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What Can Yellow Belts Do … Really?

January 29th, 2013 Comments off

Yellow Belt TrainingAs a followup to my recent post titled Trained Yellow Belts Think Differently, I thought I would spend a little time talking about what yellow belts can actually DO.

In a traditional six sigma deployment, yellow belts play a critical role in supporting higher level black belt and green belt projects.  They are trained in the foundation of the DMAIC problem solving process and can speak the language of Six Sigma.  They can handle some of the lower level tasks of process mapping, data collection, setting up measurement systems, establishing and maintaining control systems , and may actually be subject matter experts. Basically, they allow the black belts and green belts to focus on the more complex analytical aspects of the project.  If yellow belts are used effectively, they can improve the productivity of black belts and green belts in a BIG way.

BUT, what can they do outside of supporting higher level belts?   What if you don’t even have higher level belts?  What can a yellow belt trained employee do for the organization?

Six Sigma purists might argue that Yellow Belts should not be trained, without Black Belts and Green Belts, and that their role is to support higher level belts.  I don’t agree with this at all.   Again, I have to hedge by saying that I’m talking about the level of capability that yellow belts trained by SSQ have (i.e. 4-5 days of training).   So, what can Mr. Yellow Belt do?

  • Characterize Processes.  Process mapping and characterization is a skill that should not be taken lightly.  All too often,  improvements are made to processes when we don’t know how the current process really operates, the current state.  These so-called improvements, in many cases, add unnecessary complexity and create more problems than they fixed.  We call this tampering and it is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.  A great example of where process characterization is an invaluable skill is with large-scale enterprise software implementations.   It seems common sense that we should understand exactly how a process works before we try to systemize/automate with software, right?  How often is there really a focused effort to characterize and optimize processes?   I would argue not enough of the time and this is readily apparent in the big $’s spent on configuration, customization, tweaks, etc.
  • Establish/validate measurement systems. Yellow belts learn the basics of Six Sigma and its focus on using data to understand problems and get to the root cause.  The learn the basics of what makes a good measurement system, and what does not.    The can certainly help establish measurement and data collection systems that are actionable, and validate (or invalidate) existing ones.
  • Establish Process Control Systems.  This is a key yellow belt skillset and its importance should not be overlooked.  Yellow belts learn how to set up process control systems to assure that processes function as expected by the customer.  Spec limits are establish, as are response plans when an indicator goes out of control
  • Execute small scale improvement projects in their own areas.   Will they have the deep statistical analysis skills that well-trained green belts or black belts have?  No, they will not.  But they will have a solid problem solving foundation around DMAIC and they will have a working knowledge of the basic tools in D-M-A-I-C.  They know what a well scoped project looks like, they know the basic measure and analyze graphical tools, they know how to use a structured approach to select improvements, and they definitely know about process control systems.   Let’s not lose site of the fact that these basic tools will likely be sufficient to address a significant portion of the process problems you’ll face.

Some may think of Yellow Belts as team members, data collectors, or assistants to Black Belts.  I strongly question this view and think, in reality, a Yellow Belt’s role should be much deeper than that.  Yellow Belts practice a Process Management approach (control and manage processes using metrics and data) and can solve real business problems using basic, but proven, quality tools and a systematic approach.

Yellow belt skills are valuable at any level of the organization, from managers to the lowest level process operators, and the processes they improve are usually the ones they work in day in and day out.  Many years back the term daily process management was in vogue.  The term has certainly faded a bit, but it’s hard to argue against the value of actively managing and improving processes on a daily basis.

Contact me if you’d like to talk about how yellow belts might be able to help your organization.  And, if you haven’t already, download our yellow belt training manual to see for yourself the rich skillset a yellow belt acquires.

Trained Yellow Belts Think Differently…Ask Blue Eyes

December 30th, 2012 Comments off

Some folks think for themselves from the first day.  Frank Sinatra was one of them.  Others learn to think differently.  Yellow Belts are process owners and team members who have been taught to think differently.  We detail our highly popular Yellow Belt training on our website.  While it has been out for many years and reconstituted in many flavors, people remain genuinely interested in this foundation capability.

The Chairman of the Board

By way of history, we were the first to develop yellow belt training.  Six Sigma Qualtec is the renamed Florida Power & Light’s unregulated subsidiary Qualtec Quality Services.  Qualtec housed materials developed when FPL engineers studied under Deming and documented their work.  Qualtec was spun off and acquired Six Sigma training materials and client lists.  The renamed company developed Yellow Belt from the Deming based materials as a foundation for process owners and members that were part of Six Sigma teams and who were left to manage a process after any improvements were implemented.

Like any classic, the concepts embedded in Yellow Belt  remain the foundation for any process improvement program.   In fact, we have posted how companies remain devoted to the basics of Operational Excellence methodologies.  This devotion to the basics continues to deliver results to a broad base of the organization.

Yellow belt is a distinct and valuable skillset.  But a lot of people don’t have a good feel for exactly what a yellow belt does and how it can benefit the organization.  So, I’m going to provide some thoughts here and on some subsequent posts.

As a disclaimer, since we launched Yellow Belt, just like with Black and Green Belts, there have been many others that followed such that there is really no standard out there for a Yellow Belt.   So this description is addressing  Six Sigma Qualtec’s definition of a Yellow Belt.   Yellow Belts really should think and act differently after training so, let’s first talk about what yellow belts should be thinking about after training:

  • Analyzing real data to drive business decisions, analyzing root cause to drive implementation of the right solutions, and understanding that CI (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, etc) is all about improving business performance in terms of voice of the customer.
  • Identifying and tracking the right metrics (primary, secondary, etc), really understanding process capability and process performance.
  • How to practically get and use data and a scientific approach to solve a problem?
  • Understanding what a problem is really costing the business, the real cost-of-poor-quality (COPQ)
  • Putting in the proper process control mechanisms to sustain improvements over time
  • The project selection and prioritization process of the company to assure that the right things are being targeted, things that will make an impact.

Download “Yellow Belts Play a Crucial Role”

The Yellow Belt skillset is a foundation set of quality improvement and process control tools.  It is something that can be applied anywhere in the organization and on any process to yield wide-ranging improvements.  It is one approach, and an effective one for many, to building a solid foundation for CI in their organization.

Contact me if you want more info or would like to discuss in more detail ….

Process Improvement Goes Back to the Basics for Many…

March 18th, 2011 2 comments

Process Improvement BasicsThe last few years have witnessed big changes in the business climate, and continuous improvement (CI) efforts have certainly seen their share of change. I talk with companies every day and, without a doubt, there has been a fundamental shift in thought on how to best make meaningful process improvement happen.

Prior to 2008, there was significant interest and buy-in for large-scale, top-down initiatives. There was a willingness to set aside large budgets and free up significant resources for the CI initiative.

Training increasingly large segments of the workforce was front and center. Detailed, multi-year plans were put in place. The CI initiative was heavily promoted, internally and externally, and employees were strongly urged to participate.

But, did those big initiatives deliver results? Undoubtedly some did. But, many more, when you really check the numbers, did not. There are many distinct causes why they didn’t work, and I won’t try to dive into that here. But, with the meltdown in the business climate, many leaders took a look in the rear view mirror and didn’t like what they saw …. big dollars and resources consumed with little evidence of concrete results.

Now, does this mean that CI and process improvement is useless and should be abandoned? Of course not. Businesses live and die today based on the strength and adaptiveness of their processes, as compared to their competitors. Does it mean that the tools and methodologies used (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, etc) are not good and should be replaced with something new? I think not. The tools and methodologies can certainly be improved and expanded (and are), but they are proven to work.

So what’s happened? I believe that, for a lot of companies, there was too much focus on the initiative and not nearly enough focus on results. And based on conversations I have with business leaders every day, I think many have drawn the same conclusion.

So, when smart people see the error in their ways, it typically leads to change. The change that I’ve seen happen for CI is a move back to the basics, and a focus on bottomline, business results. It may return, but for now I see very little interest in big change initiatives whose results are measured over the very long term, if ever truly measured. I see a much more tactical view of CI, focusing on solving specific business problems quickly, as opposed to general quality improvement. CI programs are more likely to be looked at from a bottom-up or grass-roots perspective.

Smart leaders are now letting the specific needs of their business drive what the CI program looks like, what methodologies and tools are applied, how results get measured, what technology platforms are deployed, etc. To borrow from Lean, the business is pulling CI capability, as opposed to it being pushed into the business. In the real world, what does this mean?

Download our executive brief that outlines the basics of Lean a short executive brief that provides a good overview of the basics of lean

Well, I can only give you my perspective from talking with leaders at companies of all sizes and in many different domains, but what I see is a clear move back to the basics of business and process improvement. Basic quality and process tools as employed in Business Process Management (BPM), Lean, and basic quality tools (Yellow Belt) are getting a second look.

Why? Because, for many businesses, the basics will help solve 95% of the real business problems, get results fast, and they can be introduced into the organization for a very low cost and very low risk. The basics also build a solid foundation on which advanced capabilities like Six Sigma and DFSS can be effectively built and deployed to deliver even more dramatic business results, with much less risk.

So, what do you think? Is this just a reaction to circumstances and will large-scale, top down change initiatives return. OR, is this the new normal for companies when it comes to business and process improvement? Feel free to Contact me if you’d like to discuss.

Cutting Costs with Six Sigma – Making a “Comeback”?

July 19th, 2010 Comments off

A recent BusinessWeek article made the argument that Six Sigma is staging a “comeback” right now, specifically in retail.  The idea put forward is that sales growth will remain sluggish for some time and companies are trying to squeeze out more costs to maintain/improve margins.  The article went so far as to say that a “jobless recovery” may be the RESULT of more and more companies embracing Six Sigma.

While I think that may be taking things a bit far, it’s hard to argue that many companies have leaned out their workforces to bare bones levels.  Even with improvements in the global economy starting to show up, I think companies will indeed remain reluctant to add headcount for the foreseeable future. And, this is the new state of affairs all the way up the value stream, creating a trickle back effect. Companies have fewer resources to get work done, so what do they do?   They push work (value) back to their suppliers and partners. It’s really a pretty simple reality for most companies … do more, do it faster, do it with fewer resources, and do it at a lower cost.

Enter Six Sigma.  Except, it isn’t Six Sigma that is necessarily the answer; it’s Process Improvement and Optimization (PI).  There are many proven business tools and methodologies to do PI (e.g. BPM, Six Sigma, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, DFSS, etc).  Structured PI has been around for 25+ years. It’s never really gone away, hence I have a problem with the notion of a “comeback”.

However, I think PI is and will continue to be looked at in a very different way.  I don’t see a return any time soon to large, top-down, training-focused initiatives that are often associated with a Six Sigma deployment. Big training-focused initiatives that require a big up-front investment and take many months, if not years, to deliver any quantifiable results may be gone for good.

But, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I think it’s just the next evolution to something better.  PI is going to be more results-focused, as opposed to training-focused.  The needs of the business will pull training, as opposed to one-size fits all training being pushed down to the organization.  There will be a focus on breaking boil-the-ocean initiatives down to more manageable, tighter scoped things that can yield incremental results in a very short timeframe.  Green Belts, Yellow Belts, and Lean Practitioners will execute more projects that yield incremental improvements, as opposed to massive breakthroughs.  PI will be tightly tied to real business operations, as opposed to being that big on-the-side initiative.  Successful PI will use very tactical wins to create strategic advantage and sustainability.

So, let’s summarize.  What are some likely characteristics of post-meltdown PI ?

  • Lower upfront investment required
  • Focuses on things that can have an immediate positive impact on the business.  Squeaky wheel, project-for-the-sake-of-a-projects need not apply
  • Gets measurable results fast, incremental quick wins
  • Results-focused, not training-focuses.  Training is a means to an end and pulled based on the needs of the business
  • Sustains itself through results.  Pay-as-you-go.  Size and scope of PI efforts are in direct proportion to the bottom line results being delivered for the business

A brave new world, but one where a well executed PI effort just might be the difference between the winners and the losers.