There are a variety of ‘ranks’ in continuous improvement environments. The belt system originated with Six Sigma, but has spread to Lean. Typically, Green Belts are people who have been trained in a general manner to do basic projects. Black Belts have more expertise, and are capable of coaching and mentoring teams. Master Black Belts are the top experts who have the skills to ‘train the trainers’ and create more Black Belts.
Many companies that issue certifications. Some certify internal employees only in support of their own business. Other certifications come from third parties that specialize in training.
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Always keep in mind the quality of the certification. In some cases, the title could be little more than a check-the-box exercise. Some hired companies are reluctant to fail their clients in their courses—bad for business. As a result, titles are an indicator of expertise, but not always a completely definitive measure. I, for example, had experience in well over a hundred kaizens before I went through a certification process of any sort. Although I had not certification at the time, I had the skills to guide teams towards substantial results. Lack of a certification does not preclude expertise in the same way that having a certification does not guarantee it.
Don’t blindly follow the direction of a Black Belt. While they have experience, team members possess great intelligence. Use the advice of a Black Belt to support the decision-making process, not replace it.
A well-developed Black Belt system does provide a great deal of value. It provides a way to audit the performance of those who are leading and training your people. It also provides standardization to the training and development process that helps unify the way a company is practicing continuous improvement. Plus, since many certification programs require Black Belts to actually lead projects, it confirms that the individual has the cability to drive real results.
Black Belts also provide differentiators among similarly experienced individuals. While certifications don’t provide a guarantee of future performance, they do show that an individual is focused on self-improvement and has the drive to set and attain personal goals. Those that have taken on a meaningful certification process should be recognized for their efforts.
Finally, make sure that Black Belts share the wealth. Black Belts in your organization should spread their expertise around the organization.
Create a plan to develop key personnel in your organization. Wherever your company is in its Lean journey, you should have development plans for its people. Not everyone will be selected to be a Black Belt, but the progress people make on their individual development will be an indicator of how successful they will be in a formal training program.