Back to Articles

August 1st, 2018

The Lean Six Sigma Belt Structure

Mike Horton, Senior Consultant

Eleven years ago, while working for an American chemicals corporation which was beginning to introduce Lean globally, I got my first 100% improvement focussed job, and the role was officially called Tool Facilitator. Two years later, when it was announced the role names were all going to change I was more than happy to have the word ‘Tool’ removed from my title, but completely mystified to find out I was now going to be a Black Belt. When applying for car insurance online there are hundreds of options for job title, but that is definitely not one of them.

A contradiction at the heart of Lean implementation.

In order to help people at all levels of an organisation understand the basic principles, clear and concise language is essential. However, the moment you begin discussing Lean as a topic, even at awareness level, it is incredibly difficult not to introduce jargon which is not only unfamiliar, but often downright odd. If you try to deconstruct Lean training material and make it more understandable to someone with no background in the subject, you can even become convinced that the jargon has been put there deliberately. We say we’re keen for everyone to gain an understanding of Lean principles, but are we secretly trying to protect improvement as a profession by making the language impenetrable to normal people?

The Belt structure is a perfect example. I always attempt to shoehorn an explanation into the beginning of any Yellow Belt courses I deliver, because if the attendees have committed to achieve a Yellow Belt qualification they are entitled to know what it means. I struggle not to come across as apologetic though – how can I justify what linguistically is a frankly bizarre hierarchical structure? I explain that many Lean tools originated in Japan and to people there it makes perfect sense, just like with martial arts the belt colour changes the more experience you gain and the more ability you demonstrate. It also provides a comparable qualification that might be meaningful to other organisations if you put it on your CV. At this point though, with a class full of people eager to learn ways to improve their team’s output staring back at me, I can tell I had better stop talking about judo and get to something useful pretty quickly if I’m not going to lose them altogether. Their reaction when faced with something so inexplicably odd is usually gentle ridicule – I have yet to run a single Yellow Belt course where at least one person doesn’t ask “so do we get an actual yellow belt to wear when we’ve finished?”.  As with the inevitable mention of the Hokey Cokey when covering Poka Yoke, appearing politely amused is getting harder and harder as the years go by.

So, what do these belts actually mean? 

The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has published a list of the competencies they would expect a Green Belt and a Black Belt to be able to demonstrate. Their reasoning is that this should help combat the type of companies who claim they can certify you at Master Black Belt level if you’ll pay $30 for a 1-hour course online. At Bourton Group we reacted to ISO18404 by ensuring that our Green and Black Belt courses exceeded the ISO requirements, which happily they already did.  However, the standard’s success depends on all companies hiring on the basis that an individual meets the ISO requirements, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen. Even if it does, what about White Belt, Yellow Belt or Master Black Belt training levels, which aren’t in the standard? Is it even possible to have a meaningful definition of what they are?


The truth is that while any level of Continuous Improvement training will give your CV a boost, the colour of your belt is nowhere near as important as what you can do. If you are able to demonstrate your application of Lean tools has resulted in hard business benefits, any lack of standardisation in training levels between different companies is irrelevant. That, after all, is the value-added activity. Too much focus on the belt levels themselves risks losing sight of what the customer really wants.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up here to be part of our Lean and Leaders community or click here for more articles.

Becoming part of our community will enable you to keep up to date with best practice about Lean and Leadership.

Mike Horton - ConsultantMike joined Bourton Group last year building on a successful career in performance improvement with Air Products. He is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with nine years’ experience of leading hard benefit generating projects, across multiple functions of a large organisation. He has delivered numerous Continuous Improvement training courses, and coached colleagues at all stages of the Lean Six Sigma training process.

Download Article in PDF Format

Download Article

Back to Articles