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Sometimes 'Getting the Belt' is a Good Thing

By Graphic Products Editorial Staff

(But White Belt certification may not be one of those times)

White is a non-color, the absence of color. White is ethereal like angels, ghosts, or spider webs. White is purity, morning light, fresh snowfall. What white ISN'T is an official Six Sigma belt color. But more about that in a moment.

Six Sigma pulled its belt color symbology from karate, and in karate white is the belt color of beginners. They're a blank slate, an empty canvas, ready to absorb knowledge but not yet knowledgeable, children just beginning their journey.

In Six Sigma, White Belts are trained in the concepts — but a basic understanding is where it ends. If you want to participate in Six Sigma projects, you'll need to move up to Yellow Belt. All a White Belt really gets you is that the colorful belts possibly won't scoff and roll their eyes at you while setting up Six Sigma projects. If you want to be the one rolling your eyes, you'll have to move up the belt color ladder.

So you want to pursue White Belt certification.

Now, here's why a White Belt doesn't quite exist. When Six Sigma was developed in America, it didn't include belt colors. Later, Six Sigma experts were designated as Black Belts, and eventually other belts were added: Champion, Master Black, Black, and Green. SSA & Company (originally called Six Sigma Academy), the organization that originated Six Sigma training here,  doesn't offer a White Belt. The International Association for Six Sigma Certification, the only third party independent certification body, also does not offer a White Belt. But various companies have created their own Six Sigma certifications and a few of these offer White Belt certifications.

There's good news too. White Belt is really easy to acquire. But earning belts becomes progressively more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive after that…although you don't have to worry about that just yet. But don't expect your White Belt to make doors spring open for you, because some might think your Six Sigma White Belt is a self-invented ruse to gain some respect.

So what is Six Sigma, and why do we care?

Sigma is a Greek letter which represents deviations. In manufacturing, a deviation would be a defect. Six is a quantification of errors; it represents the target goal of 99.99966% accuracy, or just under 3.4 defects per million. Three Sigma would be 93.32% perfection. The difference might not seem that vast if you're in a profession where issues are easily remedied and seem to cause little harm or slowdowns. But if you're the last man in an assembly line and your mistake means that everyone else has to reconstruct that item, or you're a surgeon and your error means potential death for your customer under the knife, suddenly minimizing errors becomes critical.

If applying Six Sigma methodology reduces errors by 1%, this rapidly multiplies into a massive impact. Let's say an assembly line has ten steps. Step 1 botches 1%, Step 2 botches another 1%, on and on until Step 10 outputs 10% defects. Additional personnel has to be added to the process to check the output and ferret out the defects. Are the defects destroyed or disassembled, with parts restored to the assembly line? Either way, it's more personnel. And of course, everybody has to produce an extra 10% product to offset the losses, which means, again, more personnel. It's easy to see how even a very modest reduction in errors could result in tremendous savings.

Aren't employees really to blame for defects?

Management may feel that workers are being sloppy, occasionally issuing memos in the vein of "Defect levels are too high, reduce errors!" But telling employees to improve will barely move the needle. Even fear of losing one's job can only motivate so much improvement, and any work performance gains from such memos don't tend to last. In other words, if you want sustained improved performance, the process needs to be examined and improved. Consider Six Sigma, in lieu of perpetual yelling or threatening.