This Little-Known “Black Belt” Can Be a Big Boost to Your Business

By Scott Vollero

Is Lean Six Sigma Greek to you?

It’s well worth the effort. According to the Project Management Institute, project managers with PMP certification earn 20% more than their non-certified peers. They’re also more marketable, an especially important criterion for independent project management and process efficiency consultants who move freely between short- and medium-term engagements.

“Taking the PMP exam was one of the best career decisions I’ve everLean Six Sigma relies on the Six Sigma methodology. Six Sigma was developed back in the 1980s by Motorola, a Japanese conglomerate best known in the U.S. for its communications equipment, and quickly adopted by forward-thinking global organizations such as General Electric.

The system relies on tight control of every measurable process, cross-organizational buy-in (often enforced to the point of “managing out” key players who aren’t on board), easily repeatable and scalable steps, and quantitative measurement methodologies that rely heavily on the precepts of advanced statistical analysis.

LSS Black Belt: The Mark of Champions

Lean Six Sigma is a straightforward discipline, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to master. Even the most talented managers and executives take years to become experts in Lean Six Sigma. It’s worth their time and effort to do so, as upward mobility is directly correlated with LSS fluency in many organizations.

LSS has several different levels, each corresponding to a higher degree of fluency (and, eventually, mastery):

  • White Belt: LSS White Belts are relative newbies. They’re expected to understand the principles of Lean Six Sigma so that they can effectively support the activities of LSS experts, but they don’t direct, manage, or even participate in LSS projects on a regular basis.
  • Yellow Belt: Yellow Belts are “LSS aware,” meaning their understanding of LSS processes is sophisticated enough to directly inform their duties. However, their roles in actual LSS projects are basic and usually peripheral.
  • Green Belts: Green Belts have documented, verified LSS project experience and can be trusted with ownership of LSS project tasks.
  • Black Belts: Black Belts are LSS experts who take ownership of entire LSS projects, often directing multiple Green Belts (and sometimes Yellow Belts) over the course of time-limited engagements. Black Belts are usually senior directors, VPs, or C-level executives. They’re integral to the LSS system; without their efforts, projects are far less likely to be completed on time and to satisfaction. Not surprisingly, they’re highly sought after, well-compensated, and frequently lured away from their current employers by competitors. Many choose to work as consultants — hired guns who shop their services to the highest bidder.
  • Master Black Belts: Master Black Belts are usually C-level executives or veteran consultants who live, eat, and breathe LSS. They’ve often graduated beyond project management, at least of individual projects. Instead, they serve as “sponsors” or “champions” of Black Belts. Due to rigorous certification requirements, there are relatively  few Master Black Belts relative to lower LSS tiers.

Beyond LSS: Perfecting Project Management

The Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt aren’t the only marks of managerial expertise. For managers and executives who specialize in larger projects, Project Management Professional (PMP) certification is equally important, if not more so.

The PMP certification exam has 200 multiple-choice questions, so it’s no snooze. To qualify for it, you need to have 35 hours of project management education and either a) a two-year degree and 7,500 hours of experience leading and directing projects, or b) a four-year degree and 4,500 hours of project leadership experience. To maintain your certification, you need to earn at least 60 professional development units (PDUs) every three years — typically achievable through a mix of hands-on and classroom instruction.

It’s much easier to break the ice with new clients when you can tout such a well-regarded credential.” — Scott Vollero, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

Certified PMPs break through for a simple reason: they’re actually better at managing complex or challenging projects than their non-certified peers, even those with years of practical experience. A recent Project Management Institute study found that, when organizations certify at least one-third of their managers, they “complete more of their projects on time, on budget and meeting original goals.”

In other words, PMP certification is directly correlated with organizational success. Companies that pay for PMP certification aren’t simply investing in their employees’ marketability. They’re investing directly in their own success, provided they’re able to retain certified PMPs or hire and train new PMPs to account for churn.

What Other Professional Certifications Are Worth Pursuing?

That’s the $64,000 question. (Actually, given how well management and efficiency gurus are compensated, it’s probably more like the $640,000 question — or the $6.4 million question, if you include deferred compensation and company stock options.)

The short answer is, it depends. (You’ve heard that before.) The longer answer is: if you’re established in your career, but seeking to pursue new types of opportunities, move up in the ranks, or change direction altogether, it may well be worth your time and money to hire an executive coach to discuss the most effective professional development strategies; if you’re a managerial neophyte, your first few assignments or contracts will likely dictate where you devote your professional development energies. (Was that long enough?)

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Efficiency experts and project management professionals are always in high demand, and they’re likely to be even more so as the economy grows increasingly globalized, automated, and lean. Moving up the ranks of Lean Six Sigma and notching a PMP certification into your “Belt” are surefire ways to stay one step ahead of the competition.