Expert Excerpts: Cecilia Martínez on Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education

Expert Excerpts: Cecilia Martínez on Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education -

Whether you’re just starting your Lean Six Sigma journey, or you’re in the middle of improving a process, guidance from Experts can help make your efforts easier – and more successful! In this Expert Excerpt, we interview Expert Cecilia Martinez, who shares key insights to being successful with Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education.

Cecilia Martinez is an Assistant Professor of Engineering & Management at Clarkson University. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has worked for the automobile and electronics industries and has served as a process improvement consultant across industry sectors. She now shares her passion for solving problems with college students and seeks to help companies save money, and ultimately help people do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

What advice do you have for someone who is getting started with certifying university students in Lean Six Sigma?

Focused Projects and Support

I recommend focusing on finding the right projects that fit both the certification and academic requirements. It’s also key to clarify the level of involvement and support expected during the execution of the Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project. The challenge in getting certified is not the training – it’s completing a project within the academic semester. Thus, much of the success of the project is defined before the student begins the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve & Control) process. This requires the faculty/mentor to work with top management in order to establish:

  • Buy-in for collaborating with “undergraduate students”
  • Commitment to identifying problematic areas
  • Agreement on narrowly scoped projects
  • Identification of the right staff to team up with students for project execution

Clarifying Roles and Expectations

Clarifying expectations is pivotal. Some staff members consider their role as passive and limited to giving students a tour of their department areas. Their true role is that of an active team player. This means attending working meetings and facilitating access to the data required for the project. While students do most of the process observations, data collection and analysis, staff team members are essential to the full understanding of the problem, effective root-cause analysis and solution design. Without a well-defined project and committed staff team members, it is very difficult for students to make progress in their projects.

Without a well-defined project and committed staff team members, it is very difficult for students to make progress in their projects.

What are some common mistakes you see people making when certifying university students in Lean Six Sigma?

Vague Projects

One of the biggest mistakes is to start the academic semester with a vaguely defined problem for a project, or even worse, end up with a team without a project at all. I’ve experienced both scenarios. On one occasion, I had a multidisciplinary team of staff members from the hosting organization that were told to attend a workshop on Lean. They had no idea they were expected to complete a Lean Six Sigma project as a result of their participation.

I improvised. The session changed from re-defining the project to identifying both a meaningful and high impact project in their respective areas. It took us several weeks to identify and narrow the project scope. We identified a good project in the end, but we exhausted the time available time to execute the project. The resulting stress could have been avoided if the team had started with a well-defined project and clarified leadership expectations from day one.

The resulting stress could have been avoided if the team had started with a well-defined project and clarified leadership expectations from day one.

Misconception of “Student Projects”

Another area that I would not call a “mistake” but a misconception is the perception of “student projects.” Some industry people have the notion of students are conducting mere classroom assignments that bring no real benefits to the company. Project deliverables are often downgraded to a list of student recommendations resulting from scratching the surface of real-world problems.

The difference with Lean Six Sigma projects is that they require students to go to a deeper process level side-by-side with the staff members. They learn together and work to jointly understand the process and the problem. Students and staff members design and implement a solution together. Projects executed in collaboration like this completely changes how the leadership team and the hosting organization view the outcomes.

The Right Attitude

Another factor is the student himself. Having the right project is important and recruiting the students with the right attitude is equally important. I’ll take highly motivated students over students with well-developed leadership and analytical skills every time. If I a student has a good attitude, I can help them navigate the leadership and analytical aspects. If the student does not have a good attitude, it’s a struggle to get the student to use apply his talent to the project, and I become a wasted resource. Even highly motivated students have to be warned about the amount of work required in a Lean Six Sigma project. A great way to avoid this mistake is to break down the expected hours of training, project meetings, project presentations, etc. Students will spend at least 135 hours working on a Lean Six Sigma project.

I’ll take highly motivated students over students with well-developed leadership and analytical skills every time.

Soft Skills

It’s equally critical not to make assumptions about students abilities to lead and facilitate meeting and to stay focused on the project goal. They can be easily distracted by obvious low-hanging fruit. If they spend time making recommendation or implementing solutions, that takes them away from making critical progress towards the project goal.

Do you have any pet peeves related to Lean Six Sigma certification in higher education?

The Amount of Work Involved

There is a significant amount of work involved in setting up Lean Six Sigma certification from scratch in higher education. A partial list of what’s involved includes:

  • Getting the funds for the certification program
  • Finding the right projects
  • Working with the host organization to narrow the scope of projects
  • Identifying HR requirements so that students are cleared and comply with the host organization requirements before the semester begins
  • Negotiating a good deal with the certifying company

And the list goes on. At the moment I am seeking funds for the upcoming semester. I am working on (and struggling with) the self-sustainability and continuity of this initiative at Clarkson University. That is the only way to sustain this effort. It’s critical to line up projects (or problems) and funds on a recurrent basis to make Lean Six Sigma Certification a continued offering for students as opposed to a one-time or sporadic event. Lean Six Sigma in higher education is much easier when a university has a corporate sponsorship program for capstone design projects.


Another issue is university-wide recognition. My students successfully completed their projects and all 11 received their Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certifications within just 14 weeks. They accomplished all this in record time which was something worth celebrating. Unfortunately, I did not get the support I was expecting to recognize their accomplishments. But since recognition and praise are critical factors in motivation, I tried another avenue. I invited my students to dinner and conducted a mini-graduation ceremony with the Dean of the David Reh School of Business. The students were happy with the celebration and I’m hoping next time to spread the word beyond our class before they graduate.

Is there anyone that has significantly influenced you over the years?

At the professional level, Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s system of profound knowledge has influenced the way I approach Lean Six Sigma. It’s about having a systemic point of view, having a shared understanding of the purpose of the overall system, understanding its interactions, conducting data-driven analysis, identifying key players to form a team, involving them during the execution of the project and making effective changes to the system that last over time.

Why do you do what you do? (What motivates you?)

It Changed My Career

My journey started with my first post-graduate job at Honeywell (Aligned Signal). I got one-to-one time with a team of Black Belts and Master Black Belts while completing my first project. It was a great experience but I only realized what a “rodeo” it truly was when I started by formal Lean Six Sigma training. Once I got my Lean Six Sigma certification it made a huge difference in helping me advance up my career ladder.

I Realized I Could Do That for Others

While working at SiemensVDO, I had a truly transformative experience around the power of Lean Six Sigma. I successfully tackled a seemingly intractable project that became recognized internationally. My team and I received third place at the Team Excellence competition organized by ASQ in 2006. Presenting the case with key team members helped me realized that I wanted to help people replicate what I can do.

My Students Needed Career Boosts

When my students at Clarkson University kept asking me how to get certified, I realized I could integrate Lean Six Sigma with the capstone projects. I simply want to give back what I got when I was a student. I want to give my students the same competitive advantage I got when I was starting my career in industry. Lean Six Sigma made a difference in my life, and I hope my students get the same boost up their career ladders.

We Achieve Symbiosis With Local Business

Lean Six Sigma projects also provide great collaboration opportunities. My students and I are helping the private sector solve their problems, but the private sector is also help us address the common challenges we have in academia such as replicating the work environment while still being in an academic setting. Synergies come naturally.

Certification Helps My Students Stand Out

Capstone design projects allow students to demonstrate competency. The enhanced capstone project infrastructure provides a completely hands-on experience, ranging from problem definition to solution implementation and offers the Green Belt professional certification that students can complete in one academic semester. This allows students to stand out from other candidates when applying for jobs. Recruiters are better able to assess their fit for job openings which helps the students, local industry partners and prospective employers. Everybody wins.

What’s something exciting that you’re currently working on?

I am currently developing a generalized framework for measuring the performance of nonprofit organizations (NPOs). I took the structured approach of Lean Six Sigma and applied it to a different setting. Many NPOs rely on testimonials to report their programs’ impact. However, testimonials are not enough to identify areas for improvement. And testimonials can’t provide a solid performance baseline measurement.

NPOs lack formal mechanisms for reporting to donors how their money is making a positive impact. My research goal is to create a system that non-experts can use and adapt to their program needs. The idea is to generate meaningful feedback without taxing limited resources. We’re currently testing the framework with two community development programs of ViviendasLeón, a non-governmental organization operating in the rural communities around León, Nicaragua.

What’s your favorite application of Lean Six Sigma in your personal life (away from work)?

I like monitoring the amount of sleep my toddler gets every day. I wish I could say I can control this variable, but at least recording her night sleep and nap times helps me identify whether I need to implement a special strategy to encourage my little girl to sleep or whether we can relax and allow some extra playtime at night.

Have a question for Cecilia? Please feel free to ask in the comments below.


try it


Accredited by PMI. Over 15k glowing reviews.