Greenbacks For Black Belts

Six Sigma isn't embraced widely for business technology, but certification can boost salaries



The use of Six Sigma quality methodologies is still relatively uncommon in business-technology operations. But the paychecks for technology pros with Six Sigma training suggest the demand is growing.

The average base salary for IT professionals with master black belts--the highest level of Six Sigma training--is $93,500, according to a recent study by Foote Partners, an IT workforce research and consulting firm that tracks 37,000 IT pros in its research database. The average base salary for the next-highest level, black belts, is $68,900.

chartIn a broad definition, Six Sigma is a management philosophy aimed at continuous improvement to reduce errors or defects in processes or products. In business technology, some companies are trying to use Six Sigma to boost the quality and success of projects, software development, and systems, says David Foote, president and chief research officer at Foote Partners. Borrowing from the martial arts, the Six Sigma system relates training and experience levels in Six Sigma to belts--green, black, and master black.

FleetBoston Financial Corp. has been a big advocate of Six Sigma in IT and other areas. On its Web site, it advertised for a master black belt to help develop systems and technology as a basis for Six Sigma, identify projects for "breakthrough improvement" in business process or customer satisfaction, and train others in Six Sigma. The salary: $73,100 to $161,000 a year. It was posted before the merger with Bank of America Corp. was disclosed, though that bank also uses Six Sigma.

And a search of IT jobs with a Six Sigma requirement at Monster.com turns up this example from America Online: "The vision of the Business Process Engineering function is to act as the liaison between technical and business organizations helping to define, standardize, continuously improve, redesign, and reengineer business-critical processes to transform organizations to achieve higher productivity, quality, and a sustainable business growth."

Sounds like a big vision. No wonder that of the 238 master black belts in the Foote research, 34% earn base pay of $100,000 or more. Of the 623 black belts, about 10% earn base pay of $100,000 or more. The highest salary for master black belts hits $245,000, with the lowest $39,500. Geography and company size are the biggest factors in the range from high to low, Foote says.

In addition to the high demands, there also appears to be a relative shortage of certified IT black belts. The Foote study found just 861--2%--of the 37,000 IT pros in its database had black-belt status.

It's less common in the United States than it is in Europe for the Six Sigma "belts" to be part of an IT professional's title, Foote says. So an individual with master black-belt training might be identified by title as a quality-assurance manager or a project manager. It's the total quality-management methodologies that the professional brings to the work that make the individual so valuable, Foote says.

Many managers aren't convinced the process rigor and continuous measurement and analysis associated with Six Sigma are the best fit for IT operations.

Six Sigma is most closely identified with manufacturing. The original quality-measurement and -improvement plan was popularized in the late 1980s by Motorola Inc. and gained greater fame with its embrace by General Electric Co.

But these days, many nonmanufacturing companies are applying Six Sigma to their businesses. For example, Foote says, a diversified financial-services firm that's a Foote Research client is looking to hire 100 to 200 Six Sigma experts at salaries of $120,000 to $140,000. Says Foote, "Companies are bringing more rigor to improving the quality and success of their processes."

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