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.


Here’s Why You Should Start Work Before the Sun Rises

By Scott Vollero

Millions of Americans wake up each day to alarm clocks, probably swearing mildly at being awoken from slumber. But some highly-productive people are leaning into early rising. Can you imagine waking up before the sun rises, say at 4 a.m.? Sound impossible or a certain way to kill your social life? You might reconsider your 6 a.m. wakeup time after reading this article.

The Wall Street Journal and several other sources are claiming that some of the most productive people are doing their best work when everyone else is asleep. The reason they cite for why getting up before the rooster is awake is such a productivity boost? No distractions. At those hours, there are no people around to bug them, no new emails coming into the box, no flood of social media messages.

It’s Not Just for Business…

It’s not just business productivity that improves when there are no distractions. Personal productivity is also improved. Some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds stick to an early schedule, including Tim Cook, head of Apple, who actually gets up at 3:45.

Does it kill your social life? Perhaps, but it also prevents people from making evening mistakes that could rob quality of life, like going out drinking or eating too much after dark. And for the people who are early risers, most are surrounded by people all day in high-pressure jobs. Reclaiming two hours early in the morning before anyone can reach them is like getting a mini-vacation all to your own every day.

So what do these people do during the wee hours of the morning? A popular early morning activity is hitting the gym or spending quality time with family before the work day hits. Some work on their most challenging work-related tasks to free up the rest of the day for lighter work. Others spend time on personal projects like learning a new language, personal reading, or mastering a skill. When you’re up super-early and you’re alone with your thoughts, the things you’ve been neglecting to do for yourself can bubble up to the surface.

Scott Vollero’s Tips on Rising Early

How do you become an early riser? First, you need a reason for doing it. Even if it’s just curiosity. Remind yourself of why you want to wake up early before going to bed. Place the alarm clock well out of arm’s reach. A good place is on the way to the bathroom because that’s where most people go when they get out of bed.

Keep your shoes nearby the bed and put them on as soon as you wake up. Most people find it very hard to go back to sleep with their shoes on. Also, don’t forget to eat. You’re going to need energy in the early morning. Make it something simple that you can grab, like overnight oats.

It’s also best not to yank your sleep schedule back two hours at once unless you have the space to deal with the sleep issues. For a gradual stepping into the early hours, set your alarm back 15 minutes each night until you reach 4 a.m. Know that you’re going to need to sleep earlier as you do this, so schedule your day so you can get in the bed earlier than you’re used to.

What you do with your newfound time is up to you. Even just sitting with your thoughts can be a very restful thing to do. Most people only get a few moments for themselves when they are on vacation or on an airplane, and that’s if they don’t fill up the time with distractions. Try purposefully putting yourself into a non-distracting environment by waking up early. You may find that you really enjoy it and the productivity boost.