necessary to do what you want to do and where you want to do it. This is not done through a certificate, but through career choices. At what company you will be able to gain that experience? In what roles? Pursue that first if you are serious. Your resume, your experience and your personality will then later do the selling. Not your certificate. As Michael Balle once wrote: “In Lean their is no expertise, there is only experience.”
Don’t think the Japanese worry too much about belts and certs, just focus on the processes with the people. Great article, Thanks for sharing.
I truly support all what you wrote and mentioned bur sadly the reality maybe harsh for others. I have a British friend who spend almost 15-17 years in Toyota or Nissan UK (not recall which). He applied to other companies in UK who demanded him to provide a certification. He was shocked and argued a lot with thme about his achievements …etc. Finally he was rejected rejected. I personally was rejected 4 months ago because I was not a holder of a Lean black belt.