Certification Programs in Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma

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A few year ago, I realized that I was the wrong kind of engineer. I have a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, a master's in engineering management, and a doctorate in systems engineering. It was towards the tail end of my PhD did I realize that I should have been an industrial engineer. Systems, systems thinking, processes, lean ... I found studying and applying these topics interesting and exciting.

I've spent some time thinking and planning how to do industrial engineering kind of work, but without going to school for another degree. I've spent a lot of time as a learner and a teacher to experience how self-study is a powerful way to learn. I've also spent time thinking about our current higher education system and have come to the conclusion that it's outdated and problematic for the vast majority of PhD-seekers out there, but that's a separate blog post.

For this post, I'm writing about my first steps in my lean six sigma journey. My goal is to achieve master black belt status as a lean six sigma practitioner. Being a master black belt practitioner requires in-depth knowledge, skills, and evidence of leading black belt-level projects. Getting there is going to take some time and I chose to get a green belt certification as my first step.

I spent a weekend researching certification programs in Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma, and here is what I found.

The wild west

It really is. The first thing that I found is that picking a certification program is a nightmare. As you'll see, you can get a lean, six sigma, or lean six sigma credential from a number of different institutions. The central problem is that there is no single governing body that sets a standard for this credentialing. So although every certification providers all pull from the same body of knowledge, their offerings in credentialing have differing experience and testing requirements and use slightly different terminology. The lack of standardization is what creates confusion.

I'm going to try to clear up some confusion. If you want to see the whole data table that I've compiled, you can click here. Otherwise, stick with me while I breakdown what I learned about certifications in lean, six sigma, and lean six sigma.

Accreditation vs. Certification

Let me hit this point and get it out of the way. You, as an individual are looking for a certification (or credential). Organizations (schools, businesses) and programs (degree programs, training programs) get accredited; people get certified.

Why is this important? It's a red flag if you come across a website that offers you an accreditation in lean six sigma. You are looking for a certification. If a website offers you an accreditation, you can move on to the next website. Ideally, you want a certification from an accredited institution.

But for lean, six sigma, and lean six sigma, you'll see that some programs are accredited and some are not. Having an accredited program means that some third party has looked at a business's offering and endorses that the program as meeting some standard. The problem: There's no standard. And what we have today are programs that sound similar, but are different; programs that sound different, but are similar; and worse yet, programs that are potentially fraudulent.

Lean vs. Six Sigma vs. Lean Six Sigma

I got a headache trying to figure out and differentiate between the latter two. From the Council for Six Sigma Certification, they sum what I've discovered best:

Lean Six Sigma simply means a program that includes “lean” principles in the Six Sigma Curriculum. Most (if not all) Six Sigma programs are actually identical to their “Lean” Six Sigma counterparts.
If you are unsure of which to choose, we typically recommend “Six Sigma” for most people.  We recommend “Lean Six Sigma” for those that work in the public sector or armed forces.

In other words, if you don't know which certification to pick, just go with six sigma because six sigma and lean six sigma programs are both the same.

As for a lean certification, this covers just lean principles and won't go into the statistics and control methods necessary for reducing variance in a six sigma methodology. Because six sigma and lean six sigma programs incorporate lean principles, and because six sigma and lean six sigma programs are the same, I've chosen to work on a certification on lean six sigma (and the rest of this post will refer to lean six sigma, just to simplify things).

The three different types of certificate providers

When it comes to where to get a certification, first check with your employer. If you work for a large enough company, they may have a lean six sigma program already in place. Remember, because there's no single accreditation body specifying standards, anyone can provide a lean six sigma certification, including your employer.

For those of us going at it on our own, in general there are three types of certification providers:

  • Professional Society: Exists to promote some profession and usually to support people in that profession (American Society for Quality and Council for Six Sigma Certification are examples).
  • Academic Institute: These are business schools in a university offering a graduate certificate in lean six sigma.
  • Online School and Exam Provider: Online schools in the business of providing training in lean six sigma.

The general path for certification

Finally, before getting to the data, here's an infographic of what I think the certification path is in lean six sigma. The belts denote your level expertise in the field. Yellow, green, and black is the typical belt progression. You'll find other colored belts offered by different providers and you'll find some providers offer different levels within each color.

The data

Here's the data that I compiled for this post. I started by searching for exam-only providers, but quickly found that most training programs had their own exam. I also found that completing a graduate certificate program meant that it came with the certificate and no test. So I included these academic programs. The information below comes from each provider's public website; if I needed to provide my contact info for additional information, I stopped and went with the data I found.

You can use the search fields to narrow down the data if there is something in particular you're looking for.

Note: Above is an AwesomeTable app.

What I found

So clearly, I found the wild west when it comes to earning a certificate in lean six sigma. Standards vary from the number of questions in an exam, the different kinds of levels, requisite experience before sitting for an exam and even whether or not a program has an exam.

In general, there are three ways you can go about getting your certification:

  • The Do-It-Yourself Option. That is, study on your own and then sit for the test when you are ready. This is my preferred method and I list the resources that I used here.
  • Online Training. You'll pay considerably more than DIY, but you have the benefit of guided learning as someone has put together a curriculum for you. There's typically two options of a self-paced learning experience or with a live instructor.
  • Graduate Certificates. This option is near and dear to my heart having worked in academia and developing a graduate certificate program myself. This option is for those of you who find value in the name brand of the university and the external motivators of deadlines to complete the program. This route typically does not have a self-paced option. Also, based on the data, this is the most expensive of the options.

Watch out!

There were two surprising things that I found compiling the data.

First, watch out for the pass-through companies. These are websites that pass you off to the actual online trainer or certificate provider. Lear@Forbes and the Lean Six Sigma Academy. (**Be sure to inlcude the links here.**) I didn't include them in the data above because you can't earn a certificate from these businesses directly.

Second and most surprisingly, were allegations of fraud in the business. Here is an article posted by the Council for Six Sigma Certification on sixsigma.us alleging fraud in their reviews for their courses. A lesser problem, but a problem non-the-less, is the quality of the training provided. The Council for Six Sigma Certification provides consumer warnings for these businesses. If they are listed in the table above, I provide a link to the specific consumer warning.

So please, spend some time investigating the programs you are interested in to protect your wallet and prevent you from wasting valuable time.

What I chose to do

I'll close by telling you the route I went and why. I went the DIY option through ASQ.

First, DIY was the lowest cost option and I had the most control over my time. I'm a very confident learner and know that I can teach myself well enough to pass whatever certification exams. Practicing lean six sigma is where your knowledge, skills, and abilities are truly tested.

Second, I found ASQ was the simplest, most straightforward path to achieving master black belt: Get your green belt, get some experience, get your black belt, get more experience, then get your master black belt. I didn't have to worry about advanced levels within each belt, project/no project options, and all the different color belts the other providers offer. The requirements for sitting for each exam and project review requirements were straight-forward as well.

Finally, ASQ has name recognition and therefore trust in that their certification process. They are an organization that has been in existence for over 50 years and offer testing in quality-related fields. The question of whether or not ASQ is a fly-by-night company was never there.

I'll be sitting for my green belt exam here in the coming weeks. Wish me luck!.

Edit: I passed the exam on October 4, 2020.

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