Since creating this website I’ve been able to expand my knowledge of Six Sigma practices and techniques to far beyond the preparations I did to pass the Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt exam. The most frequent question I get is centered on How I passed the Six Sigma Black Belt exam on the first try.
It’s an important question. Candidates usually take the exam after months of preparation and sometimes after thousands of dollars spent – either by their company or on their own. Sometimes, passing the exam is a job requirement; fail and you lose your job.
Personally, passing the exam was a job requirement as part of a new prestigious -and challenging – position I was offered in my company. I needed to pass the test as quickly as possible. Of course I had to fit that into a demanding career requiring travel and long hours. My wife and I also welcomed our first daughter during this time. Since we both work, that meant long days and nights for the both of us. Time was at a premium, the stakes were high, so I knew I had to optimize my time.
My plan of attack was as follows:
- Talk to people who had passed and failed the exam
- Affinitize the best practices of the people who passed the exam.
- Find out what the people who failed did wrong.
- Find people who passed the exam on the second try and do whatever they said made the difference.
Also, since the company I work for was providing it, I took the Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt course.
When I talked to people who passed it they said ‘just study and you’ll be fine.’
That wasn’t good enough for me. What if they were smarter, had better memories, or had an easier test than I the one I was going to sit for? Also – study what? There had to be an optimized way of performing.
Then I talked to people who failed the first time. I asked what they would do differently. I made sure I did all of that. It was over kill, but I was prepared!!! Here are the best suggestions that I found:
Take a course and master it.
Check. Like I said before, I was taking the Villanova course as my company was paying for it. I resolved to do the following:
- Complete all of the readings
- Iincluding those not only required to pass it, but the suggested ones as well.
- Watch all of the videos
- Participate in all of the instructor-led lessons.
- I could never make the time to attend live, but I watched all of the sessions in my off hours.
- Completed all problem sets for every topic, not just the ones assigned.
- Do every portion of the graded case study.
- Retake every quizzes involved with the course.
- You needed a 70% grade on each quiz to pass the course. I had received a passing grade on each quiz on the first try but since they give you 3 chances to take the quiz, I re-took each quiz until I ran out of chances.
- I studied any question I got wrong.
- It was important to know not only the right answer, but why the other questions are not correct.
Study the published Body of Knowledge (BOK)
Each certification organization states the topics they will be covering in the certification. This is referred to as the Body of Knowledge or BOK. An important note to remember is that an organization may offer a training course but that course will NOT teach you everything you need to know for the exam. That means that simply studying provided training materials IS NOT ENOUGH!
You must be fluent with all materials in the BOK.
In order to prepare for the BOK, I made certain I understood each area they were asking me. To help you study, I’ve made a list of each BOK subject for 3 major certifying organizations and linked to my study notes on each topic.
- Villanova Six Sigma Black Belt Body of Knowledge
- ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt Body of Knowledge
- IASSC Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Body of Knowledge
I also studied all the questions I could find on those topics. In order to achieve mastery, you must be able to answer question using any vocabulary set people use. Fortunately, there are plenty of free University resources out there on many of these topics – especially the probability and statistics.
Synthesized the BOK
The BOKs for each certification are excellent. But I found them to be very disjointed. In my mind it makes little sense to organize the demands of the certification that way. After all, that’s not how you would apply the knowledge. Also, there is little context. It’s difficult to see how one concept complements another.
That cognitive dissonance made it very difficult for me to remember all of the material so I chopped the material into sections on how you would apply it. You can see how I did so here under Six Sigma Tools Walk Through.
Along the way I made this website by transcribing all of my hand-written notes to pages! This practice helped me gather multiple viewpoints in one area. For many topics I wrote comprehensive articles on the concepts to help myself learn it better. I also searched for YouTube videos to get different perspectives.
Since the certification test is comprehensive and not merely a final exam, it covers more that what is in the course. Whenever an outside reference was mentioned I made sure to read it. Also, Iasked others about how else I could deepen my knowledge.
Check here to see the list of supplemental reading materials I covered in preparation for the six sigma black belt exam.
Real Life Application
Whenever I would read something in the Wall Street Journal or anywhere else that applied to Six Sigma principles, I would share it on LinkedIn or email it to colleagues and try to engage in conversation with other members. The goal here was to try to see the applicability of it in what I was learning in the real world. For example, articles on new product development = Design for Six Sigma or TRIZ. New Processes or process changing that led to businesses losing out to competitors usually boiled down to a root cause of the company not mapping CTCs to CTQs.
Also, I again used visualization techniques to help out. One way I did this was by imagining myself talking to my company’s leaders about opportunities in their divisions in terms of the techniques I was learning. Alternately I’d imagine articulated an elevator speech relating an issue I saw in the world to a concept I learned to various top 100 CEOs.
Explaining what six sigma is and how it could help others is a great way to apply this material to real life. Friends and family in various positions and disciplines are certainly sick of hearing me talk about these materials by now!
Recently I’ve started publishing articles on these real or imagined conversations and other factual examples here under the category heading Six Sigma in Real Life.
Make Study Notes for the Exam.
Each Six Sigma Black Belt exam allows you to have certain kinds of notes. I made lots of decision sheets for myself. Ex. Use these hypothesis tests when this, not that.
It was helpful to have my notes in a format that I understood rather than looking up formulas in text books.
Also, I built Excel macros to help me error check my calculations.
Retaking all of the quizzes was helpful. I highlighted the items I got wrong and worked those. By focusing on taking my lowest-scoring areas and then getting those individual areas 100% complete let me turning a weakness into a strength. Repeating that process ensured that regardless of how any section was weighted in the test I would be strong enough to pass.
Visualization & Reward
Envisioning yourself succeeding is a powerful psychological technique advocated in multiple disciplines. When I was in school and playing sports, I would envision the game before hand. In soccer, I would imagine where I would line up, how I would play the opposition’s defense, how I would pass, how I would execute the fundamentals of the game.
I’m unsure if this ever helped me play better, but it did drown out the voices of doubt that come into every competitor’s mind. I continue this practice to this day before adventure races, triathlons or other events.
I avoided ever verbalizing not passing or making self-deprecating jokes. Several colleagues would make jokes about having to take the test twice. While that can help calm some people’s nerves, you must be certain not to make those statements a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I also believe that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative. The threat of losing one’s job if you don’t pass an exam is an excellent motivator, but having a positive goal to shoot for is more fulfilling. Instead of worrying about what I would do if I didn’t pass the exam, I focused on what the rewards would be once I did pass. I imagined receiving the Six Sigma Black Belt certificate, I imagined how good it would feel with my mentors and colleagues congratulating me. I imagined updating my LinkedIn resume with the new accomplishment!
Finally, I wanted to reward myself for the effort whether I passed or failed. There was a 3-day weekend coming up right after my test so my wife and I took a day of vacation to extend it to 4 days. We rented a beach house with several of our other friends and their families. All of the guys made plans to do a deep sea fishing trip.
No matter if I passed or failed, I was going to enjoy a great vacation with my family and be surrounded by good friends. I’ll admit that I combined the techniques and whenever the preparation for the exam got tough, I visualized playing on the beach with my family, catching fish with my friends, and telling them over and over again how I passed the exam.
Where to take the Exam
The ASQ is a proctored exam, so you have to take that at the appropriate center. The Villanova is entirely on-line. As we know, ‘Variation is the enemy!’ So I focused on choosing an area where I had the best chance of performing well.
Even though my internet connection at home is not the best, I knew I could focus there. Several colleagues would take the exam at work after hours but this was not going to a great strategy for me.
As I was taking the exam at home I focused on making one room quiet, clean and calm.
I organized all of my notes. I eliminated distractions by cleaning out everything from the room and organizing all of my notes. I even installed Sub blocking drapes so there would not be glare on my monitor.
The Day Before the Exam
I had to work . Being busy there was a blessing. Diving deep in to work is a great distraction! Leading up to the exam I made time for exercise -even if it was only 30 minutes a day I would be sure to have a great workout and follow a clean diet avoiding sugar and caffeine while being sure to have as many vegetables and fruits as I could.
After work I avoided television, internet, and anything else. To clear my mind I played with my daughter. After she went to bed I read fiction all in a bid to avoid anxiety. Cramming the night before is counter productive. If you have prepared, you will succeed. If not, maybe you will get lucky. 24 hours out the die is already cast.
The best thing you can do is to have restful night’s sleep so I focused there. Sleeping aids leave me drowsy but I find Melatonin Tablets are a good natural alternative. I honestly don’t know if there is any science to melatonin. To me it’s irrelevant; even if the benefits I get from it are the same as a sugar pill I still get a great night’s sleep.
The Day of the Exam
Per my plan I worked from home. Made sure no one was around the house. I blocked out 4 hours. Dropped my daughter off at daycare, got my coffee, put up dark sun blocking drapes. Organized my materials in my home office / guest room. Things were on the bed behind me and all over! The excels that I made were up. Had my calculator set.
Took 4 hours and I went through answering all the ones I was sure of and ‘starring’ anything I did not. I made a list of the questions I was close, but not certain. I made a 2nd list of the ones I had no idea.
I went through working the ones I had narrowed it down and re-read. Hoping my subconscious had a chance to digest it. Also made sure that I read the questions correctly.
Many people warned me about how awkwardly worded the questions were and that they might make no sense with uses of double and triple negatives! I noted any question that had awkward writing and made certain to revisit those and read carefully.
A day or two later the results came in. I passed with a great grade. Even better, I dramatically improved my understanding of Six Sigma tools and techniques gaining skills that have helped me create great value for my clients and my company.
I followed through with my plans and had a great weekend with my family and friends. We even caught a bunch of tasty fish!