Home April 2017 Professional Development: MBA vs. Lean Six Sigma

Professional Development: MBA vs. Lean Six Sigma


You have been passed over for that coveted promotion. Once you have moved through the range of emotions that inevitably ensues, you are determined to move forward. In assessing your situation, you conclude a lack of education is the problem. The education path has been etched in stone as: grade school, high school, college and, if you are in business, the coveted MBA.

The MBA is a natural and common progression for professionals to take on their career journey. However, what is natural and common may not always be wise. If your goal is to stroke your ego, having a framed MBA certificate on your wall, knock yourself out. Universities and colleges will be more than happy to take your money, to the tune of $50,000- $100,000, and 2-3 years of your life.

Before you take out a second mortgage on the house and write that check, let’s consider another route. Here is my list of the top five most common career obstacles ranked in order of impact:

  1. Risk aversion
  2. Lack of emotional resiliency
  3. Lacking a breadth of command
  4. Insufficient level of energy
  5. Inability to focus long term on areas of minimal interest


Show me an MBA program with a proven track record of helping people move beyond these obstacles. Ask the MBA degreed professional next to you: “How has your degree directly impacted your current role?” Excel pivot tables are typically the first response, followed by a long pause.

In numerous interviews and conversations, university leaders have privately echoed those thoughts to me, including one who confidentially shared that over 50% of MBA graduates never monetize their investment. If you are one of the few professionals with none of an additional five gaps, move forward with your MBA. And, if you are an insecure overachiever, go big and choose one of the top five MBA programs for maximum return on your investment. For the remaining 80% of us, I believe there’s a better option.

What is the most common challenge facing the LBM industry after labor constraints? Creating a culture of continuous improvement. Every industry, every business, desires to have an eye on continuous improvement. An education in continuous process improvement strategies could be the key to achieving your career goals.

It’s no accident that L.T. Gibson, the CEO of U.S. LBM, led his company to embrace Lean Six Sigma certifications. L.T. attributes Six Sigma as being key to the success of U.S. LBM. He recently reported that 3,000 U.S. LBM employees have earned certifications. Yes, 3,000 people. Unlike an MBA, Six Sigma training is broadly applicable; to truck drivers, dispatchers, sales professionals and leaders.

Allan Breidenbachwho started pursuing his Black Belt certification when he was a sales manager, claims that Six Sigma certification was instrumental in his career growth. Today, he is the CEO of U.S. Fence Solutions Company. In his words: “There certainly was an argument to be made with the black belt perhaps being overkill for my current role, but it was significant for me because I didn’t want to do something just for my current role.” Breidenbach shared the advice that he got from friend and mentor, Randy Aardema at U.S. LBM. “Randy said, ‘Look, if you ever want to be president, then you need a black belt. That’ll be a game changer for you.’ He was right.”

U.S. LBM researched numerous universities before choosing the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After I met with Program Director Scott Converse, it was easy to understand why. Converse is simply excellent. (Learn more at WI School of Business).

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Converse defines Lean Six Sigma as a five-step technique for solving complex problems which utilizes the DMAIC approach; Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control. He shared that the key is for everyone to view themselves as a change agent and every project as a change project.

Lean Six Sigma is split into three certificates: yellow belt, green belt, and black belt. The yellow belt is a three-day class that provides background in the DMAIC approach. Earning your green belt takes 11-12 days plus an independent project and goes in depth in data analysis and project management. Black belt certification provides technical classes to advance your career beyond project management and requires 8-10 days to complete.

Unlike the extended time commitment to earn an MBA, getting a black belt in Lean Six Sigma requires only a little over 20 days in the classroom. Although the classes are spread out, it is possible to get it done within one year. As opposed to a theoretical case studies approach, you implement these practices directly in the work place. Converse describes the training like, “a laboratory in which you’re using blank bullets. You know you’re eventually going to have to go back to your workplace and apply these concepts, and then the bullets are real. The test range first approach increases understanding and confidence, so a lot of our courses are built around the notion that you’ll have cases, labs, and applied experiences right within the classroom.”

Six Sigma for Sales Professionals?

Converse claims Allan Breidenbach was the one who pioneered the idea of Six Sigma for sales pros. In Breidenbach’s words, “Think of it. How effective is your unique value proposition as being a continuous improvement expert, with ordering and material flow, with jobsite logistics, while minimizing waste on the construction site?” UW-Madison now offers a green belt program for sales professionals.

In addition to shorter, more interactive courses, the cost of getting a black belt is about $16,000 compared to $60-70,000 for an MBA. In my view, the return is also greater, as you learn skills and practice complex problem-solving that can be directly applied to your business, rather than just the theory studied in most MBA programs.

What is the impact? Converse shared that the average economic impact for the first project of all Six Sigma graduates is $100,000 of profit for their employer. From my experience, there is no better way to get promoted than to have an immediate and profound impact on your company’s bottom line. For Breidenbach, Lean Six Sigma effectively taught him how to create a culture of continuous improvement, something he says MBA programs don’t teach.