What Does It Take To Be A Master Black Belt? Part II - ASQ

What Does It Take To Be A Master Black Belt? Part II


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By Ronald D. Snee
Leader, manager and technical expert, Tunnell Consulting

A Master Black Belt (MBB) is a technical leader who enables an organization to integrate Six Sigma in its operations. Experience has shown the speed of integration is directly related to the number and capability of the organization’s MBBs.

The MBB’s role falls into leadership, managerial and technical categories. MBBs have a deep understanding of the Six Sigma methodology at both strategic and operational levels. They also provide leadership by training, coaching and mentoring Black Belts (BBs) and, in some cases, Champions and Green Belts (GBs). They support the efforts of the Champions and leadership teams, particularly in the selection of projects and managing the project hopper. As a result, MBBs give an organization the ability to be self-sustaining in its Six Sigma training and deployment.

Some organizations emphasize MBBs’ leadership and managerial roles while others emphasize their leadership and technical roles. The technical role requires a broader and deeper knowledge of the tools. Any additional technical skills can be obtained through train the trainer sessions. It is far better, however, to develop this knowledge as part of the BB training so a deep understanding of the tools and methods is developed. Those MBBs that do training will need a deeper and broader knowledge of the tools because effective teachers typically have skills and knowledge at least one level deeper than the material they are teaching.

MBBs play other roles as well. In some organizations, they ensure the success of mission critical projects by acting as consultants to the team or team leaders. MBBs should be responsible for making sure process performance metrics are in place and baseline and entitlement data are available and up-to-date for all key processes. This information is important to effective process improvement and control and project selection. MBBs can also identify best practices for process improvement and management and communicate them to the organization.

The skill sets required by MBBs include leadership, Six Sigma technology, teaching, coaching, mentoring, consulting and project management. In my experience, the vital role of leadership is not recognized, and MBBs are not trained in this essential skill. This is becoming increasingly important as companies such as General Electric, Honeywell, 3M, DuPont and American Standard come to see Six Sigma as a leadership development tool and require BB and GB experience for managerial advancement.

By Gerry Hahn
Retired manager of applied statistics, GE Global Research Center

The life of an MBB is not an easy lot, but it can be very rewarding for those who are selected and their organizations. MBBs are essential to a successful Six Sigma effort and provide the glue that ties it all together.

I have seen the role of MBBs evolve over the years. Originally, there was much emphasis on technical know-how. More recently, the focus has broadened. Today’s MBB position is often a steppingstone to a higher management role.

MBBs provide day-to-day leadership to the Six Sigma effort by:

  • Providing a strategic vision for improvement and working toward its fulfillment.
  • Securing continuing commitment and resources from business leaders.
  • Developing and organizing targeted training of the workforce in Six Sigma and participating in providing this training.
  • Helping select and certify BBs to be Six Sigma project leaders.
  • Identifying Six Sigma projects, establishing project teams, helping ensure project success and quantifying project impact.
  • Serving as technical and tactical resources.
  • Being untiring Six Sigma advocates and establishing and maintaining a Six Sigma environment.
  • Being role models for Six Sigma.

To meet these challenges, MBBs must have some unique personal traits. These include a quick and agile mind; unflinching drive, enthusiasm and commitment; a good understanding of the business and its goals; strong technical abilities; a flexible, yet visionary, mindset; uncompromising integrity; and outstanding leadership, communications and diplomatic skills. That’s not a small order!

But even MBBs who have these skills will need others to help them face a sticky situation.

First, they need to achieve the right level of involvement. MBBs are held responsible for the success of the Six Sigma effort and specific projects. Their greatest impact is in selecting the right projects and establishing effective project teams. The right projects have high potential impact and stand a reasonable chance of success. Project team selection starts with finding an effective BB to lead the project.

Then, in collaboration with the BB, the MBB helps identify a project team that is up to the task and has the authority to proceed. Once the project is underway, the MBB should take a behind-the-scenes role and let the team do its job. If everything goes right, there is little left to do other than provide encouragement and ensure the team gets the recognition it deserves.

But things do not always go as planned. MBBs need to be sufficiently savvy and on top of things to be able to recognize problems early and help resolve them. Irrespective of how the project is going, MBBs should use their experience and understanding to provide useful suggestions. This requires a delicate balance between giving the team the freedom to do its job and being sufficiently involved to be a positive force when needed.

Second, in helping make things happen, MBBs need to be positioned to exert friendly clout. They usually do not run any specific line operation, such as manufacturing or engineering, and the leaders and members of the Six Sigma teams generally do not report to them directly, so why should anybody listen to them? MBBs need to ensure there is close collaboration and feedback of information, including performance, to line management. The old adage “speak softly and carry a big stick” has relevance here, and MBBs need to have a handle on the stick.

Third, MBBs need to have excellent rapport with business leaders and the Champion. They can achieve this by:

  • Helping leaders focus on Six Sigma and maintain momentum and interest.
  • Keeping leaders informed of significant progress and challenges.
  • Providing a vision for the future and lobbying for the resources required to make things happen.
  • Making it especially easy for leaders to communicate to the staff and their own managers by providing information in a format that can be readily passed on to others.

On a more technical note, the fourth thing MBBs need to do is ensure the thorough consideration of all key critical to quality (CTQ) issues. Six Sigma projects have often addressed a small number of well-defined CTQs, such as reducing end of line scrap and rework. It is possible, therefore, to overlook the implications on other important CTQs—that is, fail to consider the full impact of proposed improvements on the entire system.

The fifth thing MBBs need to be aware of is the importance of balancing short-term payoffs and long-term business goals while being customer focused. It is vital to gain some big successes early on and show clear and rapidly identifiable payoffs. However, these payoffs just touch on what Six Sigma can do. As Six Sigma receives increased acceptance, organizations need to move upstream and ensure their products are designed to be maximally robust. This requires the organization to excel on all fronts, including the processes it engenders.

It also raises some special challenges in quantifying the impact of improvements. For example, how can an organization quantify the financial impact of on-time delivery or prevention of an early failure? MBBs need to ensure proper emphasis is given to projects that are critical to the business, but whose consequences are difficult or take a long time to measure. The transient nature of the MBB position as a path to higher management might make some MBBs reluctant to take on the riskier and less definitive tasks that long-term business needs demand—but they must.

Finally, it is important for MBBs to evolve second generation training programs. These programs have a number of goals, including:

• To ensure the basic concepts are retained and reinforced.

• To build on lessons learned based on experiences within one’s own business.

• To make available new technology—highlighting approaches that have been found most valuable in applications, but have not been emphasized sufficiently in the original training.

The role of the MBB continues to develop, and the challenges and opportunities for leadership are still evolving. For example, the MBB position is now being combined with other management responsibilities in some organizations, and special issues crop up when Six Sigma is introduced to organizations other than manufacturers. Clearly, the fun for MBBs has just begun!

Thanks to my former colleague, Necip Doganaksoy, for his valuable inputs to this opinion piece.

By Roger Hoerl
Manager of the applied statistics lab, General Electric’s Global Research Center

Success in Six Sigma requires the effective orchestration of several critical roles, including BBs, GBs, Champions and MBBs. I have previously written on the role of BBs(1) and would now like to share my thoughts on the MBB role. Many of my views and ideas are taken from Leading Six Sigma, the work I co-authored with Ron Snee.(2)

Typically, BBs and GBs deliver the tangible, bottom-line benefits through project implementation. Champions provide leadership, in such areas as deployment issues, and project selection and review. Augmenting these roles, MBBs develop appropriate technical depth in BBs and GBs through training, mentoring and project review, primarily from a technical point of view.

Most companies hire external Six Sigma providers to deliver their initial Six Sigma training, and it is the MBB’s responsibility to gradually take over this training. MBBs have typically completed several BB projects and two to five weeks of training beyond the four weeks of BB training.

In addition, MBBs are the technical leaders who enable the organization to integrate Six Sigma within its operations by working with Champions and functional leaders. The MBBs should have strong leadership and technical skills and be politically savvy, with a good understanding of the business.

MBBs play other roles:

  • They help lead mission critical projects as needed. This work not only contributes to the success of the organization, but also enables MBBs to further develop their process improvement skills.
  • They are responsible for ensuring data are available and up-to-date for all key processes, which is important for effective project selection.
  • They help identify and distribute best practices for process improvement and process management and distribute them around the organization. Many organizations develop an MBB network that meets periodically to share these best practices across the company.

MBBs combine technical skills beyond those of BBs with managerial and leadership skills similar to those of a Champion. Theirs is the broadest role with the most diverse set of accountabilities. If the MBBs are not effective, the BBs and GBs will likely struggle due to poor preparation and support, and Six Sigma will not be well integrated into the organization. Experience has shown Six Sigma is internalized most quickly in those companies that develop their cadre of MBBs most rapidly.


  1. Roger W. Hoerl, “Six Sigma Black Belts: What Do They Need to Know? (with discussion),” Journal of Quality Technology, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 391-435.
  2. Ronald D. Snee and Roger W. Hoerl, Leading Six Sigma: A Step-by-Step Guide Based on Experience With GE and Other Six Sigma Companies, Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2003.

By William J. Hill
Research fellow and director, Six Sigma Master Black Belt program, Honeywell International

Not all MBB programs are created equal, nor should they be. These programs and the roles of MBBs need to be designed around the needs of the company.

Six Sigma is based on obtaining business results through variation reduction. The customer requirements or the internal and external “whats” will differ from company to company, so the design and execution of an MBB program will differ from one company to the next.

The current MBB program at Honeywell (including the former AlliedSignal) was designed five years ago based on the voice of the customer and functional product requirements needed to satisfy customer needs. However, the development of the Honeywell MBBs started as early as 1995 with the aid of consultants who did the initial training of BBs and MBBs in some of our major businesses. By 1997, the cadre of MBBs was large enough for them to train all our BBs, and in early 1998, standard corporatewide BB and MBB learning and development programs were established using Six Sigma’s define, measure, analyze, improve and control roadmap as the design model.

In the case of the MBB program that later would include lean masters (LMs), a two-tier quality function deployment was used to capture the internal customer needs, functional product requirements and specific design requirements needed for the master development process. With these in hand, the process was mapped with the inputs and outputs at several steps in the process, including certification. The roles and expectations for masters were delineated at that time and have been updated as the company has grown and its business needs have changed.

The role of a Honeywell master, who must first be a certified BB or lean expert (LE), includes a balance of the following:

  1. Providing support of the business goal deployment by working closely with other leaders to make sure the master projects and those of BBs, LEs and GBs align with annual business operating plans.
  2. Leading at least one major project that has an impact of more than $1 million in bottom-line savings.
  3. Providing the technical leadership and ensuring the technical integrity of the Honeywell Six Sigma and lean learning processes and materials. Honeywell’s combined Six Sigma and lean program is referred to as Six Sigma Plus (SSP).
  4. Serving as a change agent, particularly in the deployment of SSP on productivity, cash flow and growth improvements, such as design for Six Sigma.
  5. Training, mentoring and certifying BBs and LEs.
  6. Continually developing his or her own SSP and leadership skills to enable career growth and impact in future positions.

Honeywell masters are given a target to be certified in one year, although the rigor of the development program shows the median time of getting 71 MBBs certified under the Honeywell corporatewide program is 15 months. These include MBBs who started in the first six waves between April 1998 and January 2001.

Additional Honeywell certified masters started at different times under the organization’s earlier program versions, and waves of new masters who started during 2002 and 2003 are in the process of becoming certified. Through the first part of 2003, more than 200 masters (both MBBs and LMs) have been enrolled in the Honeywell master development program, with most exposed to the following program.

To become certified, Honeywell masters must complete a major project, certify a targeted number of BBs or experts, demonstrate application of all tools in the BB toolkit (or LE toolkit in the case of LMs) and a selected set of master tools, complete three business acumen and leadership courses and facilitate at least one BB or LE wave. Their tool application and facilitation skills are based on quantitative scores provided by their assigned mentor, experienced facilitators and certification committee.

In addition to a four-day orientation to map the master’s personal development and project plans, the master must attend four one-week sessions to further develop his or her technical and facilitation skills. The facilitation skills are honed in a boot camplike environment with experienced masters and their peers, so by the time they actually facilitate a wave of BBs and LEs, their confidence and knowledge level is on firm ground.

The MBBs and LMs take this curriculum of five sessions together but break out into different groups on subjects specific to one group or another. Each master must also take two weeks of business and leadership courses to help provide him or her with some of the business and technical balance needed to accomplish the roles mentioned above.

A master program needs to be designed to fulfill customer requirements. This is the model that came out of our analysis, and a new team reviews it every two to three years. Our model asks masters to make a three-year commitment. To provide flexibility, once certified, the master can perform a dual role of Six Sigma leader and master if that is where his or her business and career growth path interests lie. Until then, the master acts as a coach and mentor.

Our masters have a balance of technical and leadership skills to do their job effectively. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have much credibility in front of a class of BBs or LEs, and they wouldn’t be able to work with leadership effectively and complete projects efficiently.

As mentioned earlier, MBBs and master development programs are not created equal. In some organizations, MBBs get their title once they move into a role of leading BBs, with little additional training beyond the BB level. In other organizations, the MBB program is viewed as a leadership development program. Different organizations also have their own unique certification programs, including those done by professional societies and consulting companies using their own criteria.

I am not an advocate for a standardized MBB program and certification requirements across industries. I believe an organization needs to develop a master development program that meets its specific needs and corresponding customer requirements. Within that context, the prerequisites for a person entering the program and the rigor of the program steps, including certification, should be uniformly consistent across the organization. When a person becomes a certified master from that organization, the title and role should have internal and external brand recognition.

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