Six Sigma as a Stepping Stone in Your Career
Before we dive into why a career as a Six Sigma Black Belt is a great option for food grads with a few years of work experience, let’s talk about what Six Sigma is.
A quick web search will give you a number of definitions similar to this one: A set of management techniques intended to improve business processes by greatly reducing the probability that an error or defect will occur.
What is Six Sigma?
But in my view, Six Sigma is a lot broader than that. It can also be described as a set of tools fitting into three broad categories:
- Process Improvement
- Data Analysis
- Change Management
The three tool sets are used concurrently in most cases. For example, to improve a manufacturing process, the key stakeholders, from line employees to senior management, must support the change. At the same time, they will often not be supportive of the change, unless there is information or data supporting the need for change. Unfortunately, the stakeholders need more than just solid data, therefore, you might need some bigger guns from the change management tool set.
To give you a more concrete example: you could be asked to help your Maintenance team reduce equipment downtime on a production line. At a very high level, the first step is defining the problem. How problem is framed will strongly influence the solution, therefore, this step is critical.
The second step is measuring the extent of the problem, probably by collecting equipment downtime data. During the third step, you will be analysing the collected data and making conclusions (Data Analysis!). For instance, you may find that one piece of equipment is responsible for a large percentage of line downtime.
The fourth step might involve reviewing the preventive maintenance (performed by Maintenance) and autonomous maintenance (performed by the operator) programs in a structured and systemic way, using one or more tools (Process Improvement!).
As the final step, you will develop a control plan that will ensure that the changes you have made are effective and sustainable. Throughout the project you would have followed a plan on involving a large group of stakeholders: plant senior leadership, Maintenance Supervisors, millwrights, electricians, and so on (Change Management!).
Why would you consider Six Sigma as part of your career path?
Well, I believe solving a complex problem for the plant is exciting. Being able to literally see your work bear fruit (a downtime chart showing a 50% reduction in downtime coinciding with the time the project was completed) is incredibly rewarding.
You will also have an opportunity to learn about a wide range of processes and functional areas: manufacturing, maintenance, food safety, quality, finance, and more. Along the way, you will expand your network within the organization and beyond. This, in conjunction with the tool set mastered, will prepare you for the next career step at the senior level.
Another aspect to consider is that these skills are transferable to essentially any industry or role that you decide to enter on your long career path.
So how do you get into a Six Sigma role?
Larger food companies have formal Six Sigma or continuous improvement programs. Generally, a few years of relevant experience are required to land a job in this area.
The first step is to find out about that program at the company of interest. You could speak with people from your FoodGrads or LinkedIn network who already work there. You could also research the company online to find out more about their programs.
Finally, look at some job postings in this area to gain a better understanding of the job description and skills and experience required. The relevant keywords include: Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Continuous Improvement (while these concepts are not synonymous, they are overlapping and related as they all aim to improve processes and drive improvement).
One of the most powerful ways of landing a Six Sigma (or any other job for that matter) is to put your network to use to arrange for a coffee with a decision maker in the function, such as a Director/VP/Head of Six Sigma (a phone call is great too, but always aim for face-to-face meetings).
Express your interest in the role down the road (remember, you are not asking for a job!) and ask for some honest feedback.
How can you close any gaps in your skill set and prepare yourself for a career in Six Sigma?
The benefit from this meeting will be two-fold: a) you will get objective feedback as to how you can improve, and b) the decision maker will keep you top of mind when a role becomes available in the future.
Overall, Six Sigma, in my opinion, is an excellent stepping stone towards a senior role in the food industry. Wherever you look, there are problems to be solved, whether you end up in product development, food safety and quality, operations, or any other function.
Think about where you want to be in 5-10 years and consider whether Six Sigma can help you on that journey.
Author: Marin Pavlic
Marin Pavlic is presently FSQA Manager with a major Canadian consumer packaged meats company. He is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt with experience driving continuous improvement in Manufacturing, Maintenance and Food Safety. His educational background is in nutritional sciences, food safety and business. Marin lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.
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