Six Sigma is about techniques and tools and statistics—but the results of Six Sigma depend on the people applying the techniques and tools and statistics. In Six Sigma initiatives, there are five key players:
Regardless of the roles played by participants in the Six Sigma initiative, they must all have full responsibility for their individual areas. Simply put, to be responsible is to be accountable, trustworthy, and dependable. It’s important that all your participants recognize this as their charter: from green belts to executive leaders, they need to exercise responsibility in all that they do to achieve optimum outcomes.
- Executive leaders: to commit to Six Sigma and to promote it throughout the organization
- Champions: to fight for the cause of black belts and remove barriers
- Master black belt: to serve as trainer, mentor, and guide
- Black belts: to work full-time on projects
- Green belts: to assist black belts part time
It’s vital to understand and define key operational roles from the start. All the key players should know what’s expected of them and how all of the roles work together in the Six Sigma initiative. Each of the roles has a clearly defined set of responsibilities.
Roles of the Executive Leaders
The key role of executive leaders is to decide to do Six Sigma and to publicly endorse it and promote it throughout the organization. They must reinforce the comprehensive scope of Six Sigma to engage everyone’s support and participation. It’s important that the Six Sigma initiative involve the entire organization: that point cannot be emphasized enough. As you begin your initiative, visible and vital leadership is crucial. It rallies the employees, it lends legitimacy to your projects, and it sends the clearest signal that you are committing to Six Sigma to achieve major company priorities.
Leaders should show determination. They need to be resolute in believing that Six Sigma will succeed. So, after the initial fanfare of introducing Six Sigma, executives should be determined to get the training, understand the savings, perpetuate the use of metrics, showcase black belt achievements, mark key milestones, and keep the overall initiative on track.
Jack Welch, the CEO who started Six Sigma at General Electric, called Six Sigma “part of the genetic code” of future leadership at that company. Welch could be considered the ideal executive leader for Six Sigma because an executive’s responsibility, ultimately, is to make sure that Six Sigma becomes part of the “genetic code” of the company. From the top down and throughout the organization, executive leaders can inspire and promote a Six Sigma culture that continually produces results. For example, General Electric has encouraged its executives to promote Six Sigma by linking it to compensation, tying part of the bonuses for top executives to Six Sigma implementation. That incentive sends the message about the importance of Six Sigma and ensures commitment from the top levels down.
Executives also need to actively display confidence—not only in Six Sigma, but also in the people charged with making it work. By actively showing their confidence with rewards and incentives, company leaders inspire sustained commitment and effort. When an executive lets employees know that she believes in them, supports their success, and applauds their talents, employees will try to live up to those expectations. Confidence is a powerful motivator.
And that confidence isn’t expressed only in compliments and congratulations. It can be supported by project metrics: executives can point to specific outcomes as proof that validates their confidence in a given champion, black belt, or project team.
Executives must also show integrity. They need to do what they say they’re going to do. This puts substance behind the statements. By following through on commitments and staying true to a stated purpose, executives demonstrate a high level of ethical leadership. Integrity stimulates loyalty and respect, both of which motivate and inspire employees across the organization.
Finally, executive leaders should be models of patience. This might be very hard to do in a business environment that demands immediate answers and quick results. Six Sigma projects take time; skipping steps or rushing the process will jeopardize the results.
If a company has been functioning at a four-sigma level or lower for the last decade, then surely company leaders can allow six months for projects that will bring its performance up to a six-sigma level. That seems logical—but too often executives and managers are impatient for results.
But to fix problems properly, you need to invest the time to do it right— and that takes patience.
Company executives have a golden opportunity to develop their relationship with employees when they demonstrate their determination, confidence, integrity, and patience. By “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk,” they stand out from the crowd and they show that they’re actively leading and facilitating exciting changes in the organization and that they fully support the employees driving those changes.
Roles of the Champions
A champion is a senior-level manager who promotes the Six Sigma methodology throughout the company and especially in functional groups. A champion understands the discipline and tools of Six Sigma, participates in selecting projects, establishes objectives, serves as coach and mentor, removes barriers, and dedicates resources to support black belts. A champion is closest to the process and “owns” it—monitoring projects and measuring the savings realized.
Champions are critical to the success or failure of any Six Sigma project. The concept of “champion” dates back to the Middle Ages: a champion was someone who took the field to battle for a cause. In Six Sigma, a champion is an advocate who fights for the cause of black belts and overcomes obstacles—functional, financial, personal, or otherwise—so that black belts can do their work.
Depending on the size of a company, champions are drawn from the ranks of the executives and managers. Generally, a champion should be a senior manager who:
Champions are responsible for monitoring and managing each critical element in a Six Sigma project. They need to report up to senior managers about project progress and they need to support their teams. Champions must be sure that the projects they select align with the executive strategy and can be readily understood and embraced by project teams.
- Understands at least the basics about the tools and techniques used in Six Sigma
- Understands and supports Six Sigma
- Has direct access to other senior managers
- Is responsible for the area that is the focus of the Six Sigma project
- Is able to remove barriers for the team and committed to doing so
Champions select black belt candidates, identify project areas, and establish clear and measurable goals for projects. They do whatever it takes to keep the projects on schedule. They must be fully engaged in the process, allotting at least 20 percent to 30 percent of their time to ensuring that black belts are making progress on their projects and effecting lasting changes.
The champion acts as advocate and defender, as mentor and coach. The champion is ultimately responsible for the Six Sigma project. The black belt and project teams hunt defects and waste, but it is the champion who selects the project and monitors progress. Champions must thoroughly understand the strategy and discipline of Six Sigma and be able to educate others about its tools and implementation. Champions direct and mobilize the teams to make lasting change. They also ensure that the teams share what they learn; they transfer the knowledge into other areas and increase the results exponentially.
It should be mentioned that champions are sometimes called project champions to distinguish them from deployment champions. The latter is a senior-level manager, normally reporting to an executive, who is responsible for managing the deployment plan.
What makes a good champion? Here’s a quick example. At a manufacturing company implementing Six Sigma, a champion regularly met with his black belts. At one Six Sigma review (when black belts report to senior-level management), a black belt informed him that she needed to purchase and install a table for sorting defects off-line. It would cost about $17,000, but it would provide an alternative to shutting down the entire line, which would cost far more. The controller told her to go through the normal requisition process and she’d have her table in about four months. That delay would have killed the project right then and there: to submit the project to “business as usual” would have shown little real commitment to supporting Six Sigma. So the champion asked for the data that backed up her request, analyzed it, agreed with it, and then got immediate executive signoff on securing a table the following week.
This is the stuff of a good champion: removing barriers and sending a clear signal that he and upper management are aligned and committed to Six Sigma. The champion does whatever it takes to support the black belts.
Roles of the Master Black Belts
This role requires the highest level of technical proficiency. It is often fulfilled initially by someone working with your implementation partner, an outside expert engaged in introducing, training, and supporting your Six Sigma initiative. The master black belt serves as your trainer, mentor, and guide. He teaches executive managers the basics, helps them select the right people for the project teams, and helps them screen and select projects.
The master black belt is an expert in Six Sigma tools and tactics and a valuable resource in terms of technical and historical expertise. Teacher, mentor, and lead agent of change, the master black belt ensures that the necessary infrastructure is in place and that black belts are trained. Master black belts focus 100 percent of their efforts on process improvement. Because the master black belt is responsible for training and coaching, teaching and communications skills should be considered as important as technical skills in selecting candidates.
A key aspect of the master black belt role is the ability to skillfully facilitate problem solving without actually taking over a project. In this way, your team members have the security of knowing that you’ve chosen the best project, that you’re correctly using the tools, and that you will find the causes of variations—all without losing autonomy, responsibility, or the ability to direct change.
Master black belts are invaluable assets as you begin your Six Sigma initiative. They coordinate and collaborate with the executive managers, and particularly with the champions. They meet regularly and as needed with black belts and green belts, advising and coaching and mentoring them. They keep the executive managers and champions focused on what’s important in selecting projects and implementing Six Sigma.
Once you have your Six Sigma initiative well under way, once you’ve established all the necessary elements, designated and trained people in their roles, started projects, and garnered some results, you can graduate some black belts to the ranks of master black belts. The best candidates for this promotion are black belts who have led projects successfully and who have been strong leaders and change agents. The best master black belts are black belts who are good thinkers, both creative and analytical. Of course, they should also really want to commit more fully to the Six Sigma initiative.
Growing your own master black belts ensures that your initiative will not only survive, but also succeed and be sustained. Six Sigma initiatives must be self-perpetuating; as your team members gain experience and some become master black belts, you’re well on your way to sustaining Six Sigma results.
Roles of the Black Belts
A black belt leads a team on a selected project on a full-time basis, working strictly on defining, measuring, analyzing, improving, and controlling processes to reach desired outcomes. Black belts do nothing else; their only responsibility is to root out variation and identify the vital few factors. They devote 100 percent of their energies to the projects, supported by project team members.
Some organizations use their black belts only part time. This is a business decision that depends on the situation, particularly on the urgency of the motivation for implementing Six Sigma. However, you can’t expect the greatest results if you don’t commit the resources necessary to achieve them.
Although champions are responsible for getting the bottom-line results, because they select the projects and monitor progress, black belts are responsible for doing the work. They are selected to solve problems within the Six Sigma framework and they are trained to be technical leaders in using Six Sigma tools and methods to improve quality. As team leaders and project heads, black belts are central to Six Sigma success.
So, why the martial arts terminology? Because a black belt’s sole function is to focus on disciplined problem solving, practice specific skills, use a defined set of tools, and defeat the enemy—variation.
SELECTING BLACK BELTSHow does a champion select employees to be black belts? Here’s an organized approach to evaluating your employees in terms of their black belt potential. (This survey tool was validated with 100 successful black belts to correlate threshold value.)
Rate the employee in each of these 11 key areas on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 = excellent; 4 = above average; 3 = average; 2 = below average; 1 = unacceptable).
Process and product knowledge ____
Basic statistical knowledge ____
Knowledge about your organization ____ Communication skills ____
Self-starter, motivated ____ Open-minded ____
Eager to learn about new ideas ____ Desire to drive change ____
Team player ____
Results track record ____
A candidate who scores at least 38 has excellent black belt potential. Successful black belts generally share the following traits:
- They work well on their own and also in groups.
- They remain calm under extreme pressure.
- They anticipate problems and act on them immediately.
- They respect their fellow workers and are respected by them.
- They inspire others.
- They are able to delegate tasks to other team members and coordinate their efforts.
- They understand and recognize the abilities and limitations of their fellow workers.
- They show a genuine concern for others, for what they need and want.
- They accept criticism well.
- They are concerned about the current processes and results, and they want to improve the system.
- They have the intelligence and are interested in learning how to apply the Six Sigma tools.
Choose your black belt candidates carefully. It takes certain qualities to be a black belt; training develops these qualities, but it can’t create them. It’s essential to choose the right people for these roles that are central to Six Sigma.
Empower your black belts and assure them of your total support for their projects. Their access to information or data, from within your company and from outside, and their interpretation of it must be unrestricted. By applying Six Sigma statistical tools in tandem with critical data, black belts can mine hidden dollars. As long as you and other champions and your implementation partner are available on-site to mentor them, black belts will provide the return on investment you want.
Roles of the Green Belts
Green belts assist black belts in their functional area. They work on projects part time, usually in a limited, specific area. They apply Six Sigma tools to examine and solve chronic problems on projects within their regular jobs. In this way, knowledge is being transferred and used in even narrow applications.
They also help black belts accomplish more in less time. They might help collect or analyze data, run experiments, or do other important tasks in a project. They are team members with enough understanding of Six Sigma to share the tools and transform company culture from the ground up. Working in a complementary fashion with the charter of executive leadership, champions, and black belts, green belts are essential “worker bees” driving bottom-line results. Depending on the organization and the situation, green belts can be responsible for forming and facilitating Six Sigma teams and managing projects.
Roles of the Project Team Members
Finally, we have the employees who work as members of project teams. They come from various functions and they work part time on projects. They are very familiar with the processes, the “resident experts.” They have the least training in Six Sigma, maybe none at all. They are accountable as individuals and together for specific tasks and, when they are responsible for a specific aspect of a project, they will often make decisions.
Recognition and Rewards
There’s one important note to interject here. In discussing requirements, roles, and responsibilities, we should also emphasize two more R’s—recognition and rewards. The executive team should create rewards that employees can earn in the short term for exceptional efforts and rewards for team members who meet their individual and team goals.
It’s idealistic to think that employees will support and promote Six Sigma simply because it’s a way to satisfy the customers and to make bigger profits. After all, how many CEOs would buy that line? They’d expect to share in the financial gain of any initiative in which they’ve participated. The same is true of employees. They expect and deserve recognition and, of course, rewards.
Rewards can take the form of advancement. For example, choose master black belt and black belt candidates from among your top performers and make Six Sigma a path to promotion and for managerial advancement for managers who are in charge of motivating people.
Another reward to offer is a compensation plan. To cover the full scope of Six Sigma activities, create compensation plans and progression plans for a full two years. Here’s an example. To engage everyone throughout GE in Six Sigma, Jack Welch made the following statements:
In his comments in the 1997 GE Annual Report, Welch made the following statement: “Six Sigma is quickly becoming part of the genetic code of our future leadership. Six Sigma training is now an ironclad prerequisite for promotion to any professional or managerial position in the Company— and a requirement for any award of stock options.”
- To get promoted, you must be trained in Six Sigma.
- 40 percent of top management bonuses are tied to Six Sigma goals.
- Stock options are tied to Six Sigma performance.
As a result of this measure and others, GE had few problems engaging managers and employees in its Six Sigma initiative.
Roles of the Consultants
It might be wise to hire an outside consultant to help you start with Six Sigma. If you decide to do so, here are some suggestions for making the most appropriate choice.
First, you need to work with someone who preaches and practices Six Sigma. When you’re talking about implementing a strategy that’s going to change not only your outcomes, but also your processes and the deployment of your people, you’d better do it right. You need to choose an outside partner who’s demonstrated an ability to help organizations get the most out of Six Sigma. After all, you want your investment to pay off as fast and as effectively as possible. Your consultant should help you plan and structure your initiative so you can move toward self-sufficiency quickly.
The consultant should be focused on knowledge transfer, on showing you how to solve problems through the most effective methods and fix process defects with the right tools, so you can transfer that knowledge throughout your organization.
A quick way to distinguish among outside consultants is to look at how they structure their own employee reward systems. We all need to make money, of course. But here’s a big difference. Some consultants are rewarded for time, on the basis of their billable hours. Others are rewarded for results, on the basis of the speed and size of the client’s return on investment. Both groups of consultants are committed to your success in theory, but only the latter consultants are investing in the financial results with you.
Finally, when choosing an outside consultant for Six Sigma, check credentials. Lots of organizations purport to be Six Sigma experts, so you should ask for proof of their claims: request references and actual case studies from clients. You want to know how they contributed to the outcomes. You want proof of results—that’s what Six Sigma is all about.
Role of the Controller
The controller is an often neglected but important player in Six Sigma initiatives. It’s crucial to get advance buy-in from your controller and important— especially since projects involve company money—to be ‘‘in sync’’ with the controller. You need to be operating from the same monetary baseline: you both need to agree on how you calculate real savings and how you distinguish between hard dollars and soft dollars. In general, hard dollars are savings that are tangible and quantifiable, such as reduced hours, reduced inventory levels, etc., and soft dollars are savings that are intangible, expenses that you avoid, such as not increasing hours, inventory, or physical workspace. If you work together with the controller, she can verify your results, which further validates all your Six Sigma work.
The average black belt improvement project results in a return to the bottom line of about $175,000. A black belt, if deployed properly, will complete four to six projects per year—saving between $600,000 and $1 million. So it’s important not to let the controller waffle about calculating the savings. Controllers who refuse to acknowledge soft versus hard dollar savings can really hurt a Six Sigma project.
Include controllers in your Six Sigma initiative from the outset. They need to know that your executive leadership expects them to cooperate and support your efforts. Make sure you and the controller are in agreement on how you define and assign savings to your projects.
Sometimes controllers can be barriers, as they fear their budgets will be cut if they report the money saved by your projects. For instance, in some companies, if a project saves $10 million in a $100 million budget, the savings will be eliminated, forcing controllers to operate with a $90 million budget. You need to stress that the purpose of Six Sigma projects is to save “hidden” money, not to eliminate it. Although you want to drive that hidden revenue to the bottom line, you will also use it in other areas. When the controllers understand that Six Sigma projects work to reduce costs, not to slash budgets, they will probably want projects to succeed as much as you do.