What Does It Take to Be a Master Black Belt? - ASQ

What Does It Take to Be a Master Black Belt?


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By Gregory H. Watson
Managing partner, Business Systems Solutions Inc.

Master Black Belts (MBBs) are critical to the long-term success of a Six Sigma program, but we have not done much to address the needs of these key people. Being a MBB since 1998, I have had to work through this many times in the context of different organizational cultures. Please allow me to share my personal thoughts on this topic by starting with my definition of an MBB.

MBBs are internal technical consultants who train, coach and mentor an organization’s BBs. They provide technical coaching on the use of tools and oversee Six Sigma projects to help BBs get through stuck points in their analysis. MBBs can help coordinate mega projects that breach functional and process areas, assist business leaders and process owners in the definition of projects and provide routine technical milestone reviews for BB projects.

MBBs also conduct define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) projects in areas of strategic business interest. They help management build an analytical business model and develop enterprise measurement systems to diagnose the performance of balanced scorecard measures to support an organization’s performance priorities. MBBs can serve as the organization’s measurement owners for implementation of its Six Sigma customer dashboard or business scorecard.

MBBs also help build the Six Sigma infrastructure—a database capturing items such as analytical reports, network meetings to develop BBs and internal conferences for spotlighting project results. In short, MBBs create the fundamental infrastructure to ensure Six Sigma is deployed across the company both vertically and horizontally.

MBBs have both managerial and technical responsibilities. A thorough MBB job description might include some of the following managerial activities:

  • Facilitate a business area leadership team in developing an enterprise model and measurement map that is the process architecture for the performance measurement system.
  • Lead the effort to develop a Six Sigma customer dashboard or business scorecard for monitoring the organization’s business y’s and provide rapid diagnosis of any detected issues to the level of the process x’s for definition of DMAIC projects.
  • Coach and advise business leaders in developing a portfolio of Six Sigma projects in their respective business areas.
  • Work with the management team to identify Six Sigma projects that encourage the completion of strategic business objectives.
  • Develop and maintain the project management infrastructure for assigned business area Six Sigma projects.
  • Identify suitable candidates for BB training in support of business leaders and project Champions.

Technical activities of MBBs might include the following:

  • Do training and workshops for Champions, BBs and GBs.
  • Coach and advise BBs in their project work to assure statistical tools are properly used, results are properly interpreted, the DMAIC process is correctly managed and new tools, where appropriate, are applied for situations that are beyond the scope of the initial BB training.
  • Provide technical direction for all Six Sigma projects conducted within a specific business or operating area.
  • Facilitate major cross functional Six Sigma DMAIC and DMADV (design, measure, analyze, define and verify) projects.

What does it take to become an MBB? Here are my personal recommendations for a set of selection criteria. All candidates:

  • Must have completed training and certification as a BB.
  • Should have completed at least 10 BB projects, with topics having both commercial and technical applications.
  • May possess specialized astuteness in business and commercial applications or technical and engineering applications. Role model behavior in personal alignment to organization culture is required.
  • Must have excellent interpersonal communication, facilitation and coaching skills to be able to work across the organization’s functional boundaries and reporting levels.
  • Should have some experience in instruction. All candidates should have the opportunity to conduct a supervised instructorship for a period of three or more BB sessions.
  • Should have exceptional expertise in a specific advanced analytical tool or Six Sigma application, such as design of experiments, regression and analysis of variance, statistical process control, process analysis and lean.

The development program for MBBs should begin with the screening of BB candidates during their certification training and continue through the execution of the first two projects. The process for creating a cadre of professionals capable of meeting the selection criteria and fulfilling the requirements of the position description covers three steps:

  1. The screening step is based on on-the-job performance and results in a recommendation for consideration as an MBB. To pass this initial screening, candidates must convince their business area leaders they possess the necessary skills, aptitude and knowledge required to be MBBs. Each candidate should also have demonstrated a strong competence in both the technical skills of Six Sigma and the interpersonal skills of an executive coach, process team facilitator and technical mentor.
  2. The management team must then determine whether this career move is aligned with the candidate’s long-term career interest and the person can be transitioned to the position at the present time.
  3. Following selection, a candidate is enrolled in MBB training. This is a two-week program whose objective is to prepare the candidate for the experience of becoming a MBB.

Becoming an MBB is not just a matter of training; it also requires a practical demonstration of mastery in coaching, teaching, facilitating, consulting and mentoring. Upon successful completion of the MBB development program, a candidate may choose one of two career specialties:

MBB instructor: This specialty focuses on instruction of both BB and GB training courses. No more than 15 to 20% of an organization’s MBBs should be dedicated completely to training. The program for developing the instructional skills includes a one-on-one approach to developing a master trainer. This includes coaching in the approach to adult education and demonstrating proficiency in classroom presentation and exercise facilitation skills. This development program typically involves demonstration of both classroom skills and project coaching skills over the course of several different waves of BB and GB training conducted under supervised conditions by a seasoned MBB coach.

MBB project manager: This specialty focuses on managing large, cross functional design for Six Sigma (DFSS) projects for either business process reengineering or new product development. The majority of an organization’s MBB resources should be dedicated to coaching business leaders and process owners in the development of a portfolio of projects, mentoring BBs in the accomplishment of their projects or coordinating the cross functional collaboration required to accomplish either major DFSS products or business process reengineering projects.

All MBBs should work collaboratively with the Six Sigma deployment Champion to create a network of internal support to reinforce the Six Sigma skills and competence for all participants in both the BB and MBB programs. As a part of this network, advanced educational opportunities on core technical topics should be developed to assure continuous challenges for improving the skills and competence of all Six Sigma professionals.

By Frederick W. Faltin
Managing partner, the Faltin Group

Six Sigma’s rapid growth in the business sectors and corporate functions across which it has been deployed has led to a correspondingly rapid evolution of the role of MBB. The ranks of MBBs are increasingly filled not only by engineers and statisticians but also by managers, healthcare professionals and CPAs. This dramatic diversity reflects both the broadening of Six Sigma’s domain in the business world and a dichotomy regarding the philosophy and practice of what an MBB should be.

MBBs originated as super BBs whose depth of experience and technical skill made them natural leaders within a company’s Six Sigma community. Their expertise made them the go-to people for help on difficult projects, and this role gradually became formalized as that of MBB. Qualifications likewise became differentiated: A BB might become certified by completing two successful projects, whereas an MBB might earn his or her stripes by mentoring 10 times as many projects. But the focus for both BBs and MBBs remained on cultivating skills that helped the organization build success from within. Many companies continue to employ this “MBB as technical mentor” model with great success.

More recently, however, some prominent companies have consciously chosen to emphasize MBBs’ leadership role over their technical one. The rationale is that the best way to irrevocably embed Six Sigma into the company’s culture is to immerse its future leaders. GE, for example, speaks of making Six Sigma “the genetic code of our future leadership.”(1) These companies recruit MBBs principally on their promise as managers, rather than on their technical aptitude as implementers or mentors. Although it may be too soon to fully assess the long-term impact of this approach, experience suggests the MBB as leader strategy will likely be successful, too.

The relative advantages of each approach are readily discerned. Nonetheless, there are some things all MBBs require for success. The most important is active involvement with senior management. To be effective and visible as influential contributors to the formulation and execution of corporate strategy, MBBs need to report to the most senior leaders of the business unit they serve. In this capacity, MBBs communicate to management the strategic potential of the firm’s Six Sigma resources and convey back to the organization the tangible relevance of each unit’s performance to the success of the company.

The diversity of MBB roles is due more to Six Sigma’s successes than to any issues of role definition encountered along the way. The propagation of Six Sigma from manufacturing and engineering through the service, healthcare and financial services sectors is widely recognized and can be taken for granted. Likewise, applications to design, marketing and administrative corporate functions have long since become well-established. But nowhere does the spread of Six Sigma through sector and function intersect in a timelier manner than in financial applications.

When hardly a week passes without new revelations of corporate scandal, and new legislation threatens business leaders with increasingly severe criminal penalties, one can’t help but wonder if Six Sigma is part of the solution. Efforts to assure legal compliance and restore confidence in corporate financial practices have relied on doing better the very things that allowed instances of fraud to escape notice in the past.

A good case can be made that when used in conjunction with techniques from economics and finance, Six Sigma offers a realistic expectation of detecting malfeasance in near real time by monitoring structural relationships in a company’s finances.(2, 3) This approach enhances management’s access to financial information and strengthens corporate controllership.

The clear societal need for improved corporate governance, along with management’s quest for practices that add value to operations, pose an exciting opportunity for finance- oriented MBBs in all companies to have an unprecedented impact. Along with efforts already underway in other contexts, most notably healthcare,(4) the result may be that a few years from now we’ll be discussing the widespread influence of MBBs not only on global markets but also on society at large.


  1. 1997 Annual Report to Shareholders, General Electric, February 1998.
  2. Donna Faltin and Frederick Faltin, “Toe the Line: No More WorldComs,” Quality Progress, January 2003.
  3. Frederick Faltin and Donna Faltin, WorldCom: Could Six Sigma Have Made a Difference? The Faltin Group, 2002, available upon request.
  4. Richard Stahl, Bradley Schultz and Carolyn Pexton, “Healthcare’s Horizon,” Six Sigma Forum Magazine, February 2003.

By Tom Pearson
Systems scientist, designer, consultant, speaker and author

Another consultant recently told me business improvement was about establishing the proper company culture, Six Sigma programs only perpetuate the problem of managers and analysts who stay in their ivory towers and never dirty their hands with real work, and modern technology just gets in the way of getting the culture right. He had a long list of success stories to prove his point, and even lean sigma was of no interest to him. He was pretty convincing … up to a point.

We’ve all heard similar arguments touting a favored discipline over all others. From statistical quality control to statistical process control, quality assurance, quality control, total quality management, business process reengineering, lean, Baldrige, ISO 9000, Six Sigma and lean sigma, the success stories are similar. The inference is always, “It worked in this case so it must be right in all cases.” The less than successful stories are always ascribed to the competition. How can they all be right? They can’t. Sadly, one size does not fit all.

In the face of ever increasing detail and dynamic complexity, Six Sigma methods are expanding to embrace new tools, such as lean and design for Six Sigma. New technologies including knowledge management and process modeling and simulation are also emerging. MBBs face the challenge of mentoring and coaching BBs on an ever growing body of knowledge. They also serve as subject matter experts in advanced disciplines, such as design of experiments.

The good news is that help is available in the desk reference book, Implementing Six Sigma, Smarter Solutions Using Statistical Methods.(1) The book goes well beyond statistical methods to address almost any topic of interest to Six Sigma teams. The challenge is that MBBs must now become improvement system scientists, continually observing, analyzing and improving business improvement methods for their organization. Successful improvement programs continue to change and evolve over time, and MBBs must continually challenge the assumptions of their present systems; consider changes in the market, technology and the competition; and have the foresight to design and implement effective new methods for future improvements.

The first objective of the MBB improvement system scientist is to understand the complex interdependencies of the business, people and technology issues involved. In addition to the familiar lessons of W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker, MBBs should also read the works of Peter M. Senge and Edward de Bono in preparation for their role. For example, Senge suggests in The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization:(2)

  1. Modern business systems are complex.
  2. See the whole system. Don’t just break it down into a set of critical components to be dealt with individually.
  3. Everyone learns better when he or she can see the global results of local actions across time and space in complex operations.
  4. Simulation is the key technology of future learning organizations.

Meanwhile, de Bono, in his books Serious Creativity(3) and Sur-Petition,(4) gives us powerful tools for building innovation, creativity, communication, cooperation and learning in the organization. Even those who have studied these works in the past can gain substantial benefits by revisiting them from the Six Sigma perspective. For example, exploratory data analysis methods become powerful tools for discovery, creative problem solving and innovation when combined with de Bono’s serious creativity methods.

And new business process modeling and simulation tools help everyone see operational complexities and opportunities for improvement. The true systems scientist is continually testing, learning and improving his or her knowledge theories, methods and procedures. This is an MBB’s most important role.


  1. Forrest W. Breyfogle III, Implementing Six Sigma: Smarter Solutions Using Statistical Methods, second edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
  2. Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Currency/Doubleday, 1990.
  3. Edward de Bono, Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking To Create New Ideas, Advanced Practical Thinking, 1993.
  4. Edward de Bono, Sur-Petition: Creating Value Monopolies When Everyone Else Is Merely Competing, HarperCollins, 1992.

By Mary G. Leitnaker
Associate professor of statistics, University of Tennessee

Improvement initiatives, even when closely tied to statistical methodologies, are not new to business. However, several aspects of the current version of such initiatives should be examined to understand their success. At least three key elements are characteristic of successful Six Sigma programs:

  1. A senior level manager directs the Six Sigma effort. This manager often initiates a BB project, defines its broad scope, ensures its strategic importance, ensures that when appropriate, the organization implements the project and evaluates its results.
  2. Process improvement work is organized around specific projects. BBs will typically devote 75% or more of their time to pursuing projects as defined by senior management.
  3. BBs typically have a small amount of training (sometimes as little as three or four weeks) in statistical methods. Their value is to bring a statistical thinking approach to the solution of problems in areas in which they are experts, including engineering, finance and accounting.

MBBs who have typically completed numerous BB projects often have additional statistical training and add value to the Six Sigma effort by mentoring and coaching BB candidates. Their additional statistical training helps them serve as another resource of statistical knowledge in the organization. The MBB title is often one of recognition; however, many firms use MBBs to help teach BB classes.

One of the negative differences between some Six Sigma programs and previous process improvement programs is the loss of an analytical approach to statistical thinking. I think one of the biggest differences an MBB can make is to include this vital aspect of process study in Six Sigma programs.

In previous process improvement initiatives, there was a firm conviction that process improvement required analytic rather than enumerative studies. In trying to understand and then improve ongoing process behavior, it is necessary to use analytical techniques to help identify critical sources of variation affecting process outcomes. Although many Six Sigma programs do contain these ideas, the list below is, unfortunately, not an uncommon list of topics covered in the course work portion of a BB program:

  • Quality function deployment.
  • Failure mode and effects analysis.
  • Process capability (covered before process control).
  • Probability.
  • Hypothesis testing.
  • Confidence intervals.
  • Correlation.
  • Regression.
  • Analysis of variance.
  • Design of experiments.
  • Process control and control plans.

This list is in the recommended order of process study, so it is clear the BB program has moved away from the analytical study of processes. Instead of using data to study and understand sources of variation, it is recommended data collection and enumerative techniques be done and decisions made based on the false premise that a process is a population.

I believe the loss of an exploratory data analysis approach will become more critical as organizations rely more and more on large databases collected over time as a means to understand process operation. The extension of analytical techniques to the type of data mining methods required for exploring large databases will require an understanding of the analytical approach to process study.

The additional training MBBs receive should contain an emphasis on analytical studies and the use of data mining techniques for analytical process study.

Do you agree or disagree with these comments? Would you like to recommend a question for a future issue? If you would like to comment further, please e-mail your suggestions to the editor at godfrey@asq.org.

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