Should I Become a Master Black Belt?

October 19, 2022

A Master Black Belt is the pinnacle achievement as a Lean Six Sigma practitioner. But is it the right choice for you? If you are passionate about Operational Excellence and want to play a central role in aligning your organization's strategic goals with improvement efforts, then the answer is probably 'YES!'

Key Takeaways

A Master Black Belt certification is the highest title that an individual can earn in Lean Six Sigma practices. Master Black Belts are the coaches, leaders, mentors, and consultants of the organization.

The Master Black Belt certification process is very rigorous. MBB hopefuls should expect a combination of tests, many hours of studying, in-person classes, real-world experience, and project work.

There are many career paths that an MBB can take, but all of them include being a technical expert in the tools of LSS, a master coach for all levels of an organization, and a passionate motivator of continuous improvement and cultural change.

But becoming a Master Black Belt is no small feat. Not only do you have to be eager to put in the time and effort (many programs, including MoreSteam's, require you to have previous Black Belt experience before you can pursue a Master Black Belt certification), but you also need the drive. Becoming a Master Black Belt requires foundational experience and a desire to coach, mentor, and train. They possess a passion for leadership and a strong appetite for implementing and persuading change at the highest level of your organization.

What does it mean to become a Master Black Belt? What is the certification process? And what can you expect from your career once you achieve that belt level?

We had the pleasure of sitting down with several of our recent Master Black Belt graduates. We learned about their training experience, motivation for pursuing certification, and what a potential candidate can expect should they follow a similar trajectory.

What is a Master Black Belt?

Master Black Belts are an invaluable asset to any organization. They are high-skilled in handling complex process problems, they are adept at coaching and mentoring Black Belts and Green Belts, and they work to align process improvement projects to the strategic initiatives set forth by the organization. These coveted individuals bear many responsibilities and are highly regarded for their sharp decision-making skills.

Master Black Belts are responsible for identifying larger improvement opportunities that may break into a collection of projects across the value stream. They act as a bridge between management levels within the organization, consistently communicating the value of Lean and Six Sigma problem-solving.

It may feel logical to continue 'climbing the ranks' throughout your career and aim for a Master Black Belt certification. And while it's certainly not out of the question, becoming a Master Black Belt is a lot like the decision to become a Master Sommelier. Think about your passions and strengths and make the decision based on how that aligns with the work a Master Black Belt does.

What's the Difference Between a Black Belt and a Master Black Belt?

That depends on the organization. A Master Black Belt typically aligns an organization's goals to the work in the Operational Excellence initiative. A Master Black Belt is the bridge between senior leadership and the continuous improvement (CI) team, while Black Belts commonly spend the majority of their time executing projects.

Both MBB's and BB's are expected to mentor and coach the upcoming belts in their organization, but MBB's often design the structure of said training.

Donnie Williams, Senior Manager, Continuous Improvement, TuSimple

Donnie Williams: I would say strategic projects and capability development (fishing and teaching others to fish). In the BB role, someone is telling you where to fish. "Go fix this; go train these specific people." And in the MBB role, there's an unstated but super critical responsibility where you're having conversations with upper management, describing what needs to be fixed that's critical to the business as a whole, and then going and doing that. The elevation from BB to MBB is often centered around the strategic level. First, identifying critical improvement opportunities with executive leadership, next helping them prioritize the opportunities, and finally leading teams to execute on those priorities.

The elevation from BB to MBB is that strategic layer of having those communications with executive leadership, helping them prioritize what needs to be fixed, and then having the discussions of the benefit realization of what needs to be fixed.

Rajanikanth Pagadakatalu: Specific to my organization, Black Belts handle projects, [whereas] MBBs are consultants for various programs & coach Black Belts.

Jennifer Cromey: Black Belt and Master Black Belt concepts are based on the same body of knowledge. It's demonstrating mastery of the skills through real life experiences that sets them apart. Go for your MBB certification to showcase your hard work and recommit taking your skills to the next level.

Not every job needs a Master Black Belt. You could really thrive at having your Black Belt in many career aspirations. So it's really just where you want to take how you perceive your role and your academic [pursuits].

View the full Master Black Black BoK covered in MoreSteam's MBB curriculum.

How Does a Master Black Belt Spend Their Time?

How you spend your time as a Master Black Belt will come down to your duties and the process improvement initiatives of the organization. While some positions may require a heavy hand in mentoring and coaching the other belts in the organization, others will take on more of a delegation role. And others still will need more facetime with leadership, consulting them on the high-level decisions of the organization.

Donnie Williams: My job is about 80% project delivery and 20% capability development. I'm doing projects that the company needs done immediately. Measuring how much things cost and then coming to a uniform agreement across the company on said cost. This is all teeing up for cost reduction; now that we have this entire methodology around how much [something] costs and everyone agrees to that, then we can start removing as much cost as possible.

Rajanikanth Pagadakatalu, Assistant Vice President, Fifth Third Bank

Rajanikanth Pagadakatalu: I am an LSS specialist in managing enterprise-level programs. Right now, I am the LSS consultant for five major initiatives as my organization plans to revamp the IT infrastructure by bringing in ERPs.

Jennifer Cromey: At the MBB level, you are able to bring a more strategic approach. In my role(s), I work with leadership on large cross-functional projects to make the connections between people, process and technology to drive business goals. Coaching and teaching LSS principles to anyone and everyone is also at the core of my purpose.

Maria Fry: In really good organizations, they are involved in the strategy development process. Then go and do hoshin planning; they look at where we need help (is it in expense reduction? Is it with raw materials? Is it business efficiency?)

They target the areas of the organization where we are either really not meeting the target, and we can bring us up to the level, or they look for opportunities to get there. So you use the strategies to deep dive into where we have opportunities in conjunction with the other leadership in the organization.

The Value of a Master Black Belt

Rajanikanth Pagadakatalu: Specific to my organization, Master Black Belts are seen as leaders, consulted for complex topics/issues & are expected to coach other BBs to get them to the MBB level.

Jennifer Cromey: Individuals typically tell me that they value my "way of thinking." I have realized over the years, that not everyone thinks the way that I do and how powerful it can be when harnessed in the right way to connect different teams, technologies, and processes. The MBB mindset allows visibility of the big picture along with the ability to break down and make connections on how it all works together in a meaningful way.

Maria Fry, Lean Six Sigma Master Black belt, MoreSteam Client Services

Maria Fry: [There is a] linkage to the leadership. Where I've seen it done very effectively from a strategy deployment standpoint, we hear, "what are our top five strategy goals for this year from C-Suite?"

Either we're involved in that process, or they give them to us. Then we go to the next level of leadership and say, 'okay, here's our targets. Let's brainstorm. What are our opportunities?

Go talk to your group and bring us back a list of twenty things that we can do about this'. The Master Black Belt helps categorize [them].

[For example], this one's a 'just do it,' this one is a Black Belt level project, who can we assign to that? This one is a yellow belt [etc]. Basically, we label projects and assign resources to go attack those and get the deliverables we need to meet that strategy goal.

Start your Master Black Belt journey by downloading the program datasheet!

Master Black Belt Certification: What Can You Expect?

Like most certifications, your journey toward earning a Six Sigma Master Black Belt certification will depend on the program you go through. Typically for certification, you can expect in-person or online training, one or more exams, and to present a portfolio of personal project work demonstrating both technical mastery and experience with soft skills as a coach.

Identifying the Problem

In MoreSteam's case, we require:

  • 71 hours of various eLearning coursework
  • 1-Week In-Person Advanced Statistics & Leadership Workshop with Exam
  • 1-Week In-Person Advanced Lean & Finance Workshop with Exam
  • A final oral interview defending your LSS project or thesis in front of MoreSteam staff

Master Black Belt Certification Process graphic visualizing the requirements and expected order of completion.

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Donnie Williams: It's your typical five classes, two in-person, three online, and a couple of exams. All of that is child's play - you go, show up, study, and do your thing. But I think that the most rigorous and difficult part (which has helped me a lot in interviews) is the actual portfolio review process. [It involves] five projects that you lead with specific tools that you have to 'check the box' on, and then ten projects that you coach.

It gives you the value of the certification because it's not just something that's handed out but actually finding work that fits the boxes where you need to use those tools in an environment that those tools aren't really designed for. The actual portfolio review process, both doing the total of fifteen projects but then also defending it with the MoreSteam staff, was challenging, but it made it so that in future interviews, I could describe the certification process in rigorous detail.

Jennifer Cromey: Your day-to-day work should be your project base. Find a happy medium [with your projects]. If you're lacking some of those specific projects, work with your manager to make sure you're focusing on that project to get that in your portfolio without adding additional hours to your [work] day.

For the two weeks' time that you need for your training, it's a management system. You need to talk to your leadership and tell them how much of an investment this really is, not only for yourself but in the company; making that investment to have that skillset on the team is very valuable.

Is a Master Black Belt Certification Right for Me?

Jennifer Cromey, Director, Global Strategic Operations, Cushman & Wakefield

Jennifer Cromey: Don't sell yourself short. Think about all the great things you're doing and have done. You have the BB mindset. The next step is about the mastery of the skills and compiling your portfolio to showcase your LSS journey. Review the MBB requirements and your projects to identify any gaps. Then set yourself up to complete your portfolio and continue your professional development journey.

Think about your projects and get those in mind, and then just dig deeper and make sure you're setting yourself up for those projects to create that portfolio and continue professional development.

Maria Fry: Our rules are that you have to have done five projects on your own, which typically means that you've been doing it for 2-3 years at least. And you have to have an interest in coaching because that's a big component of what you do and how you add value to your organization; you could bring ten projects up to the next level and make sure they're most effective by coaching with your higher level skillset as a Master Black Belt.

It's about your growth path.

Learn more about the Master Black Belt Program MoreSteam offers in collaboration with The Ohio State University.

Maria Fry has assisted organizations across a broad range of industries in developing and deploying Lean Six Sigma as a part of their Operational Excellence strategy for the last 25 years. She is currently a Principal/ Lean Six Sigma Master Blackbelt and Coach.

Donnie Williams is known for leading process improvement initiatives, optimizing productivity, and maintaining seamless workflow. He is currently the Senior Manager of Continuous Improvement at TuSimple, a technology company redesigning the future of long-haul trucking.

Jennifer Cromey is an experienced Industrial Engineer with a background in integrating people, processes, and technology at an enterprise level to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and profitability. She is the Director of Global Strategic Operations at Cushman & Wakefield.

Rajanikanth (RK) Pagadakatalu is a self-motivated leader with a demonstrated record of success in Business Processes Transformations, Business Operations, and Program Management. He is currently the assistant vice-president at Fifth Third Bank.

Learn more about the Master Black Belt Program

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