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So You Want To Hire A Black Belt?

We frequently receive inquiries from headhunters and organizations looking for Six Sigma Black Belts, Lean Leaders, Operational Excellence Managers, etc. There is no shortage of organizations actively trying to hire external “process experts” to help improve their performance. And it’s no wonder! Many publications sight figures similar to the following: “Each Black Belt should be able to complete four projects a year, each worth about $250,000, and therefore save you $1,000,000 per year.” Consequently, many CEO’s and CFO’s immediately pull out the “old school” playbook, reverse calculate the number of continuous improvement (CI) resources to hire by dividing savings desired by $1M, and instruct HR to “start hiring”.

Unfortunately, hiring external people to fill continuous improvement support roles rarely produces the significant, lasting results organizations expect; many times through no fault of the person being hired. In fact, hiring such people can be detrimental to the organization over the long run without proper systems in place. And, internal candidates may not have the experiential and/or technical skills, or simply be too close to the problems to be effective. So where do you get your resources from? Many organizations are beginning to follow a “new school” approach.

There are some obvious “pro’s” to hiring an external resource. Assuming you hire the right person and utilize them correctly, such a dedicated CI resource can provide:

  • A different point of view. Not necessarily encumbered by current industry or functional paradigms.
  • Flexibility; are less invested in the status quo. Most people who design and run a system have a much harder time changing the system. They end up working in the system, rather than on the system.
  • Bring best practices from another organization in the same or even different industry. Caution: rarely does cutting and pasting a practice, even if from the same industry, really help unless the entire system understands and is designed to support the practice.
  • Some problem solving methodology and expertise such as Six Sigma, 8D, Agile, Scrum, etc. to the organization.

Unfortunately, challenges an external hire typically faces, outweigh the benefits. Even under the best circumstances, most new, externally hired CI resources face the following:

  • Limited knowledge of formal and informal networks within the organization. Success is rarely limited by poor technical solutions; people are usually the hardest hurdle. Trying to champion structural change as the new kid on the block is inefficient at best. And, at worst, ineffective.
  • Lack of specific systems and process knowledge. Chances are they don’t know the systems and have to rely on others for process understanding and data gathering.
  • Lack of cultural understanding. Solutions which may work in one organization, may not work in another . . . even when the two organizations are part of the same company! Without truly understanding how an organization thinks and operates, crafting an effective, sustainable solution is much harder. This lack of cultural understanding can result in a rift between the CI resources and the functional owners; leaving functional owners with a negative impression for continuous improvement.

These challenges can be overcome with time. However, time is not typically a luxury most organizations afford dedicated CI resources. An internal hire will likely have the best chance to overcome these challenges more quickly.

Furthermore, many organizations often impede a CI resource’s ability to effectively maximize their benefit to the organization. Here are some of the top issues, which apply to both internally and externally hired CI resources, we’ve personally observed:

  • Failure to properly align and set goals. Functional leadership teams must be responsible for directing CI efforts; not the other way around. Directing CI resources to “go find me $1M”, rather than directing where and how to hunt, results in misalignment with company goals.
  • Rely on the CI resource to “own” the results. Yes, you can tie feedback to the improvement efforts. But, only the functional owner can, by definition, “own” the result. The CI resource should be judged in part by results, but mostly for the approach used to create results. Reaching goals is not the primary challenge; it’s doing so in a sustainable manner which lends itself to continuous, further improvement.
  • Expect the improvements to come solely from the CI resources. Significant, sustainable improvements only come when you harness the entire team’s knowledge; not simply from an intelligent individual. Demand improvements from other areas not necessarily receiving attention from the CI resource, as well as outside dedicated improvement activities (i.e. kaizen events).

If you are attempting to dedicate new or additional resources to your continuous improvement efforts, here are three thoughts, in order of recommended execution, to maximize your CI resource’s efforts and minimize the challenges noted above:

  1. Identify a key business leader i.e. COO who acknowledges and understands their improvement opportunities; and has a well-articulated plan to achieve significant, lasting improvements. You don’t have anyone internally that fits the bill? Choose one who acknowledges significant opportunities exist but may not know exactly how to accomplish the goal. Train them and their staff on what “great looks like” and how to get there. Having the functional team trained will help ensure there is pull from the team. Otherwise, the CI resource, internal or external, will be stuck trying to push a proverbial rope. If necessary, bring in an external person to coach internal functional owners on understanding how to create a solid plan as well as how best to justify and maximize CI resources.
  2. After the functional team has a plan and articulates resources needed, identify top internal talent to fill the role(s). Similar to the leadership team identified above, the ideal person is one who can clearly identify and acknowledge problems, and provide an approach and maybe some elbow grease, to assist the functional team solve their problems. If necessary, train them on how to effectively support the functional team by problem identification and solving. As internal resources, they are able to “ramp up” much faster than any external resource. And if you choose the right person, they should be someone with whom the functional team will willingly work. Ideally, they should report to the functional leader for which they are being dedicated, as they will likely act as a coach for the other leaders around them.
  3. Augment CI resources with external only when the need for additional resources outstrips availability of strong internal candidates, and the necessary support systems are developed. Hiring an external candidate first, should be your last resort. However, a blended team consisting of both external and internal CI resources works well. Some organizations, such as GE, hire externally sourced Black Belts. But, they have a system which allows them to be successful. Typically, there are internally chosen, experienced CI resources working alongside externally sourced personnel to minimize the assimilation pain. Furthermore, the functional leader to which they’ve been aligned, has likely has been a former dedicated CI resource i.e. Black Belt or Master Black Belt, themselves and knows how to effectively coach and utilize them to maximize results.

The true secret to driving significant, lasting change is to ensure the organization has an enlightened functional leadership team that acknowledges the need and understands how to constantly improve in an efficient and effective manner. In such an environment, there is no need to hire externally for such roles. Rather, they tap top internal talent, and use the opportunity primarily for leadership development. The benefits a strong CI resource provides do no lie with the immediate savings they help generate today. But rather, real benefits lies in the experience they receive during the journey, which can then be harnessed and magnified throughout the entire organization as this person goes on to serve in a functional leadership position. However, many organizations unfortunately cannot or will not invest to grow their internal talent pool and think they have to go beyond the four walls to find the necessary talent.

Hiring externally for such a role without establishing the right environment can not only be a waste of resources but could be detrimental to longer term growth. The organization must ensure the functional leadership team understands their responsibilities with regards to continuous improvement, as well as expectations for what a CI resource can effectively and efficiently do for the organization.

“Old School” Approach New School Organization
  • Equates improvements to additional resources outside the organization.
  • Assumes improvement efforts can be driven and owned by CI support team i.e. Six Sigma Black Belts.
  • Fills such roles with external candidates because they “think differently” and have unique skills not found internally.
  • Utilize existing leadership team to own and lead continuous improvement efforts; train if necessary.
  • CI support roles are created to fill an explicit need articulated by functional leadership, and are functionally aligned and owned.
  • Internal candidates are identified first for their inherent knowledge of existing, culture, people, systems, etc. Identify for passion and commitment. Train for skills as necessary.


Disclaimer: We are not implying an external CI resource hire cannot be effective. Simply that their efforts are rarely as efficient and/or effective as an equivalently qualified “insider”, who knows the people, systems, unique cultural challenges, etc. If you don’t have an equivalently qualified “insider”, you have got a much larger problem that should be addressed first.

Todd Wiese, a partner with Adaptive, is a GE-trained Master Black Belt, who has held a variety of senior level staff and functional roles in the US Navy Submarine community, Fortune 500 organizations, and smaller, privately held organizations. He holds a B.S. in Engineering from the United States Naval Academy and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management; Northwestern University. Adaptive Business Solutions facilitates the adoption of Lean thinking into your organization by integrating with your current culture and delivering the education and coaching needed to enhance and sustain customer, employee, and shareholder value. For inquiries regarding our services and availability, feel free to contact us via e-mail at (Enable Javascript to see the email address).