No, It's Not Karate
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

The number one comment, by far, that I’ve received during my travels as a Lean Six Sigma practicioner remains, “Oh, you’re a Black Belt? I didn’t know you knew Karate!”

Actually, no, I don’t know Karate, Judo, or any other martial arts disciplines. I can get pretty intense about improving a process, though.

I’m not sure exactly who came up with the hierarchy of Belts in Six Sigma (there wasn’t the “Lean” part yet), but my guess is that it was Motorola. They didn’t invent the tools that are a large part of the discipline, but they were the first to bring them all together in a structured form. Along with that structure came levels of understanding. This ranged from just familiarity – White and Yellow Belts-- through participation, as in the Green Belt, and on to leadership, your Black Belt and Master Black Belt. These are the five most common levels, but Green, Black and Master Black Belts are the ones that require some sort of formal instruction and certification. As a practicioner moves up in the hierarchy, the level and complexity of project work increases. In addition, higher level Belts are supposed to teach and coach others in the tools and practices of Lean Six Sigma. I should note that these five designations are far fewer than the number in Karate; for example, when you earn a first level Black Belt in Karate, there are still something like ten more places up the ladder to climb.

I hold both the Black Belt and Master Black Belt certifications, in that order, which were awarded by the large company I worked for at the time. Training, testing and certification are also administered by several independent groups. In general, they all rely on a Body of Knowledge that a Belt is expected to know and be able to apply to given situations—and there are a lot of given situations, as we’ll see in other posts. Warning: There is a fair amount of math involved! As with the martial arts, once you earn a Belt it can’t be taken away from you. Also as with the martial arts, though, it’s not like riding a bike—you need to stay with the discipline. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” does apply. Especially for that math part.

Given the structure and richness of Lean Six Sigma, it certainly does make sense to have a shorthand for levels of knowledge and expertise, just like there is for Karate, Judo, et. al. I just kind of wish Motorola hadn’t picked belts as this shorthand. I’ve had a lot of explaining to do in my time.

Oh, and I do get around this. When people ask me what I do, I mention that “I fix broken processes” and then I explain what that means. It’s not as elegant, but—true story-- I also don’t get Karate stances demonstrated for me either.

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