A colleague of mine recently shared a story about the renowned Chihiro Nakao, student of Taiichi Ohno and founder of Shingijutsu. Seems that a client once asked Mr. Nakao if he granted any black belt certifications. The question was relayed via a translator. It didn’t translate.

The questioner was asked to repeat the query. Mr. Nakao laughed and then said something along the lines of, “I’ve been studying this for 50 years and I am only now beginning to understand it.” Wow!

So, here’s my personal belief. Certifications are the form. The required learning and experience is the substance. Sometimes the substance is not very substantive, so choose wisely…and understand the limitations.

Full disclosure – I have helped develop some of the SME/AME/Shingo/ASQ Lean certification exam questions. I have a six sigma black belt from the Juran Institute, a CPA and a couple of APICS certifications. Yes, I’m over-certified and still feel that I have a bunch to learn. The more I learn, often the less I feel that I truly understand.

I firmly believe that a lean certification is an excellent thing for lean practitioners. Here, I am NOT talking about those certifications that are so frequently furnished by so many consultants.

I am talking about the SME/AME/Shingo/ASQ Lean certification. It provides a very credible roadmap for study as encompassed in the Lean Certification Body of Knowledge (based largely upon the Shingo Prize criteria) and recommended reading and  knowledge objectively tested in the exam portions.  Perhaps most importantly, the bronze, silver and gold certification levels, require meaningful and relevant application. The experience portfolio requirements drive real-life “doing” (no gemba, no learning) and prompt self-reflection. For silver and gold certification levels, the portfolio also requires the candidate to mentor others. That’s unique and so very important. Mentoring others is a responsibility.

The successful pursuit of certification reflects a seriousness on the part of the candidate. It requires study, action and application. Certification provides an objective measure of some level of knowledge and experience.

That said, it is a beginning. Certification is not the objective anymore than a couple of maps are the objective of value stream analysis. Real world experience and the inevitable failures (and successes) are the stuff of learning. Lean is not a elitist thing managed in rarefied air by a handful of highly credentialed individuals. It is a holistic set of principles, systems and tools that should be accessible and applied by the “masses.” [Six sigma certified folks take note!]

To the Lean certification I would consider adding a six sigma green belt certification from a reputable group. Perhaps a black belt later. But, again it’s NOT about the certification, it’s about effectiveness.

By the way, the “certification” in the picture is from a Japanese restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah. Seems that even fancy cows (this guy’s name was Fuku Kitugumi) get certificates. Of course, to earn this particular certificate, complete with nose print (!?), it requires the recipient to become  steak. Keep that in mind.