Why a Black Belt Should Only be Worn with a Karategi

A karategi is the Japanese name for a karate training uniform and a black belt in karate denotes a high level of competence. A karate black belt takes years to complete and when you have achieved the level of black belt, it tells others not to mess with you because not only do you have discipline and skill, you also have the ability to defend yourself and even hurt others.

One of the connotations of operational excellence is that if you use Six Sigma, you will achieve it. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that is not the case. That is like saying, “I have a black belt in karate, therefore I am a martial arts expert.” This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Six Sigma. The problem is that we often incorrectly define operational excellence.

Six Sigma is focused on the removal of the root cause of errors, with an error being defined as something that doesn’t meet customer expectations, and minimizing variability in processes. Essentially Six Sigma helps you fix root problems and maximize standardization. But that alone does not equal operational excellence.

When identifying companies that we consider operationally superior, companies like Dell, Amazon, Apple, Disney and Wal-mart come to mind. Are these companies operationally excellent because they fix root problems and maximize standardization? Is it because of their quality management system? No, they are operationally excellent because they go well beyond that. They engage customers, they constantly innovate, they continuously improve how they operate and they move quickly. They may use Six Sigma approaches, but being a black belt or applying Six Sigma does not equal operational excellence.

Six Sigma principles never would have helped Apple develop the iPod or Dell develop an approach for customers to order their own customized computers through the Internet. Six Sigma never would have helped Disney develop a customer-first culture where employees are expected to drop everything they’re doing to replace a child’s ice cream that fell to the ground. These innovative ideas didn’t start with a problem statement that needed resolution. They came from a different way of thinking. A different mindset that was focused on people and customer loyalty and affecting change.

When you study Six Sigma and achieve a certain level of competence, as with karate, you also get a black belt. Achieving this black belt also takes years, but what do you really have once you have received your Six Sigma black belt? Do people fear you? No. Do they respect you more? Maybe. What you have is a certification in common sense and the use of tools and methodologies. This can be very useful, but alone does not vault you into the stratosphere of operational excellence.

The visual below depicts the four components of operational excellence for an organization: increasing speed; maximizing performance; engaging customers; and increasing innovation and collaboration.



How many of these does Six Sigma impact? Only one (maximize performance). So how can we connote Six Sigma with operational excellence? We can’t. It would be like entering a martial arts competition where there are four different disciplines you must compete in and only knowing karate. You will be great in one area but insufficient in the others.

Six Sigma has its place and can be effective when trying to improve performance in a specific area of an organization, but it is limited in its ability to drive operational excellence and look at holistic strategies. It is not an overall solution, just a component of it. For true operational excellence, we need a more comprehensive approach

that includes the four components mentioned above and is focused on people and affecting change. For true operational excellence, companies need to engage the voices of customers and business partners to drive innovation, execution and continuous performance improvement. Have you ensured that this culture is present in your organization?