By Nathan Young
In today's competitive market, individuals and organizations are constantly seeking ways to enhance their efficiency and gain an edge over their competition.
One powerful tool that has gained prominence in recent years is a structured process improvement approach called Lean Six Sigma.
Lean Six Sigma combines two popular methodologies: Lean, which focuses on reducing waste in processes, and Six Sigma, which aims to eliminate defects and enhance quality of the output.
Lean Six Sigma is all about eliminating inefficiencies,” explains Angela Miller, program manager for the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Lean Six Sigma training programs. “It empowers individuals with the knowledge and tools to identify and remove wasteful steps in processes, resulting in streamlined operations."
Obtaining a Lean Six Sigma certification–such as a Yellow Belt, Green Belt, or Black Belt–provides individuals with a valuable skill set that is highly sought after by employers across many different industries.
The Value of Lean Six Sigma Training for Military Veterans
One group of people that can greatly benefit from Lean Six Sigma training is military veterans. It not only increases their potential value to employers, but it also builds on a set of skills and mindsets that many military veterans have already been cultivating during their service time.
“Lean Six Sigma was something that I'd already been doing for 25 years without even realizing it,” said Eddie Utuk, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps and recent graduate of the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification course. He shared how many of the concepts of Lean Six Sigma are common practice in the military. “As a military service member, you're always trying to improve the processes and systems around you. This is a core competence of any military service member. It's hardwired into how we think.”
Yet oftentimes employers and former service members aren’t connecting the dots for how the military mindset of continuous improvement translates to the Lean Six Sigma concepts that are more well known in the civilian world.
This leaves employers bereft of potentially valuable employees, but worse yet, causes many returning veterans to struggle in their transition to civilian life even though they have valuable skills.
This was something that caught the attention of Russell Levy, current president of Veterans Transition Support, who was working as an employment director at a homeless shelter at the time.
“I got tired of seeing veterans showing up homeless within a year of getting out of the service,” he said.
He recognized that veterans often had valuable skills, they just weren’t well supported in the transition to civilian life.
"It amazed me how little they really needed to be very successful,” he continued. “They needed a little resume help, a little interview prep, and next thing you know they're off and running. Their whole lives would change.”
Russell's perspective was that veterans didn't need to learn new skills from scratch; instead, they needed to translate their military experience into civilian terms. This led him to realize that teaching veterans Lean Six Sigma was a natural fit.
“There's a lot of process improvement work happening in the military, they’re just calling it different things,” said Russell.
This insight led him to start Veterans Transition Support (VTS), a nonprofit that offers no-cost training classes in various disciplines, including OSHA safety, Lean Six Sigma, and supply chain management, all skills that veterans are well versed in, just with a different jargon and culture than what is used in the civilian world.
This realization has opened up tremendous opportunities for veterans. Many VTS trainees, including Eddie have gone on to get the more advanced Green and Black Belt certification from UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies. And once a veteran has developed the skills and made the transition to civilian life, they’re often coming back to empower other vets in the VTS trainings to follow in their footsteps.
Eddie’s Lean Six Sigma Journey of Continuous Improvement
Eddie first met Russell when Eddie reached out for interview preparation help for his first civilian role outside of the military.
“Getting to meet Russell was a profound moment for me,” said Eddie. “We struck up a conversation about Lean Six Sigma and that's when I realized that this is what I wanted to do. From there, everything fell into place. It was almost like fate."
As part of his interview preparation, Russell suggested Eddie attend a VTS Lean Six Sigma class. Eddie quickly found what Russell already knew, that Lean Six Sigma thinking closely aligns with the military's culture of continuous improvement.
“When I'm teaching the Lean Six Sigma classes to veterans, I just see their eyes light up,” said Russell. “They've already been doing process improvement. All they need to learn is the civilian jargon.”
“We focus on Lean Six Sigma because I want them to learn the jargon and the tools that are being taught at the top schools,” Russell continued. “That way they're using the right language, the right jargon, and the right tools that hiring managers are used to hearing”
Russell cites how certain military processes such as the Operational Risk Assessment (ORM) are highly equivalent to the Lean Six Sigma process of Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA).
“I remember helping this Marine years ago,” recounts Russell. “He asked, ‘what's this FMEA?’ I explained it to him and he said, ‘Oh, that’s an ORM. I've done thousands of those.’ It turns out it was a daily responsibility as part of his role in the military. Being able to share that helped him get the job.”
With his previous experience and the help Eddie got from Russell, Eddie got the job. His love for Lean Six Sigma and some extra prompting from Russell compelled him to take his accreditations further to get the Green and Black Belt certifications from UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies.
“It's a game-changer," said Eddie. "It not only sharpened my problem-solving skills but also gave me a structured approach to improving processes. It allowed me to be able to transfer the years of exposure from the military environment to the corporate sector. It's just a matter of having the credentials so a hiring manager can see them. I think that's what gives you the entry point opportunity to sit down with any hiring manager.”
Different Levels of Lean Six Sigma Certification
Within the Lean Six Sigma framework, there are different certification levels, each representing different degrees of expertise. "It's like karate, where the different belt colors signify different levels of mastery," said Angela.
The Yellow Belt is the lowest level of certification. It focuses on teaching the general skills and concepts of Lean Six Sigma.
The next highest level is the Green Belt certification, which focuses on improving a process within an individual's direct control or at the departmental level. This level is ideal for individuals who want to become more efficient within their specific roles and process.
Black Belt certification takes process improvement to the next level. Black Belts tackle complex business processes that often involve multiple departments and teams. They take ownership of these projects and work towards achieving significant improvements in efficiency and quality. Process improvement may even become their full-time role at their organization.
For Eddie, the Black Belt has been an important complement to his experience in the Marine Corps.
“When I was in the United States Marine Corps, I was one of the lead planners, advising general officers regarding contingency plans across regions where the US has vital interests,” shares Eddie. “Being able to apply the same mindset and skills to solve complex business problems is something that is just an extension of who I am. I love to help business leaders solve problems.”
Bringing Process Improvement Back to the Source
Despite all his previous experience, there was one important challenge Eddie had to overcome on his way to getting his Black Belt certification, a challenge that stymies many veterans in their own quest for certification.
“One of the things that I've learned was that veterans have a hard time becoming Black Belts because they’re required to complete a real-world process improvement project,” explains Russell. “A lot of veterans can't get a project done because very few companies are willing to give free rein and financial data to somebody who's not already a high-level manager inside the company.”
This is a challenge that Angela is aware of too.
“I've been overseeing the Lean Six Sigma training programs for a little over 11 years now. My understanding is that a lot of programs that offer this certification do not accept students who do not already work somewhere that will give them access to a project. Folks who aren't employed or are in transition have had a challenge seeking out a company to collaborate with on their project.”
This was the case for Eddie, who was still in the military when he began his Black Belt training. The solution that Eddie and Russell eventually came to was to have Eddie do his Black Belt project on Veterans Transition Support.
“I was like, ‘Do it on us?’” said Russell. “I’ve got nothing to hide. If he could do the project on a small organization like ours, he could do it in any organization. The steps are the same, the numbers are just smaller.”
While the opportunity was helpful to Eddie, it may have even helped Russell more.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” said Russell. “I've been in the captain's chair for so long helping veterans with their transition. Now all of a sudden that role was reversed. Even though I've been teaching Lean Six Sigma for years, I've never really been on the other end of it.”
The insight Eddie was able to bring to VTS was to refocus on the primary purpose of the organization, which is getting veterans employed.
“Number one is to get veterans employed,” said Eddie. “Because if we can only move the needle in that aspect, that's where transformations happen.”
“The second part was looking for ways to maximize focus on the top twenty percent of processes that generate eighty percent of the return on investment,” Eddie continued.
By looking closely at the data, Eddie was able to help Russell see that the biggest opportunity for growth was not in helping more accomplished and higher-ranking officers transition to civilian life, but to work with lower-ranked enlisted officers (NCOs) who could see major gains with relatively minimal help.
“We want to make sure that the veterans involved are prepared for some of the realities of being able to get a job,” said Eddie. “This means helping them develop marketable skills, get the credentials, and practice to prepare for interviews.”
“Eddie really showed me that our greatest return on investment was helping the 4-8 year service members,” said Russell. “Those are the NCOs that are already doing risk management. They’re already doing safety. They're already leading teams. These were people who could punch above grade. Now they're the heavyweights and they're doing great.”
As a result of Eddie’s Black Belt project, Veterans Transition Support was able to help 36 additional veterans secure suitable employment, with a 30% increase in aggregate first-year salaries to approximately $3.2 million. Eddie shares that this project was one of his proudest career achievements.
"I would say what my Black Belt project I did for Veterans Transition Support is number one,” he said. “We went back to the basics and analyzed every process, identified every bottleneck, and found innovative ways to streamline operations. The impact was substantial–reduced costs, faster turnaround times, and improved customer satisfaction. It was a win-win-win."
Expanding the Network of Partnership for Veterans
The success of Eddie’s collaboration with VTS has catalyzed a renewed search for additional organizations that veterans can partner with for their Black Belt Project.
“We're definitely looking to expand the network,” said Angela. “That's a big goal of mine. We could offer this training to even more folks who are in transition to help them improve their skill set.”
The goal is to create a list of organizations willing to partner with Lean Six Sigma candidates, offering them real-world projects. This expansion will not only benefit individuals but also further enhance the efficiency of organizations willing to engage in the partnership.
”This experience has turned into something that looks like it could have a much wider impact,” said Russell. “It's been really interesting to be on the front end of something that could have some legs.”
Some realms of improvement with past partners have included more streamlined manufacturing workflows, more systematized employee onboarding processes, and procedures for better maintaining hospital sanitization protocols.
“There’s so much potential for organizations willing to take this on,” said Angela. "Eddie's experience with Lean Six Sigma and his project with VTS was a win-win. This could happen for other organizations too."
Lean Six Sigma certification offers both individuals and companies a transformative journey towards greater efficiency, quality, and success. Whether you're a Green Belt or a Black Belt, the skills acquired through Lean Six Sigma training are invaluable in today's competitive landscape.
Lean Six Sigma is something that I believe in,” said Eddie. “It's about efficiency, precision, and eliminating waste. When I applied these principles to Veterans Transition Support, we saw a remarkable transformation. It was a beautiful synergy between military and business methodologies."
Russell expresses his gratitude for being able to do this work too.
“I know what happens to veterans who don't get the information we provide and that’s a big part of what keeps me going,” Russell said. “It never gets old to walk in on a Saturday morning and have a room full of Marines and sailors looking at you ready to learn.”
To learn more about the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Lean Six Sigma certification program, click here.