The Six Sigma methodology uses data to improve processes and performance in a range of industries.
According to Lee Campe, president and owner of consulting service Performance Excellence Inc., this methodology is primarily “about solving problems by: 1. Proving they exist, 2. Identifying the root cause and 3. Making them stay fixed.”
Six Sigma-certified professionals can use statistical analysis to increase efficiency and reduce waste. Consequently, this methodology can save organizations money, improve morale and performance, and elevate product quality.
Here’s a closer look at what Six Sigma is and what certifications you can earn.
Six Sigma, which Motorola created in the 1980s and General Electric adopted in the 1990s, refers to the bell curve in statistics. One standard deviation from the mean, or the highest part of the bell curve, is known as “sigma.” If a process falls within three standard deviations above or below the mean, the defect rates are low. Those standard deviations add up to six, or six sigmas, of acceptable defect rates.
While Six Sigma was originally developed to find process variations, or inconsistencies, such as wear and tear on a machine that affects product quality, Six Sigma users learned that the methodology could also apply to improving areas like profitability.
Certification holders, for example, can collect data, such as the number of system outages or errors in a newscast. Other Six Sigma projects can include trying to reduce transportation costs or customer complaints or even correcting mistakes in payroll processes.
“Whether needing to improve business processes to better serve customer needs, address an issue impacting the morale of the workforce or reduce costs, Lean Six Sigma tools and methods can be applied,” says Mike Ungar, executive coach with business coaching provider FocalPoint and former competency manager for progress profession at Michelin.
What to Know About DMAIC and DMADV
DMAIC and DMADV are different strategies for tackling projects under the Six Sigma philosophy. They’re the “backbones of Lean Six Sigma,” Ungar says. “They are a systematic approach to problem-solving and design.”
DMAIC is an acronym for define, measure, analyze, improve and control. “In a DMAIC problem, there is an existing process in which to implement the identified improvements and then measure the results,” Ungar explains.
Meanwhile, DMADV stands for define, measure, analyze, design and verify. “In a DMADV problem, the process does not exist, so the new process is designed and trialed and verified to ensure it meets the objectives of the project,” Ungar says.
Lean Six Sigma combines the Six Sigma and Lean methodologies. Traditionally, Six Sigma calls on black belt engineers to use statistics to find solutions to process problems, Ungar says. The Lean philosophy, on the other hand, emphasizes teams working together to find ways to reduce waste in a particular process.
Some certifying organizations consider Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma interchangeable terms. Others might have separate Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma belt certification tracks. The Council for Six Sigma Certification, for example, recommends Six Sigma training for “most people” and Lean Six Sigma for military and public sector employees.
If you’re considering between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma certifications, research the course content to decide which is best for you.
Six Sigma certification is divided into six levels, each indicating a professional’s skills, experience, knowledge of Six Sigma principles and role in a project. The levels, which correspond to martial arts belts, start with white and advance to master black belt. There are no prerequisites, except for the master black belt, so you can start at whichever level feels best suited to your background.
Six Sigma White Belt
The white belt focuses on the fundamentals of the Six Sigma approach. White belts come to understand team members’ roles and how those members can improve a company’s efficiency. They learn about the DMAIC process and related tools and typically concentrate on waste reduction.
Depending on the program, this level may require up to eight hours of classes and an exam.
Six Sigma Yellow Belt
The Six Sigma yellow belt builds on the basics of the white belt. Yellow belts understand how to use Six Sigma in their workplaces, and they may work to improve processes or create process maps, which outline parameters and necessary steps in a process.
They also understand the principles behind information collection. Yellow belts may be subject matter experts, and while they may not lead a team, they can play a supporting role to green or black belt project leaders.
The yellow belt requires more of a time investment than the white belt, and courses average around 20 hours, plus an exam.
Six Sigma Green Belt
The Six Sigma green belt is designed for professionals charged with creating, identifying or improving processes. They master the ins-and-outs of not only Lean Six Sigma principles but also DMAIC, and they can lead teams on smaller-scale projects or assist black belt leaders.
Green belts’ projects may focus on quality improvement, such as preventing errors, reducing waste, and collecting and analyzing data. They may dedicate 25% to 50% of their time to Six Sigma projects.
This level of certification, which can require two to five weeks of courses and an exam, may be a good choice for midlevel managers or professionals who work in fields such as quality assurance, project management, financial management, structural or manufacturing engineering, or health care administration.
Six Sigma Black Belt
Unlike green belts, Six Sigma black belts are experts, capable of leading or training teams of green, yellow or white belts. For these leaders, managing Six Sigma projects is their full-time job. They may lead complicated projects, including organizationwide modifications and efforts to improve quality, productivity and revenue.
Black belts also need a thorough understanding of statistical analysis and process improvement. In addition, because their responsibilities extend to mentorship and assigning roles to team members, they should have top-notch leadership and people skills.
Six Sigma black belt certification training tends to last at least four weeks, according to Campe. The third and fourth weeks focus on organization-specific information and projects. Some programs, however, offer up to 16 weeks of training. Black belts also need to take an exam.
Six Sigma Master Black Belt
At the top of the Six Sigma hierarchy, a master black belt mentors Six Sigma project team members and black and green belts. Master black belts, who must have at least five years of Six Sigma black belt experience, are also typically viewed as internal consultants; they solve problems and provide guidance on technological issues.
Master black belts guide strategy, identify projects, and communicate with senior or executive-level employees. They also teach Lean Six Sigma principles to others and may develop or update training information.
Depending on the program, you could earn a master black belt certification in about seven weeks. You also need to take an exam.
Becoming Six Sigma-certified gives you tools to tackle complex problems in many industries. According to Campe, learning about Lean Six Sigma, and DMAIC in particular, prepares you to take on three roles: detective, doctor and mechanic. You can investigate, diagnose and fix problems.
Employees with these skills can initiate and complete projects that not only improve quality and efficiency but also affect the bottom line.
Six Sigma Certification for Employees
Problem-solving, Ungar says, is a learned skill, and Lean Six Sigma green and black belt certification programs can teach you how to effectively solve problems.
If your company values Six Sigma, earning a certification and applying Six Sigma principles can raise your profile. Professionals who can show tangible results from their projects may attract the attention of leadership, Campe says. You may also develop extensive knowledge about your organization, and you could build a reputation as an expert.
Six Sigma Certification for Enterprises
Lean Six Sigma certification has two main benefits for organizations, according to Ungar: The methodology aims to create a “culture of continuous improvement” and offers design and process tools that can help an organization achieve better results.
As a tool for maximizing efficiency and quality, the Six Sigma methodology can also give companies an edge. In a case study by ASQ – which provides Six Sigma-related training, certification and resources – Crown Equipment Corp. saved more than $1 million after combining Six Sigma and Lean techniques. The company’s savings offset the cost of training a dozen green belts.
Six Sigma Certification Costs
The cost for Six Sigma certifications depends on which organization you’re certified through, whether you receive training or complete a project before taking an exam, and the belt level.
White belt certification, for example, can be free or, with training, may cost up to $599. Yellow belt certification can range from $99 to $1,099. Those pursuing green belts can pay just over $150 for the primary certification or $450 with the addition of a project. You can also take coursework for up to 10 weeks and pay between $2,200 and $3,200.
Lean Six Sigma black belt and master black belt certifications can require more time or money. Black belt certification options vary based on the requirements of the body providing the exam, training and project but may cost as little as $229 for the primary certification. Some black belt certifications, however, can cost a few thousand dollars, with a peak of around $7,900.
Master black belt certifications range between $650 and about $5,000.
Six Sigma Certified Professionals’ Salaries
Salaries for professionals with a Lean Six Sigma certification may increase based on the belt level. According to The Council for Six Sigma Certification, white belts earn an average annual salary of $42,000 while the average master black belt might earn as much as $135,000.
Is Certification Worth It?
To decide whether a Six Sigma belt is worth pursuing, you should think about whether your industry values this type of certification and whether the skills you’d learn would benefit you in your career.
If you’re thinking about this certification and others, such as the Project Management Professional certification, consider your end goal. A Six Sigma certification indicates that you can use data to solve problems, smooth out defects in processes and reduce waste. A PMP certification, on the other hand, gives you tools to work under a set deadline with a goal of successfully implementing and completing a project.
As you’re evaluating certifications providers, Campe advises looking at the strength of the brand, instructor and curriculum.
Also consider completing a project as part of your certification. Whether a project is personal – Campe uses weight loss as an example – or professional, it could be an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to apply Lean Six Sigma principles. These projects can showcase your leadership and analytical skills, the techniques you’ve mastered, and how you articulate potential financial benefits.
Will These Certifications Help Me Get a Job?
Regardless of your field, having problem-solving skills that apply to areas such as quality improvement may be valuable. You can use data to articulate why a solution is needed and speak in cost-benefit terms. Some fields now expect their existing or potential employees to have this certification, experts say.
Job applicants without Six Sigma on their resumes can seek certification once they’re hired. According to Campe, research has indicated that 85% of Lean Six Sigma certification happens through employers. The remaining 15% is provided by universities and online services.
If you decide certification is the right choice for you, Ungar recommends pursuing certification in school, going through your employer as a second choice or a credible public program while you’re employed as a third option.