Learn about Six Sigma belt levels and what they mean

A woman reads on her laptop about the six sigma belt levels and what they mean.

If you’re a project manager or a business leader in the manufacturing industry, you’ve probably heard of Six Sigma. Maybe you work at a company that uses it. But even if you’re familiar with this organizational framework, you might not fully understand Six Sigma certification and what the different belt levels mean.

Six Sigma is a methodology for improving processes within businesses. People who want to develop their skills in Six Sigma and benefit from its teachings can pursue certifications. Six Sigma uses belts — like in karate — with different colors designating different skill levels.

Learning more about the different belt levels can help you decide whether or not the Six Sigma certification process is right for your organization. This article will provide an overview of what each belt signifies and how the certification process relates to Six Sigma’s process optimization methodology. After reading, you’ll have deeper knowledge of what Six Sigma is and the different belt levels that are part of the certification process.

In this post, we’ll explore:

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is a process optimization methodology — an approach to quality improvement that equips teams with concepts and strategies to refine business processes, reduce errors, and boost productivity.

The original Six Sigma framework was developed in the 1980s by Motorola. Although Six Sigma was originally designed for manufacturing, it’s been adopted by organizations across a wide range of industries. Government entities, healthcare companies, and many other types of businesses now use Six Sigma for process optimization.

The methodology takes its name from a sigma, which is one standard deviation of measurement. A “six sigma” is six standard deviations from the closest specified threshold.

As applied to manufacturing, increasing the number of deviations between process limits — minimum quality standards for example — will decrease the likelihood of product defects.

When used strategically, Six Sigma can help you improve not just operational processes but overall business outcomes as well.

Six Sigma vs. Lean Six Sigma

While both of these terms refer to process improvement and optimization, Lean Six Sigma differs in that it also focuses on using resources efficiently to create as little waste as possible. This makes Lean Six Sigma particularly appealing to manufacturers, especially if they’re already using other Lean management concepts.

Alternatively, Six Sigma is designed to minimize process variability and prevent product defects. It can be adapted to meet the needs of businesses both inside and outside the manufacturing space.

Despite these subtle differences, both methodologies can help your organization create a problem-solving culture. Ultimately, such a culture can reduce errors at your workplace and deliver a better customer experience.

Six Sigma certification

Six Sigma uses a belt ranking system similar to that of karate and other martial arts. The Six Sigma certification framework is progressive, meaning you can’t immediately enroll in an advanced course unless you’ve obtained the belt that precedes it. Think of each course as a prerequisite for the next belt.

To obtain a new Six Sigma belt level, you must demonstrate that you’ve acquired the skills consistent with that ranking. The progressive belt system preserves the integrity of the Six Sigma framework while helping businesses implement the methodology more effectively.

The Six Sigma belt levels are:

A graphic that shows the six sigma belt levels and their corresponding colors.

The Six Sigma certifications are divided into the following belts:

  1. White belt
  2. Yellow belt
  3. Green belt
  4. Black belt
  5. Master black belt

Naturally, beginners hold the rank of white or yellow belt. At the other end of the spectrum are master black belts who have demonstrated proficiency in every aspect of the Six Sigma framework. Professionals with the intermediate green belt certification can manage small to mid-level projects but typically don’t lead major ones.

Let’s take a closer look at the belt levels and skills associated with each Six Sigma certification.

Six Sigma white belt

The white belt is the entry level of Six Sigma certification. While most people will start here, if you have a background in Lean business management, you may be eligible to start as a Six Sigma yellow belt.

However, even if you’re able to skip the white belt ranking, doing so isn’t necessarily the best move. Approaching the methodology with the mindset of a true beginner can give you the opportunity to learn new skills and lay the foundation for successful Six Sigma implementation.

The purpose of a white belt is simple — newcomers must demonstrate that they grasp the basic principles on which Six Sigma was founded. Introducing white belts to the Six Sigma methodology is equally simple. As a project leader, you’ll need to give them a general overview of vocabulary and Six Sigma strategies.

Once inaugurated into Six Sigma, white belts can participate in routine problem-solving tasks. They usually focus on reducing waste, solving problems, and supporting local teams — and they may or may not be on a Six Sigma project team.

Six Sigma yellow belt

A professional who’s progressed to the ranking of yellow belt has some knowledge of Six Sigma and its processes. As such, they can take on a broader range of responsibilities in process improvement projects. They can become integral members of project teams and contribute to value-oriented problem-solving tasks.

A yellow belt understands the guiding principles that drive information collection processes. They might also be subject matter experts (SMEs), which are great additions to any team. While they can’t lead a team, yellow belts support green or black belts taking the lead on projects.

Earning the rank of yellow belt requires a substantial time investment. Completing all yellow belt courses will take around 20 hours, depending on the person’s individual skill level.

The courses teach the participant valuable new Six Sigma skills and reinforce some of the introductory concepts they learned as a white belt. After completing these courses, attendees must pass an exam to formally obtain their new rank.

Six Sigma green belt

Green belts bridge the gap between project-leading black belts and team members who hold lower ranks. Green belts can lead smaller projects with a narrower scope, but they should defer to black belts when it comes to larger endeavors.

During your journey to Six Sigma mastery, you’ll encounter two critical concepts as you transition to green belt.

The first is a framework known as Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (or DMAIC). This improvement methodology can be used to optimize existing workflows or processes. While the steps are listed sequentially, you can revisit or reapply specific stages as needed.

The second concept is Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify (or DMADV). As the steps suggest, this methodology is used to develop new processes rather than evaluate existing ones.

Due to the amount of knowledge included in this certification level, obtaining a green belt requires a full Six Sigma course. The exact length will vary depending on the requirements set forth by the provider, but it will likely include more than 20 hours of coursework.

As with the yellow belt level, the course is followed by a comprehensive exam. Once you’ve passed this exam, you can begin leading your own projects and managing small Six Sigma teams.

Six Sigma is a process optimization methodology — an approach to quality improvement that equips teams with concepts and strategies to refine business processes, reduce errors, and boost productivity.

Six Sigma black belt

Six Sigma black belts are true experts. They’re not only capable of leading project teams but can also train green, yellow, and white belts. Managing projects is a black belt’s full-time job, and these professionals are the backbone of any Six Sigma program.

To obtain the rank of black belt, you’ll need to acquire a range of skills and possess a thorough understanding of process improvement and statistical analysis. Additionally, you must demonstrate exceptional interpersonal and leadership skills to effectively train lower belts.

As a black belt, you’ll be responsible for deploying Lean principles and driving organization-wide improvements. You’ll lead teams of green belts and delegate responsibilities or projects among this network of Six Sigma professionals as you see fit.

Again, the specific length of your training will vary depending on the specific course you attend. However, you should expect to participate in several weeks of training.

Many programs average about four weeks, while a few are much more rigorous, with some lasting up to 16 weeks. The black belt certification program will include an exam or possibly a series of exams.

Six Sigma master black belt

Master black belt is the highest level of Six Sigma certification. A professional at this level can teach Six Sigma principles to all other belt levels. Additionally, master black belts identify which projects to work on and communicate with senior-level stakeholders.

Most organizations will only have one or two master black belts — unless they’re extremely large or decentralized. In these instances, each region or major hub may need its own master black belt.

One of the most important functions of a master black belt is to mentor lower belts. They must possess exceptional leadership skills to develop the abilities of other team members and help them progress through Six Sigma certification levels.

Once you’ve achieved this rank, you’ll transition from a project leader to more of a consultative role. You’ll solve important organizational problems, provide guidance on pressing business issues, and help your company achieve its overarching process improvement goals.

To become a master black belt you must complete rigorous training — including the multi-week black belt training program. You’ll also need to have gained extensive experience mentoring and upskilling others. Typically, organizational stakeholders or C-suite executives will determine when you’ve met the requirements for this rank.

Although Six Sigma was originally designed for process optimization in manufacturing, it’s been adopted by organizations across a wide range of industries — including government, healthcare, technology, and many more.

Why is Six Sigma important?

Six Sigma is incredibly important from a personal growth perspective. It’s beneficial for your career, and it can also provide great value to your business.

Individuals looking to develop their skills in process improvement should consider pursuing a Six Sigma certification.

Regardless of whether your company uses Six Sigma, the skills learned in training will help those working in operations and leadership roles. This speaks to the versatility and flexibility of Six Sigma principles, as they can be applied to just about any business problem.

If your company uses Six Sigma, getting certified will bolster your resume and provide useful professional credentials. It could also benefit those looking to work for a company that values Six Sigma certification.

Whether you want to grow with your existing company or explore outside opportunities, Six Sigma certifications can help you achieve your goals.

The fact that Six Sigma promises to improve various processes, increase productivity, and eliminate waste makes it especially valuable to businesses. But maximizing the organizational benefits of Six Sigma requires buy-in from the top down.

If you can get your team on board with such an investment, Six Sigma will likely pay dividends. When decision-makers demonstrate their commitment to the methodology, the results can be significant.

Get started with Six Sigma today

Six Sigma’s belt levels create an easy-to-follow hierarchy of skills that can facilitate an expedited Six Sigma implementation process.

Pursuing a Six Sigma certification can provide value to you on both a personal and professional level. As a Six Sigma belt holder, you’ll learn useful concepts like DMADV and DMAIC, which you can use to drive process improvement and optimize core workflows.

Progressing through the belt levels will help you acquire even more advanced process optimization skills. Ultimately, obtaining the rank of master black belt will make you an indispensable asset to your organization and team.

If you’re ready to pursue personal and professional growth by starting your Six Sigma journey, see if your employer will help cover training costs. You might also seek out individuals within your organization who have undergone Six Sigma certification for advice and mentorship.

Acquiring a Six Sigma certification is only the beginning. If you want to truly embrace this proven methodology, your company will need robust process management software.

Six Sigma and Adobe Workfront — a powerful combination

Six Sigma helps individuals and organizations optimize their processes. Adobe Workfront is project management software that pairs intuitively with Six Sigma to bring these principles to life.

Take a product tour or watch our Workfront overview video to learn more about how this dynamic platform can benefit your business.