Certification, shmertification!

Several of the comments on Six Sigma R.I.P.   touched on certification. With the belt system, this issue is of course central to Six Sigma, and, with Six Sigma on the Lean bandwagon, is merging with that of Lean certification, as evidenced in plant Lean champions who introduce themselves as Black Belts.

In his comment, R. Kester said the following:

Certification is the accepted way to communicate to others that you have successfully studied and can apply the concepts and tools of your profession (CPA, MD, RN, PE, etc.).

It is true that you want a Certified Public Accountant to help with your taxes, and that, if you go to a clinic, you don’t want anyone to mess with your health who doesn’t have the proper credentials posted on the wall. On the other hand, if you buy a painting, you usually don’t care whether the artist learned the craft in a school of fine arts or by spraying city walls: the paintings tell you all you need to know. There are also fields where certification exists but is not necessarily sought by all. For example, many university engineering departments seek ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) certification, but some don’t, such as Electrical Engineering at MIT, UC Berkeley, or Stanford. Their own brands are more prestigious and better known than ABET.

In the continuum of certifiable human activities, where does Lean sit between MDs and CPAs on one side and artists on the other? Lean experts sell their services to businesses, not consumers, and the primary use of certification is as a job applicant filter. To a recruiter with no personal knowledge of Lean and 100 resumes to review, the absence of a Lean certification is quick way to dispose of 80%. But what guarantee does the Lean certification give  that the surviving 20% are the best candidates?

For a certification process to achieve this result, there has to be a consensus on a body of knowledge (BOK) and on institutions qualified to certify proficiency in its application. Having doubled life expectancy in 200 years, modern medicine is a credible BOK. We know its theories are sound because they prevent, cure or control many diseases. Tax law is different, in that it is a set of rules defined by people for people to follow, like the rules of poker.  Outside of a specific human society, there is no corresponding physical reality. The difference between the two was dramatized in the library scene in  The Day After Tomorrow: the coming of a new ice age had made the tax code fit for burning, but medicine had retained its relevance, as seen when the heroes used a medical book to save one their own (See Figure 1.).

Figure 1. Burning the tax code to survive in a new ice age

In that it affects the physical reality of factories, Lean is more like medicine than tax law. However, besides the absence of consensus on a  BOK, Lean manufacturing differs from medicine is in the role of institutions, and academia in particular. Most medical discoveries are made in university medical schools; nearly all breakthroughs in manufacturing, on the other hand, have been made by self-taught practitioners in factories, with no academic affiliation. I am thinking of high school graduates like Taiichi Ohno, Frank Gilbreth, Charles Sorensen, or Frederick Taylor. Whatever consensus eventually emerges on a Lean BOK, it will not have come from universities. This leaves professional societies and for-profit training companies, and no answer to the question of who certifies the certifiers.

By requiring certifications, company recruiters are making them valuable to applicants, and are generating business both for genuine training organizations and for diploma mills. However, what these recruiters are not doing is their job, because  the next Taiichi Ohno won’t make it past their initial review.

15 comments on “Certification, shmertification!

  1. Absolutely on target, Michel. This is another example of the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. I find the rapid growth of ‘certification bias’ within the lean community correlates strongly to increased reliance upon 3rd party recruiting companies during the past 3 years particularly. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear these recruiting agencies are just the marketing divisions of the certifying organizations themselves.

    And standards for certification? I know the AME and SME have worked hard to create their own, but these have not been pervasively adopted. There are several reasons for this some of which you mention above.

    So let me start off a 5 Whys search for root causes here by asking, 1. Why have management consulting recruiters become the defacto validating body for lean skills and accomplishment?

  2. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on Linkedin:

    Dear Michel,

    The comparison between doctors and lean practitioners is quite interesting since doctors prescribe pills that have an entire list of side effects, but then they are not involved in producing the pills therefore they can not take any responsibility for the patient.

    The only industry that made some progress is the computer software industry were the programmers have introduced a “self-diagnostic” software. I wonder how long will take us before we will be able to predict in a dynamic way how to influence the changes.

  3. Michel,
    I agree 100% with your comments.
    I personally learned SPC, Mechanical engineering, LSS, TPM, and business 101 in the working world. It took me 15 years to finish my collegiate degrees. I only obtained them because I could not advance my position without the paper.
    I had attended college classes that I needed to learn the things that I needed to learn to be proficient at my job, and I was. However to get any farther up the corporate ladder I had to finish the degree. Thank God for on-line studies and employer tuition reimbursement!
    I am currently enrolled in a certification program for LSS Black Belt. Not that I haven’t been using these tools and Championing the groups projects for many years, but to “fit in” or advance once again, I find myself requiring “The Paper”
    I am sure the certifications, for the most part, are a good way to identify the skillset and maybe the experience of an individual, but I truly believe there are a lot of good reliable people out there that are overlooked due to this requirement.

  4. A couple of years ago I began feeling a bit inadequate because I lacked “certification” in Lean. After investigating local resources for certification, I discovered the local community college (CC) could provide it for me. They even advertised it
    on the radio!
    After careful thought (about 2 microseconds) I realized the same CC that offered to certify me was the same one where I presented their first ever Lean class a few year prior.
    Bottom line…I got over my feeling of inadequacy pretty quickly.

  5. So, like doctors who initially studied and learnt and practiced, in isolation or under tutorship, as this body of knowledge was developed, written down tested for truth and effectiveness; taken up as an academic subject and researched in academic institutions to continue development and improvements.

    It seams to me that Lean and sigma are just starting in the development of the body of knowledge and that the take up into academia is necessary if it is to develop and produce a BOK.

    However, a certificate is only a piece of paper and there are “doctors” all over the wall with pieces of paper, but that may not necessary an indication of the quality of their knowledge, skill or bedside manner. But it is something that should be checked by their employers, in the modern world, is it not; would there not have been numerous competent barber surgeons, witch doctors and other assorted medical men, who practiced in the past centuries to the best of their skill and knowledge without a piece of paper?

  6. Comment in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, & Lean Group discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Great points. So much of what it takes to be a successful continuous improvement leader is dependent on soft skills and facilitation that it is very hard to document in any BOK. The BOK is what you need to test or certify against. While the Defining and Measuring certainly lend themselves to the type of thinking that can be measured for a certification, like a CPA, the process of coming up with solutions is a much more creative process, like you would see in an artist.

  7. Comment in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, & Lean Group discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I’m in the process of implementing Lean at my organization. We plan to develop a Lean “designation” system that includes training, testing, required reading, board interview, and (most important) leading multiple Lean process improvement events under the tutelage of a mentor. There are a few reasons for this. First, we need competent, creative, motivated, smart folks to lead the program from the ground floor. There is nothing better than a credible, internal, structured designation system to identify those folks and get them up and running. Second, most motivated folks like earning a designation and really appreciate a structured approach to it. I’m a big fan of a designation system…as long as it’s done the right way.

    In my mind an internal designation system differs from a certification. There are a bunch of fly by night groups out there that provide Lean training and give you a fancy certificate. There is no value there. The key is “earn by doing.” That’s why the AME/ASQ/SME Lean Bronze/Silver/Gold certification has great merit.

    A credible designation and certification system identifies those hard charging motiviated folks who are willing to go the extra mile and help lead the program.

  8. Many of us came along before the certification process, learned through process improvement, spc, waste reduction, margin improvement, that there was a better way.Those basics have evolved into the components of the certification process.

    I agree with Randall and Henry…..earn by doing….not just having the title………

  9. Comment in the Lean & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    As an individual who has worked from the floor, through manufacturing engineering and into a management role, I have found “common sense” and experience to be much more reliable tools than arbitrary certifications. IMHO

  10. The entire field of ‘for profit trainers and certifiers’ is a total waste, the opposite of lean. Lean thinking is something you develop while working. Just because one is certified, there is no assurance what so ever of lean practice.

  11. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Couldn’t agree more! Any certificate issued by an entity that does NOT enforce a significant experience and accomplishment requirement should be suspect. However, then comes the problem of separating those who do from those who don’t. It’s pretty easy to find sites on the web that will give a SSBB cert for $495…

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