March of the Pretendacons

Lean Six Sigma Profession Under Seige

April 25, 2010

Over the last few years, we've watched a hotly contested race to the bottom between mortgage‐backed security rating agencies and Lean Six Sigma certification providers to see who can set a lower bar. Yet with the financial meltdown clearly visible in the rearview mirror, the pain of lax assessment standards still stings across the world economic landscape. Hopefully, the lessons of this debacle will be well‐remembered and broadly applied across industries.

The stable functioning of an efficient market depends upon reliable information. Bad information leads to understated risks, distorted pricing, and market failure — but now I'm not referring to the financial markets, I'm speaking of the market for Black Belts and Green Belts. In recent years, we've seen LSS certification standards erode to the level of a children's soccer game, where everyone gets a trophy for merely participating. So while the securities rating agencies may have won the race to the bottom, it's been a close contest.

If you accept that the purpose of Lean Six Sigma certification is to provide an objective and independent assurance of professional competence, then surely the assessment process should mirror the expected operating environment as closely as possible, shouldn't it? The actual environment of process improvement is strewn with both passive and active impediments: people who won't co‐operate, organizational politics, "leaders" who don't lead, complex customer dynamics, byzantine processes, resource shortages, and conflicting time demands, to name a few. These challenges require more application skill than knowledge.

This is why those organizations who are serious about process improvement employ rigorous certification standards based on real‐world success. They need confidence that their "Belts" can be successful before throwing them into the fire, so their certification standards include proof of prior project success. It's not unlike the process of earning a pilot's license: ground school —> flight school —> flying solo —> pilot's license —> fly others.

Pilots experience ground school in the classroom and flight simulators, but they follow this with flight school because there's no other way to experience the full complexity of real flight in a real airplane in the real air. In the Lean Six Sigma world, many training and consulting firms have been tempted by commercial interests to relax certification standards and eliminate Belt flight training. "If you don't have the ability to work on a real project, it's no problem," they say. "We'll furnish you with a project case study that can be completed online."

That's right, a pretend project. No real‐world experience. No difficult application in a complex environment that pushes back in unanticipated ways. Just a case study. I call these organizations Pretendacons: predatory firms whose pretense of serious certification is dragging the profession into the dirt.

Are the real customers asking for this? Do the Pretendacons even know who their real customers are? Here's a wake‐up call: the customers are not the "belts" being "certified" based on pretend projects, even though they are the ones paying the bill. The customers are really the companies who hire those "belts."

All of the evidence that I have seen from actual customers indicates that they want "certification that means something," and certification without real project work does not really mean anything. The real customers don't care about "certification that's easy to get." That concept is anathema. Such "certifications" do not ensure future success, the original primary objective.

So how do we stop the Pretendacons from destroying the world with useless certifications? Raise the standard and call out the Pretendacons for what they are.

At MoreSteam we subscribe to the new standards published by the Center for Operational Excellence at Ohio State University, for Green Belts and Black Belts, because they most clearly represent certification based on real capability — the voice of the actual customer. I invite you to take a look — they may be useful to you. If these standards gain wide acceptance by the industry, then the Pretendacons will be forced to change their practices, and we will all benefit as a profession.