Black Belt Training Benefits Companies and Their Customers

Allied Machine invests in large-scale Lean Six Sigma education for continuous improvement.

Why do companies like 3M, GE, Ford, and even a 78-year old, family-owned cutting tool manufacturer like Allied Machine & Engineering continue to invest in black belt training? After all, it’s time consuming, expensive, and pulls valuable employees from their daily commitments. Not to mention, it’s particularly rigorous and certification is not guaranteed. Investing in Lean Six Sigma’s black belt training is intimidating, but businesses committed to educating employees in key roles throughout their organization see long-term benefits in customer satisfaction, work culture, and their efficiency.

Lean Six Sigma methods are rooted in process improvement systems like Total Quality Management (TQM) and evolved over time. Motorola’s Bill Smith coined the term in the early 1980’s. The name originates from a statistical measure, and the goal is to consistently produce no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO).

Initially Lean Six Sigma was used exclusively in parts manufacturing, but over time companies like 3M and GE started using it in other areas too. In the 2000’s, companies began combining the quality improvement systems of Six Sigma with the waste reduction methods of Lean Manufacturing, creating the term Lean Six Sigma. As defects are reduced, waste is reduced, so the two practices complement each other well. The methods worked so well, that by 2009, 82% of Fortune 100 businesses had implemented Lean Six Sigma practices into their business strategies.

The hierarchy of Lean Six Sigma certification is represented by various belt colors. Each color encompasses various skill sets, roles, and duties.

With such successful businesses using Lean Six Sigma tactics, executive leadership at Allied Machine understood the importance of educating key players to shape the continuous improvement culture and sustain process excellence. Black belt training was the perfect solution.

Executive vice president Steve Stokey participated in black belt training alongside employees. He said, “I chose to go through the training to be able to lead the cultural shift at Allied. It is vital that I hold the organization accountable to effectively use the tools to continuously improve our business. By learning the nomenclature, understanding the software, and working on a black belt project with my team, I am living the change process with them.”

Throughout black belt training, the facilitators instructed candidates in advanced Lean Six Sigma, covering the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) methodology, the unique nomenclature, analysis software, data-driven techniques for process improvement and more. Higher level procedures are covered and practiced in the final week of classroom instruction.

There are many tools that exist within each segment of the DMAIC method. Here are several applied to Six Sigma projects by Allied’s candidates as they pursued their certification.

Once classroom sessions conclude, trainees lead a black belt project that must make a significant financial impact and support strategic initiatives. The project is the proving ground for all the skills covered during classroom sessions and generally takes at least three to six months to complete.

Trainees submit their project to the certification trainer for review and if approved, they are certified as a black belt. Not all participants achieve this status. Ross Randazzo, the director of operational excellence at Allied Machine, notes that “Black belt training not only identifies potential leaders in our workforce, but it also identifies areas for improvement, even in existing leaders too.” Along with processes and products, this training also provides continuous improvement opportunities for an organization’s workforce.

So how does the training help an organization’s customers?

Organizing black belt training for leadership roles across various departments is no small feat, but in the end, it benefits the most vital component to an organization’s success and longevity–its customer. It systematically defines a roadmap to match the voice of the process with the voice of the people. In other words, it teaches how to listen to customers and align internal quality standards to meet the end-user’s needs.

In the 1990s, Ford Motor was struggling with low productivity, environmental issues, and very low customer satisfaction rates. In response, they began a consumer-driven Six Sigma focus. Ford poured through surveys and feedback to target the top 25 critical customer concerns for each vehicle line and developed a process improvement strategy to address each. Their hard work drastically improved customer satisfaction ratings, according to Quality Digest. By setting standards that mirrored their customer’s expectations and monitoring processes to consistently meet them, Ford demonstrated the value of their customer’s feedback and restored credibility.

Lean Six Sigma certification conveys that an organization is fiercely devoted to producing and delivering the best products and services on time, every time. According to classroom facilitator S. Skillman, “Customers receive higher quality goods in a faster time frame with better reaction to problems.”

Six Sigma offers six ways to benefit customers

#1 Communication

Customers deserve to be heard and communication is a critical component of Lean Six Sigma. Understanding a customer’s requirements and making them your own is a mantra repeated throughout training. The terminology used in Lean Six Sigma is well-known and provides a common language for businesses and their customers. It puts an emphasis on gathering the right information from clients in order to shape internal quality standards.

Originally Taiichi Ohno, a chief engineer at Toyota, created seven areas of potential waste (a.k.a. Muda) while developing Toyota’s lean production system. The eighth waste was added in the 1990’s when Toyota’s method was adopted in the West.

#2: Trust

End-users also want to trust their suppliers. Lack of transparency, inconsistent compliance, and varying lead times chip away at vendor relationships. By training employees in the data-driven processes, organizations like Allied Machine have documentation that can provide compliance visibility to their customers. Tracking and archiving data through control systems and analysis software allows employees to react quicker to significant variances and reinforces customer trust.

#3 Quality

John Frazier, a master black belt and manufacturing manager for Allied Machine, stated, “When customers realize a company invests in Lean Six Sigma training and is ISO certified, it gives them confidence. They understand this supplier is going to pursue excellence in everything they offer.” Companies using Lean Six Sigma’s structured, data-driven methods are truly dedicated to quality and, more importantly, define quality through the eyes of their customers.

#4 Innovative Products and Services

Streamlined processes also help new products get to market faster. Black belts are certified experts in identifying and reducing the eight deadly wastes often found in manufacturing. Whether identifying bottlenecks, removing unnecessary movements, or eliminating creep from project meetings, Lean Six Sigma methodology helps businesses navigate process developments smoothly and delivers innovations to customers quicker.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, esteemed computer scientist known for her work on programming languages such as COBOL, spoke often on the dangers of fearing change and the power of adaptability. This quote is taken from an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987.

#5 Improved Environmental Impact

Customers concerned about the environment can look to manufacturers practicing Lean Six Sigma too. Reducing energy consumption, minimizing material waste, and streamlining processes all make positive impacts on the environment. According to the EPA, 3M reduced volatile air emissions by 61% from 2000 to 2005 through Lean process improvements. The EPA has even developed a Leanguide specifically for environmental professionals. Emphasis on reducing specific waste groups helps provide a safer work environment, competitive pricing on products for customers and a healthier community for all.

#6 Shorter Lead Times

In order to improve reliability, organizations are always looking to improve delivery times. Black belts exercise critical thinking skills and mentor staff to proactively streamline processes so that customers receive orders faster. Employees are encouraged to think about how they can make a significant difference, whether it’s reduced movements in a particular work cell, improved inventory maintenance, or a simplified system for packaging.

How can companies avoid stumbling blocks along the Lean Six Sigma path?

Integrating Lean Six Sigma into a company’s culture is not an easy journey. Time and resources are obstacles for successful deployment, but other intangibles also stunt integration, including fear of change and lack of leadership buy-in.

Egos can cripple a continuous improvement culture. Jacob Miller is a master black belt and the director of product and process development. He’s been working at Allied Machine for 13 years and understands people struggle with the fear of change. Miller advises, “We have to get over ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ and realize it’s going to make things easier for everyone involved in implementing processes.”

As for buy-in from management in the organization, if they don’t believe in the power of data-driven decisions and process improvements, they’ll never reap the full benefits of Lean Six Sigma. Ownership and the executive board ultimately set the tone for the company’s culture and are responsible for dedicating resources and removing road blocks along the way. It’s imperative that leaders define the goals, understand the tools, and create a strategy for top-down deployment.

Investing in Lean Six Sigma black belt training is just good business, for its customers, its people, and the company. World-wide, businesses know what to expect from a company that adheres to this process. Executive Vice President Mike Stokey summarizes the importance of investing in black belt training: “There are plenty of cutting tool manufacturers out there competing to gain the market’s attention. We know our people need to be trained at the Olympic level of waste reduction and quality control if we’re to continue winning their business and their loyalty.”

About Allied Machine & Engineering

Allied Machine & Engineering is a leading manufacturer of holemaking and finishing tooling systems. Allied devotes its advanced engineering and manufacturing capabilities to creating the widest selection of value-added tooling available to metal-cutting industries around the world. Our tooling solutions deliver the lowest cost-per-hole in a wide range of drilling, reaming, threading, boring, and burnishing applications. Located in Dover, Ohio, Allied’s precision holemaking technologies provide end users worldwide with the highest level of performance. Precision engineering and expert application support makes Allied the first and best choice for solving complex metal-cutting challenges.