There is an ongoing and sometimes raging debate about whether a lean process improvement certification has any value at all. For years I was on the side of the argument to suggest it had absolutely no value. Recently, however, I have begun to shift my thinking. Here are the basic elements of the debate.

The argument against certifications

My lean implementation experience started at The Wiremold Company, which is one of the best full company lean transformation examples in history. I had the benefit of strong mentorship from Art Byrne, Wiremold’s CEO, from ex-Toyota Production System consultants from Japan, and hundreds of Kazien events that I led, facilitated, or in which I participated. This is deep experience that adds up to tremendous capability to help implement lean principles in any company environment.

That said, I have never been certified in lean through my Wiremold experiences.

After Wiremold, I was a manufacturing expert at McKinsey & Company with ex-Toyota, Nissan and other world class lean companies as my fellow teammates. None of us were certified in lean, yet we were some of the best lean implementation and strategic resources that you can find.

One day, I was sitting on a plane and the guy sitting next to me shared that some people from his company were going through a lean certification program. I asked more about his background and he asked about mine. He was taking some courses at a university in order to gain the lean experience to become certified (Huh? Experience in a university course?). They had to complete one project, which by the way, sounded like it would be equivalent to one Kaizen event (Double huh?). I tried not to giggle at the irony that someone could be part of one Kaizen event and claim to know enough to become a certified lean expert.

As I described my Wiremold background and that leading this company’s transformation starts with the CEO, that the company’s strategy is centered on becoming operationally excellent, and that we had real experts helping us, this poor guy was dumbfounded. I went further to describe the people on our team at McKinsey and the type of projects we were leading for Fortune 500 clients. I told him about Peter Willats, who founded the Kaizen Institute of Europe, and how he recruited us onto this special team. I then described Danaher and the requirement for all businesses to lead with policy deployment, supplied by lean and other DBS tools.

These collective experiences were among the best in the world. He stared at me with awe because not only do I possess actual experience, but also that I had learned from some of the best, as opposed to a professor who was coming at lean from a theoretical perspective. He even said, “boy, I wish I had that type of experience!”

My experience truly is unique and perhaps rare these days. Too many people claim to know what lean is all about, but are far from the reality about what lean is and can do for your business.

This guy’s situation illustrates the argument against lean certification programs having any real value. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of people like this guy with little experience who are becoming certified as someone with lean expertise. A certification communicates to the world that you have passed certain criteria and implies that you are an experienced expert. It’s not this guy’s fault – in fact, I would love to have him on my team as a junior facilitator in a learning mode. In the right environment this guy could become highly valuable. But even with the certification he is about to receive, he is far from having enough expertise to lead a company’s transformation efforts and will probably not have the skill to even facilitate a kaizen event.

Fundamental problems with many certification programs:

  1. Certification programs not being tied to strategic initiatives
  2. Projects that individuals choose to work on are not tied to strategic initiatives
  3. Certification program that does not have deeply experienced trainers or mentors
  4. People choosing to become certified because they think certification will benefit their career, rather than thinking of how it will help their company get results more quickly
  5. Certification criteria that represents completing a course rather than demonstrating competency

Where certification has value

As I write this, my company is helping to create internal lean certification programs or conduct the training for certifications at multiple clients. Companies are asking for this! Clearly there is a perceived value to having an internal certification, so let’s look at how to make sure that your certification program actually has value.

The training that we created and deliver provides an excellent foundation and common knowledge base for the participants within any company. The certification programs are structured so that there is a mixture of education and the application of the new knowledge to aid in their improvement projects. While it’s important that people learn the right methods and approaches, our students need to demonstrate the ability to deliver results. It’s the results that ultimately make a difference, no matter how much training you have.

The certification exercise is really an internal yardstick so that these companies know who their “go to” people are. Certified employees have been through a standard training and have demonstrated a base-level competency in improvement methods. They can become the leaders for the most important improvement projects and company strategic priorities. The expectation is that these improvement projects deliver real results because the teams are following lean and six sigma principles. It becomes a natural pairing of goals and methods. The certification process helps to ensure some standard approach when following and implementing the methodology.

Some companies give a basic certification to indicate some minimum level of training has been achieved. They then add a higher level for different skills and competencies. For example, a green-belt training might be one week and creates a foundation for continuous improvement methods. A black-belt course could be built on the green belt training and help people learn advanced skills, including how to lead an improvement initiative.

When I was at Danaher, the certifications were given as people developed expertise in various tools. For example, someone might become a black belt in “standardized work”, which means that they have participated in, and then led a kaizen event that implemented standard work principles. Further, they have demonstrated that they can train others in the standard work principles and facilitated someone else’s kaizen event. Lastly, the projects they led and facilitated must have sustained the results 6 months after the events were held. All these are under the guidance of a certified black belt. While this sounds like a lot of work and time to get certified in just one tool, it more closely represents the level of experience that is required to begin to learn the principles.

For each Danaher site, it was useful to know how many people on your team are certified in the different tools and where any gaps were. For example, if you needed to improve your material flow using kanban and you didn’t have someone on your team who is certified in that tool, this became a priority at that site. You requested help from other Danaher businesses who had certified resources who could train you and get you started in your improvements.

The important thing to remember is this: make the certification useful to you and how you implement the strategies for your business.

Critical success factors for your certification program:

There are a number of elements that will make your certification program add value and be worthwhile.

  1. Ensure there is a bigger goal to achieve for your company – this provides the context where skills you develop in your certification progress can flourish
  2. Create a reporting infrastructure with executive sponsors who support the teams and set high expectations for results
  3. Find a trainer that has deep experience and expertise versus just a theoretical or academic background
  4. Assign an experienced mentor to help the students convert concepts into reality as they apply them
  5. Set goals and hold students accountable for hitting actual targets
  6. Create an incentive system that rewards not just participation but also results achieved

When you have bigger plans for how to use the people that you choose to go through your certification program, you can then create an integrated structure with the above success factors in place. This should build excitement and momentum as students build their skills and business leaders begin to recognize the power of the results that the teams achieve.

Do it wrong however and managing this program will add cost for very little benefit.