Xerox's Aqua Porter describes them as analogous to the U.S. Navy Seals or Green Berets, although with a corporate twist.
"They are an elite corps who have experience and training, leading and running black belt projects," says Porter, vice president of corporate lean Six Sigma strategy and business excellence. "They usually also have really good business acumen so we are able to parachute them in to complex situations or highly political problems."
She is talking about the Norwalk, Conn.-based company's master black belts. The $22 billion document technology and services provider has a crew of about 40 master black belts (15 or so at the corporate level) across its organization of some 130,000 employees. They are trouble-shooters, problem-solvers, and they help Xerox help itself perform better.
Master black belts often help the Xerox business unit leaders develop roadmaps about how they are going to approach big business issues. In many instances they are placed on projects that span the "seams" of adjacent businesses or business units. That's where many inefficiencies exist "because nobody really owns it," or because of conflicting objectives, Porter says.
"Our master black belts are able to bring objectivity to a problem that may span business units. They're not biased, and they can come and put things on the table that maybe if you were in a business unit would be more difficult for you to do," she says.
"I can get a sales rep very excited about a regression analysis. ..."
Master black belts also bring with them lean and Six Sigma methodologies. Rochelle Richardson, who joined the corps of corporate master black belts in November, speaks of the fun (and usefulness) of employing such methodologies in settings outside of traditional plant-floor issues. "I can get a sales rep very excited about a regression analysis because one, I can speak the language of the sales rep, and two, because it is a tool that can help them predict the amount of revenue by [for example] the number of sales reps, the number of cartridges, the number of products sold, etc."
Richardson is a 13-year Xerox veteran whose background is field sales and Xerox sales support. She has touched all areas of Xerox field-related services from sales to billing to fulfillment. A current project has her using lean Six Sigma and voice-of-the-customer analysis to assist ventures into new project areas.
Richardson's breadth and depth of experience is illustrative of the types of characteristics Xerox seeks in its master black belts. The company looks for people who are comfortable working with senior managers, who are able to prioritize their work and understand the pace and urgency of the business, and who can bring a holistic view to their work.
"It's much more than just having really strong technical skills or being able to apply lean Six Sigma methodologies to problems," Porter says. "They have been trained as black belts, but it's well beyond that. These are pretty senior people who have seen a lot so they are able to quickly [gain] the confidence of the senior managers they are working with."
"We are able to parachute them in to complex situations or highly political problems."
That's important as master black belts' roles also include coaching senior leaders who are learning how best to apply lean Six Sigma at their business levels.
The corporate master black belts also provide black belt and green belt training, a role Richardson says is about "driving critical thinking and smart decision-making through the use of analytical tools. It's about knowing how to make the tools practical."
Porter says the master black belt role has evolved since 2003 to become more of a strategic resource rather than simply a technical training resource. While the role master black belts now play may not have been how they were originally envisioned, she explains that their
current role has become increasingly important.
"It brings a value that is immeasurable to the organization, one that is not easily copied. It's something that is built from within," Porter says.