What does it mean to be a Yellow Belt?

27 January 2021

Lean Six Sigma

Understanding the title and its benefits

The Yellow Belt is a role or level of practitioner within the Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma methodologies. It is often used to describe people who have a working knowledge of the methodology, qualifying them to participate in projects and contributing on a daily basis. But what is the golden standard for a Yellow Belt? What qualifications does one need to possess to become a universally acknowledged, internationally certified Yellow Belt? And what does it even really mean to be a Yellow Belt?

Short answer? It means whatever the certifying party wants it to mean.

But please don’t let that answer scare you off! There’s a lot more to it than just a brief dismissal and the last thing we want to do is to diminish the title’s value. But to understand why it is such an important title, we first have to delve into what it is not. And that can be a little trickier than you might expect.

A standardized, norm-based role

Because despite what the title suggests, it being an official title and all, it isn’t very standardized. Every certifying body has a different interpretation of the knowledge required for the role. Some even call it a White Belt instead, whereas others say that the White Belt is a level that only denotes basic awareness, as opposed to the project participation of Yellow Belts. Lots of different takes on what should be a pretty straightforward role, right?

This is because in the early days of Six Sigma, when being implemented at companies such as Motorola (where it started) and General Electric (where it became popular), Yellow Belt training simply meant getting enough Six Sigma training to be able to participate in Green Belt and Black Belt-led projects within the organization. Nothing more, nothing less. Green Belts and Black Belts, in contrast, had clear standards. This has not changed much, as there is still sufficient overlap between their descriptions and bodies of knowledge among most certifying parties.

However, ever since the commercialization of Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma training began, training companies have had the motive to dress the Yellow Belt up to a full title. And while none of them are wrong in assessing its importance, it has started to live a life of its own. Due to the lack of standardization in the earliest interpretations of the role, we now have vastly differing interpretations of Yellow Belts being sold. Ranging from 15$ discount video packages to multiple thousand dollar classroom courses. Very much unlike the relatively robust Green Belt and Black Belt roles.

A prerequisite for further training

Furthering this trend, some have also claimed that it is a first obligatory step to becoming a Green Belt or Black Belt. One can imagine that it is attractive for companies to sell multiple courses to the same person, keeping them in a learning trajectory that yields maximum profitability. The positive side is that this linear progression does allow for an incredibly thorough learning experience. But even with that said, no one can truly claim that their interpretation is the one, true gospel of Yellow Belts.

Interchangeable between Lean and Six Sigma

Another thing that the Yellow Belt is not, one less related to the previous two points, is an interchangeable title for both Lean and Six Sigma practitioners. The Belt system is derived from traditional martial arts ranking systems, specifically those from Japan (such as Judo or Karate). It was incorporated into the Six Sigma quality system invented at Motorola and quickly became a standardized component of Six Sigma.

(Fun fact: It was Mikel Harry, one of the two main contributors to early Six Sigma at Motorola, who dreamt up the Belt system.)

But nowadays, one can see all kinds of Belt levels being marketed, including ‘Lean’ Yellow Belt, Green Belts and Black Belts. One can theorize that this is due to the methodologies of Lean and Six Sigma being paired up so often that their jargon has begun to merge, or perhaps that the Belt system is simply more commercially attractive than the more traditional roles of Lean Practitioner, Lean Leader and Lean Expert, as described in the independent ISO 18404 standards for Lean and Six Sigma.

In the end however, a Yellow Belt is a Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma role, and using the term for Lean doesn’t mean much beyond that the certifying party has little regard for historical accuracy or tradition. But hey, if it works, it works. Our marketeers would probably agree. (Take a look at our Online Lean Thinking discount bundle)

What is it then?

So what is a Yellow Belt then? Without exception, all interpretations of the Yellow Belt claim that they are someone with a working understanding of (Lean) Six Sigma, its underlying principles, structure and at least some of the basic tools. Where interpretations begin to diverge is mostly the extent of knowledge and experience and the depth of statistical knowledge required. But let’s not delve too deep into the differences and focus again on what the Yellow Belt is at its core.

A mark of having the right mindset

Firstly, being a Yellow Belt means you have learned to embrace the mindset and general philosophy of Continuous Improvement and Lean Six Sigma. It means you will be looking for ways to improve not only your own activities, but all the processes around you. A proactive attitude supplemented with a clear vision of what is waste, defects and quality.

An indicator of knowledge and practical skill

Secondly, it means you possess basic knowledge of Lean Six Sigma; which isn’t all that basic in itself. A Yellow Belt understands the purpose, structure and principles of the Lean Six Sigma methodology in such a way that they know how they can do their part. But they also know most of the tools in such a way that they can participate in their use on both a daily and project basis.

A first step in Continuous Improvement

And thirdly, anyone with the title of Yellow Belt is someone who has begun their journey in the world of Continuous Improvement. It signifies a willingness to improve not only themselves but also their work. Whether they choose to fully develop themselves in Lean Six Sigma, choose to continue in Lean or Six Sigma specifically, or even branch out into Agile Scrum, they will have proven to possess the necessary foundational knowledge to grow in whatever direction they please.

The most important role

But let’s not forget the most important thing; no Lean Six Sigma organization can ever hope to be successful without any Yellow Belts. That is because while Green Belts and Black Belts are managing the improvement projects and performance indicators, it’s the Yellow Belts battling in the trenches. Managing and performing the daily improvements is what the Yellow Belt excels at; and it is this aspect of work that is far too often overlooked.

So what does it mean to be a Yellow Belt?

And what does it mean to have received Yellow Belt certification? Well, that’s simple. It means you’re ready to get busy with Lean Six Sigma. It means you’re the right sort of person for the job and that you have what it takes to get ahead in the game of Continuous Improvement.

Where’s the hidden advertising?

You might notice that we haven’t plugged our own online Yellow Belt course yet. That’s because we want you to make your own decision about how you want to get your Yellow Belt training and certification. After all, we just told you that each Yellow Belt training and provider thereof offers valuable insight in their own way. It would be a little hypocritical to tell you that our Yellow Belt is the only real option and all others are just rubbish.

We can only promise you that we designed our Yellow Belt course to cover exactly everything we just discussed, and to be the ideal path to get the knowledge and experience a Yellow Belt needs. But whatever path you take, we will be happy having helped you get there.

Oh, and don’t mind the huge ad for our Yellow Belt course just below this article. That’s just a coincidence.

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