The Master Black Belt: Hire or Consult?

by Michael Reames and Gabriel Kemeny - ProcessGPS on August 13, 2011

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Recently, two potential clients posed the partners at ProcessGPS an interesting question: We recognize that we need someone with Master Black Belt skills in our organization. Should our organization seek and hire this person, or use a consulting resource on a contract basis?  The answer is not immediately obvious, and it certainly depends on knowing more details of the client’s current state. Nevertheless, it’s a fair question with broad implications and deserves a conscientious reply.

First, we should be clear about the skills and characteristics of a Master Black Belt (MBB). In a sentence, a Master Black Belt is a trainer and coach for Black Belt Project Leaders, as well as a trusted guide for the senior leadership in the field of Lean Six Sigma. Thus the MBB is a key person in those organizations that are sustaining Process Excellence for the long term.

Lean Six Sigma critics allege that LSS is not always a good fit for an organization. Certainly there are some firms, frequently mid-size or smaller, or autonomous units of larger organizations, that struggle to support and sustain a complex implementation. Nevertheless, the contention that LSS is a bad fit is inappropriate. The larger issue is that Lean Six Sigma is not always the correct approach to resolving all process excellence issues. The spectrum of process improvement approaches span the simple quick wins and “Just-Do-It” for obvious actions to reduce waste or enhance process flow; to the straightforward Kaizen-like method for cleaning up a process to achieve maximum efficiency; to statistical root-cause analysis (to reduce variability in a process); to complete process re-design or new process creation. In fact, there are even good project management candidates for strategic decisions to upgrade the technology (for example, new servers or SAP implementation). So don’t believe LSS practitioners who claim that traditional DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) is always the right path to an improved process; these well-intentioned folks have a “hammer” and will use it to pound in any “nail.”

This suggests that an organization that wants to improve the way it manages processes and is sincerely interested in responding to the Voice of the Customer will come up with a customized way of deploying LSS that works for them. This brings us back to the dilemma of the MBB skills required:  hire a permanent MBB or contract for MBB resources from a consulting firm.

The Master Black Belts at ProcessGPS have served in both capacities, and therefore are able to see both advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The desirable characteristics of a Master Black Belt may be adequately served by either a permanent hire or a contracted consultant. Our compilation of the skills required include:

With these characteristics in mind, let us now proceed to a consideration of the question to hire or to consult an MBB. The following table was initially based on a set of force-field analyses, then combined into a concise document laying out the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Hire Permanent MBB vs. Use MBB Consulting Resource (contract basis) vs. “Best of Both Worlds”

In summary, there are very good cases to be made for either hiring a permanent MBB or using the services of a contracted consultant MBB. The specific answer must be provided by each organization struggling with this dilemma. For some, a combined approach may help them to make progress in their improvement efforts while taking the time to find an optimal match for a permanent hire.

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