The Cost Effective Approach to obtaining a Six Sigma Black Belt Certification

Six Sigma is a problem solving methodology with deep roots in applying statistical tools and the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) approach to reduce operational variance and produce significant financial gains. Six Sigma Black Belts lead large Six Sigma projects which require full-time focus and more in-depth expertise. Adding a Six Sigma Black Belt certification is a great way to increase your salary and add more value to your organization. According to Glassdoor the average base pay for a Six Sigma Black Belt is $96,637 (see graphic below).

Blackbelt Salary

Source: Glassdoor

As there is no formal body for issuing Six Sigma accreditations, professionals may turn to a variety of organizations for certification including many major universities which now offer certification programs. Though other options exist (e.g. independent agencies & consultants) this article will compare the cost of online programs through major universities and the American Society of Quality (ASQ)’s certification program.

Online Programs

Online programs such as Villanova and Arizona State University provide individuals with a classroom experience taught by University faculty. For individuals requiring the structure and discipline of traditional education (i.e. deadlines and structured coursework) online programs may be a great option; however, the added benefits of formalized education come at a price. Arizona State University’s online Six Sigma Black Belt certification comes with a steep $11,010 ($914 per credit hour for 15 credit hours) price tag. As a result, such programs are likely only affordable for individuals working for organizations which offer tuition reimbursement; however, such benefits tend to come with “strings” attached (i.e. multi year commitments).

ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt Certification

The Six Sigma Black Belt certification offered by the ASQ provides individuals capable of studying on their own with a much more cost effective alternative. In order to qualify, applicants must submit an affidavit signed by a project champion attesting to the completion of a Six Sigma project, along with a $538 fee ($388 for ASQ members). Applicants will then need to sit and pass an exam demonstrating their knowledge of Six Sigma principles (Source). Though the ASQ approach requires self discipline (independent studying) it comes with a cost that is an order of magnitude lower than major universities. Furthermore, though individuals are required to submit an affidavit attesting to the completion of a Six Sigma project, many Engineering and Quality professionals with several years of experience have likely led a project that meets with requirements.

Professionals looking to add additional credentials to their resume and increase their value to their organizations by becoming certified Six Sigma Black Belts have a variety of options, including the two choices outlined in this post. Major university offer programs taught by faculty, often online, which provide students with structured coursework and deadlines to aid those lacking the discipline to study on their own for a hefty price. ASQ on the other hand provides professionals with a cost effective way to become Six Sigma certified for those able to study on their own.


MBA vs. Engineering Management degree

Having interviewed a number of young engineers  over the last few years, I find in nearly every interview the discussion of getting an MBA or a Masters of Engineering Management degree becomes a topic of interest. As a result, I’ve elected to share my story and highlight several points related to each degree.

My Story: Why I chose the Masters of Engineering Management

Though I would love to tell you I selected the Masters in Engineering Management approach with the a grand plan in mind; however, the truth is it was a relatively easy way for me to check the “management degree” box.  My thought process was in the event that I wanted to branch out away from engineering (e.g. Project Management, Operations, etc.) the Masters of Engineering would provide me with credibility to get me past the first HR filter.

When I say easy, I was quite lucky in that the graduate school where I obtained my Masters of Mechanical Engineering , also had an Masters of Engineering Management (MEM) program. The MEM program allowed for students to transfer several graduate level courses in other disciplines towards the MEM degree. Additionally, while completing my Mechanical Engineering (ME) degree I had taken several MEM courses as electives. The MEM electives and ability to transfer several 500-level ME provided me with ~40% of the credits I would need to graduate with the degree. In contrast, while talking to a counselor I learned that I would need to take a year of prerequisites in Accounting, Finance, & Economics to be eligible for an MBA program. Thus, I elected to take the path of least resistance.

My MEM degree consisted of courses in Six Sigma, Lean, Statistics, Operations Management, Decision Analysis, and Project Management. Like most graduate programs a capstone project was required. I elected to utilize a project I completed for a previous employer which inevitably became my Black Belt project I submitted for my Six Sigma Black Belt certification.

Masters of Business Administration (MBA)

MBA programs offer a broad range of courses in economics, marketing, finance, accounting and human resources. In most cases the curriculum is geared towards general management; however, specialized programs exist. MBA’s can be viewed as essential for individuals looking to go into investment banking, consulting (think McKinsey), private equity, and hedge funds (Source).

  • Median Salary with 10 years of experience: $98, 626 (Source: Tufts University)
  • GMAT is typically required
  • Available to undergraduates from every discipline
  • Prerequisites in Economics, Accounting, & Finance are generally required

Masters of Engineering Management

Engineering Management programs are tailored to individuals with backgrounds in science & engineering, though such a background may not always be required for the program. Course work typically includes: Project Management, Six Sigma, Operations Management, Finance, etc. If you graduated from an engineering program, the Engineering Management curriculum will likely bridge the gap between engineering school and the essentials needed for corporate success.

  • Median Salary with 10 years of experience: $107, 765 (Source: Tufts University)
  • Typically no requirement to take the GRE or GMAT exams
  • May require science or engineering degree, though that is not always the case

So… Which Degree is the Best?

Both the MBA & MEM degrees have the potential enhance an individual’s career opportunities the selection depends on career aspirations. Individuals interested in executive level management (i.e. the C-Suite) will likely be better served by an MBA from a top level school, whereas individuals interested in product, program, or project management are likely going to find the MEM to be a more valuable experience.


Lessons in Systems Thinking from the Creator of Dilbert

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

-Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert

Scott Adams, in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, compares and contrasts systems thinking with the goal oriented approach to success. Scott credits his systems thinking approach for the success he’s realized today. To compare and contrast systems vs. goals, Adam’s used the following definitions:

System: Something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run (Source)

Goal: A specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future (Source)

Scott describes goal oriented people as living in a perpetual state of failure. In the event they achieve their goal, after a brief celebration goal oriented people will realize they have lost the thing that gave them purpose. In contrast, systems people are successful every time they execute their system. An example of Scott’s system at work is his blogging efforts which as Scott puts it “the blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make a real difference” (Source). Scott’s blogging provided him the opportunity to hone is writing and experiment with different voices and eventually led to guest articles in the Wall Street Journal and dozens of business opportunities (Source).

Scott shares a more humors example of systems oriented success with Tim Ferriss in a podcast interview. Scott contrasts his approach to seeking love in high school which showering a select co-ed with affection and admiration (goal oriented approach) while Scott’s friend flittered and dated as many co-eds as possible acquiring valuable social skills along the way (systems approach).  Though humors, this example clearly illustrates the point Scott is attempting to make that a system executed regularly will lead to “success” though the end result may be difficult to impossible to visualize initially.

Other examples of Scott’s systems approach to happiness:

Diversification as a tool for Stress Management: Scott applies to the same logic as why one should diversify their portfolio (i.e. not keeping all eggs in one basket). Scott describes Dilbert’s success as a form of diversifying the number of bosses he has (1,000’s of newspapers) preventing any fear of losing his “job”.

Career Advice: Become very good at two or more things and combine those skills to create something that is both rare and valuable. In Scott’s case he combined his artistic ability (above average) with his wit and humor (also above average) to create Dilbert.


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