A Consultant’s Journey: The Six Sigma Process

Before I officially started as a Senior Consultant this past August, Larx Advisors generously gave me the opportunity to pursue certifications in Lean Six Sigma.   

I’ve had operations experience before joining the firm – I worked in operations for a boutique private equity firm before I matriculated to business school and for a large credit union during my MBA internship – but I was pretty ignorant as to what six sigma was. If you told me that earning a black belt certification involved some requisite knowledge of karate, I may have believed you. That said, I knew that six sigma credentials were generally well-regarded, so I jumped at the opportunity.  

Much of the six sigma certification process involves learning about how data can be used to define, measure, analyze, improve, and then control a particular business process. Because data is so integral to this practice, the six sigma certification curriculum includes a healthy dose of statistics. I enjoyed this, as I’ve always had a liking for numbers. I don’t know who coined it, but I appreciate the quote: “In God we Trust…but all others should bring data.” Hunches are often very accurate, but unless they’re backed with evidentiary support, they’re just hunches. Data is necessary for assertions to be made with empirical confidence, so it makes sense that a six sigma curriculum would be pretty data-heavy.   

While I wasn’t shocked that I enjoyed the statistical aspects of the certification process, I was a little surprised by how taken I was with the overall six sigma way of thinking. Six sigma is a philosophy as much as it is a business tool and learning that philosophy imparts a certain systematic way of looking at the world. This philosophy focuses on customer value, so things that don’t add value can be eliminated. It focuses on processes instead of problems, so causes, rather than symptoms, can be addressed. And it focuses on approaching systems from a holistic perspective, so weak points, bottlenecks, and critical characteristics can be identified and rectified.   

To receive my green belt, the training curriculum involved about 80 hours of lectures, followed by a lengthy and encapsulating training project and a (pretty grueling) final exam based on said training project that took me north of three hours to complete.   

The training project involved addressing the problems of a hypothetical company. This company was experiencing declining profitability, and as someone trained in six sigma, you’re tasked with using skills you’ve accrued to improve their outcome. Using the statistical and analytical tools from the curriculum, you find that the problems are stemming primarily from one geographical region. Drilling down, you find that in this region, one “critical-to-quality” characteristic of the product is failing disproportionately. Drilling down further, you find that one or two “critical-to-process” characteristics are causing those quality metrics to fall. You then work to improve those processes and the benefits work their way up.  

After passing the exam and earning my certification, I figured I had learned the six sigma philosophy sufficiently and my training was complete. But Larx, in the six sigma spirit of continuous improvement, supported me in going back and getting black belt certified. The knowledge requirements for green belts and black belts differ in both breadth and depth; green belts are equipped to improve specific processes, but black belts are also equipped with the knowledge to deploy teams to identify problem areas, conduct experiments, and ensconce process controls.  

The black belt training process involves an additional 80 hours of lectures (bringing the total to 160 hours), a considerably more involved training project, and a final exam that was more than twice as long as the green belt exam. I knew it would be a challenge to complete, but the culture at Larx is to attack difficult challenges with passion and purpose, so that’s what I did. After some long nights, early mornings, and a lot of coffee, I received my black belt certification two weeks after my official Larx start date. Now I’m fortunate to be in the position to take skills I’ve learned and the enthusiasm with which I learned them and apply them to help solve client problems.   

Before becoming educated in six sigma, my approach to addressing client problems was oriented entirely around results. This is understandable, as clients justifiably require excellent final products and deliverables. That said, this results-oriented mental approach is incomplete. Producing a product, on-time and without defects, is necessary. But real value exists in putting the structures and processes into place that can produce that product with excellent quality over and over again. Simply doing work for a client involves producing a product, but doing transformational advisory goes far beyond that, and that’s exactly what six sigma principles are about. 

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