Management & Leadership

What Are the Levels of Lean Six Sigma?

What Are the Levels of Lean Six Sigma?
Six Sigma drives efficiency at innumerable manufacturers, service providers, healthcare providers, and transportation companies, among others. Professionals seek Six Sigma training and earn certifications confirming their level of expertise. Image from Unsplash
Tom Meltzer profile
Tom Meltzer February 15, 2023

You can earn Lean Six Sigma certification at the white belt, yellow belt, green belt, black belt, and master black belt levels. LSS belts indicate the holder's master of efficiency and waste reduction in business processes.

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In the 1990s, General Electric recognized that it needed to improve quality control and efficiency to remain competitive in the global marketplace. After considering multiple solutions, CEO Jack Welch decided to transform GE into a Six Sigma operation.

The company subsequently invested more than $1 billion in training and implementation programs. GE instituted mentoring programs to bolster training and established certification levels keyed to promotions and pay increases.

Three critical initiatives clearly reflected Six Sigma principles:

  • Show Me the Money required managers to prioritize the bottom line in all decisions
  • Everybody Plays required all stakeholders, including outside vendors, to contribute to Six Sigma strategy and implementation
  • Specific Techniques institutionalized Six Sigma tools and analytics in driving decision making

How well did it work? According to The Washington Post, Six Sigma saved GE over $2 billion in 1999. Six Sigma textbooks still point to GE as one of many case studies demonstrating the method’s effectiveness.

Today, Six Sigma drives efficiency at innumerable manufacturers, service providers, healthcare providers, and transportation companies, among others. Professionals seek Six Sigma training and earn certifications confirming their level of expertise. What are the levels of Six Sigma training? This article answers that question and also discusses:

  • What is Lean Six Sigma?
  • What is Lean Six Sigma certification?
  • What are the levels of Lean Six Sigma?

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is a management methodology focused on improving business processes by increasing efficiency and identifying and eliminating sources of error. By standardizing processes and applying statistical tools to productivity measurements, Six Sigma reduces bottom-line costs and promotes profit.

Most historians trace the origins of Six Sigma to the Motorola company in the early 1980s. Motorola engineer Bill Smith developed the metrics and standards that defined early iterations of Six Sigma; his calculations determined that 3.4 defects per million opportunities was the company’s optimum quality control target. That value represented a six sigma deviation from the mean, lending the approach its name.

Lean Enterprise is a complementary approach focused on waste elimination. Lean recognizes eight critical forms of waste: defects, inventory, motion, overproduction, over-processing, talent under-utilization, transportation, and waiting. Lean methodology dates back at least as far as Henry Ford and assembly line production; its principles were advanced considerably by Toyota engineers starting in the 1950s.

In 1986, the George Group combined Lean and Six Sigma in the first implementation of what it, unimaginatively but accurately, dubbed Lean Six Sigma. Its success soon spread “among manufacturing as well as service organizations around the globe,” according to University of the West of Scotland professor Maryam Zufliqar.

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What is Lean Six Sigma certification?

As the term indicates, Lean Six Sigma certification is a credential confirming that the holder has achieved a particular level of LSS training. Training providers include colleges, universities, and private training organizations and companies.

Like judo and karate, LSS uses a color-coded belt system to indicate one’s mastery level. Participants complete coursework, examinations, and projects to earn certification. Many certifiers offer self-taught options as well as instructor-led training courses.

Three main organizations accredit LSS training programs. The International Association for Six Sigma Certification (IASSC) offers accreditation for training programs at three belt levels: yellow, green, and black. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) certifies training programs in the same three levels plus one more: master black belt. The Council for Six Sigma Certification (CSSC) certifies programs at five levels: white, yellow, green, black, and master black.

The CSSC website notes that the differences between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma training are nominal at most. The organization asserts that “Most (if not all) Six Sigma programs are actually identical to their ‘Lean’ Six Sigma counterparts… [A]lthough Six Sigma began decades ago, it was only when the military began implementing it that it became a household name.” The military refers to its certification as Lean Six Sigma, causing confusion. CSSC notes that Six Sigma training should be sufficient for most trainees, although those working in the public sector or armed forces should opt for the Lean Six Sigma designation due to employer preferences.

What are the levels of Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma levels, from lowest to highest, are: white belt, yellow belt, green belt, black belt, master black belt. According to the IASSC, average salaries at each level are:

  • White belt: $42,000
  • Yellow belt: $65,000
  • Green belt: $85,000
  • Black belt: $95,000–$110,000
  • Master black belt: $100,00 –$135,000

Here’s what you can expect to learn at each training level.

Lean Six Sigma white belt

White belt Six Sigma certification indicates a basic level understanding of Six Sigma methodology. Program contents cover the definition of Six Sigma, the history of its development, and an introductory understanding of how Six Sigma is implemented and who within an organization is responsible to implement it.

CSSC offers white belt certification at no cost. Applicants with sufficient knowledge can simply sit for the exam. Those who require preparation can access self-study training guides and sit for several shorter exams over the course of learning rather than a single final exam. There is no project requirement at the white belt level.

Lean Six Sigma yellow belt

According to ASQ, yellow belt certification is for professionals seeking foundational knowledge in Six Sigma principles and practices. Yellow belt candidates may hold such titles as junior manager, administrator, inspector, or quality analyst.

A yellow belt curriculum covers:

  • Six Sigma foundations and principles
  • Lean foundations and principles
  • Six Sigma roles
  • Teams and how they function
  • Quality tools and Six Sigma metrics
  • Project management basics
  • DMAIC processes and principles
  • Introduction to DPU, DPMO, COPQ, CTQ, SIPOC, and WBS
  • Data collection and analysis

Lean Six Sigma green belt

Professionals who pursue LSS green belt certification typically hold such titles as consultant, business process analyst, project manager, data engineer, operating systems specialist, or manufacturing engineer. According to ASQ, green belts are “experts in identifying problems, analyzing data, and creating solutions to lower cost while improving quality.” They are planners, advisors, and team leaders who provide direct support to black belts. Some Six Sigma programs require a yellow belt as a prerequisite to the green belt; others do not.

A green belt curriculum covers:

  • Organizational goals, drivers, and metrics
  • Lean principles, including theory of constraints, Gemba, value chain, and value stream mapping
  • DfSS methodologies, including basic failure mode and effect analysis, design FMEA and process FMEA
  • Project identification
  • Voice of the customer
  • Project management
  • Management and planning diagrams, matrices, and SWOT analysis
  • Process performance analysis
  • Team theory and practice
  • Process analysis and documentation
  • Measurement system analysis
  • Data analysis and hypothesis testing
  • Experimental design
  • Kaizen and other Lean tools
  • Statistical process control

Lean Six Sigma black belt

The LSS black belt is designed for upper-level professionals in upper-level executive and managerial roles. According to ASQ, a black belt signifies someone who can:

  • Explain Six Sigma theory, principles, tools, and supporting systems
  • Lead, manage, and inspire a team
  • Implement the DMAIC model
  • Incorporate lean enterprise concepts
  • Identify nonvalue-added activities and elements
  • Describe and use the entire Six Sigma toolkit

Black belt training includes instruction in:

  • Organization-wide planning and implementation
  • Strategic planning
  • Leadership
  • Change management
  • Benchmarking through financial and performance measures
  • Team training, management, and facilitation
  • Customer identification and customer needs assessment
  • Business case and project charter
  • Data collection and analytical tools
  • Probability and statistics, including linear and logistic regression, multivariate tools, and correlation coefficients
  • Experimental design
  • Lean methodology
  • Controls
  • Design for Six Sigma frameworks and methodologies

Some programs will admit candidates who do not hold lower-level belts. That said, the level and complexity of black belt material—which builds on skills and knowledge learned in lower-level certifications—would make the process challenging for most who do not already hold a green belt.

Lean Six Sigma master black belt

Master black belt is the top-level LSS credential. A master black belt indicates the holder is qualified to train others in Six Sigma. Master black belt candidates must have at least five years experience as a black belt and must submit a portfolio with their applications. Certification requires passing a long, thorough examination.

ASQ offers a separate high-level training program for Six Sigma experts that it deems the champion level. Champions, according to ASQ, “are upper-level managers who lead the execution of the Lean Six Sigma deployment plans for the company.”

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024).

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About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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