Quality certifications, such as Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, were created for a laudable purpose. They were intended to professionalize quality improvement and support a standard of practice around it. They also codified a body of knowledge and provided an industry recognition for excellence in quality improvement.

Unfortunately, many of these certifications have been on the shelf well past their sell-by date. Despite noble intentions, in many cases the application of the methods associated with these programs waste time and effort. This means that today these programs are defeating the purpose for which they were created.

What’s Wrong With Certifications?

The problem with these certifications is two-fold:

1. In most cases the quality improvement curriculum is oriented toward traditional, high velocity manufacturing. The methods they teach are increasingly irrelevant to information-based economies. An economy based on IT, service, and finance industries or on network-facilitation (e.g. eBay, Facebook, and Uber) benefit little from implementing tools intended for the assembly of mechanical components.

Many certification programs teach arcane methodologies, dependent upon probability and statistics, that are irrelevant to business challenges in the world’s more developed economies. While statistical analysis is applicable to attribute data, such data does not require a strong emphasis on tools such as analysis of variance (ANOVA) techniques.

2. The more insidious problem is that these certification programs encourage students to follow to the letter a set of predetermined steps. The dogmatic adherence to these procedures diminishes the importance of judgment, insight and creativity in the domain of process improvement. Sacrifices are made on the altar of data for the sake of data. This results in wasted effort and wasted time – which are, again, the very defects that the quality movement was intended to mitigate. Improvement teams take far too long to diagnose and implement urgently needed improvements because they’re following by rote a set of prescriptive guidelines that were written for processes that are past their prime.

Once a set of standards has been institutionalized in the form of a certification with its attendant curriculum, it tends to take on a life of its own. Managers who have toiled to earn the certification defend the validity of the processes they have learned, convinced that following the right steps will ensure a positive outcome. But slavish adherence to a process for its own sake is devoid of common sense. Companies should have enough process, but not one iota more.

Further, the time spent in learning and applying archaic methods means less time for new process improvement innovations that are required to meet a host of management challenges that companies face today. The insistence on older methods slows down the pace of improvement and impedes process innovation.

A New Quality Movement

The quality movement needs a refresh. The first step is to change the orientation from an exclusive manufacturing focus to a new set of tools that will meet the needs of other sectors as well. Even in more traditional manufacturing environments much of the quality curriculum is out of date and creates wasted effort. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, professionals who have a stake in process improvement should re-evaluate the existing body of knowledge, preserving what is best in the older methods while modernizing the curriculum.

Second, there needs to be a new wave of process innovation. Today’s information and service-based firms need new methods, tools and remedies oriented toward qualitative in addition to quantitative skills. For instance, they need repeatable methods for ensuring high quality results in processing language data and attribute data (such as the Affinity Diagram). Just as Deming and others did in the post-WWII world, we need a new quality revolution to meet today’s challenges.

Finally, we need to encourage individual judgment, creativity and flexibility in quality improvement activities. The certification practicum and the courseware need to reflect the role of insight and business acumen in improving process quality. Methods need to be customizable and flexible to meet the needs of a world in which business model innovation has become an increasingly important basis of competition.

The original intention of the quality movement was to turn process improvement into a repeatable, sustainable capability. By making the changes described above, industry could serve this aim by retooling certifications to provide a far more powerful toolbox for meeting today’s challenges.