Nov 1 2011
To be useful, a metaphor must help understanding. For the promoters of Six Sigma to call their certification Black Belt was marketing genius. A more descriptive label might have been Staff Statistician, but what self-respecting manufacturing professional would want to be that? Borrowing a term from Japanese martial arts not only appealed to their fighting spirit, but also gave the impression that an approach developed at Motorola in the US had a connection with Japan, ground-zero of manufacturing excellence. Even in Japan, Black Belt (“Kuroto”) and White Belt (“Shiroto”) have migrated from martial arts to everyday language, to designate respectively a real pro and an amateur.
As a metaphor, Black Belt also made sense because there is a parallel between the Six Sigma and martial arts training programs. Traditional masters in the martial arts of China trained one or two disciples at the Bruce Lee level in a lifetime, just as universities trained only a handful of experts in statistical design of experiments that could be effective in electronics manufacturing. One Karate instructor, on the other hand, can train hundreds of Black Belts, just as a Six Sigma program can teach a focused subset of statistical design of experiments to hundreds of engineers.
Scrum, in software development, is also a sports metaphor, a term borrowed from rugby, which few Americans know. The connection between a rugby scrum and what software people call by the same name, however, is not obvious. A rugby scrum involves the forward players of two teams locked in the pattern of Figure 1.
Figure 1. A rugby scrum
The ball is released in the middle of the scrum and both team try to take possession by kicking it backwards while pushing the other team forwards. It is exciting and bruising to participate in, as well as a great spectacle. For software developers, scrum is an approach to project management illustrated by the status panel in Figure 2.
Figure 2. A software development scrum
It leaves you wondering what plays the role of the opposing team, the ball, or the player positions. In other words, in what way is a rugby scrum a metaphor for this approach at all?