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Earning a Black Belt isn't Just for Karate

By April Brown | April 2, 2019

NORFOLK NAVAL SHIPYARD —

In September 2018, three Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) employees set out for an adventure in Lean Six Sigma Black Belt training that would change their way of thinking, working, interacting, and how they could help bring process improvement to the workforce.
When Megan Hanni, Code 100PI Engineering Technician first heard about shipyard workers becoming black belts, the first thing she thought of was karate. She was intrigued when she discovered it was learning about process improvement and innovation.
“When I was in work packaging, I saw information about Lean Six Sigma and how to get a green and black belt,” said Hanni. “If someone is interested in becoming a black belt, they need to get their supervisor to agree for them to apply for the program which is one week out of each month for six months.”
Those six months helped the three employees, who call themselves the three musketeers, who never dreamed how going to black belt college would open so many doors and upward mobility at NNSY. “Becoming a black belt was a very good decision because it has helped me learn a lot about the shipyard and its processes,” said Clara Cuervo, Code 100PI Industrial Engineer. “NNSY is an organization of high complexity. I have been learning about the shipyard through senior and middle management as well as through the engineering technician’s eyes; what they do in their shop, and what projects they work on. It is also important to get the right sponsor for the project you are working on.”
One of the requirements prior to being selected to attend black belt college is to have a senior manager sponsor. One of the biggest advantages of sponsoring an employee is it will help the sponsor make improvements in their shop or code.
“One of the projects Megan and I worked on was excess equipment in the shipyard. It took a lot of work, but we were able to help the shipyard get $6 million to remove the excess equipment that was around the shipyard,” said Kelly Carson, Code 100PI Engineering Technician. “We pushed it all the way through and we were able to see something go from an idea on a piece of paper to a reality. That was a huge win for us. When we saw truckloads of old equipment being removed, it felt like a victory! Being able to see a project be successful is a really good feeling and knowing you are part of something that big is pretty cool.”
NAVSEA, NNSY sponsors and senior management are involved in the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) for the shipyard. They work together to direct an overarching master plan for each public shipyard incorporating the results of a review of industrial processes, logistics streams, and workload distribution required to support ship repairs at each shipyard and the facilities requirements to support optimized processes. Dry docks and buildings are also projects that black belts help with during their training.
“One of our big projects is Bldg. 510. We have been asked to facilitate with the facility issues due to its condition,” said Carson. “With Care, Ownership, Respect, and Excellence (C.O.R.E.) being a main focus and caring about people, the senior manager is trying to get help to bring the building back to standards and put the quality of life back into it.”
Keeping quality of life and innovation in mind, the black belt team has been gathering information on Bldg. 510 and finding ways that will help it get ready for the new Virginia class submarines, and Ford class aircraft carriers when they come into the shipyard for maintenance. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is one of the innovative features they are looking to put into Bldg. 510 for tracking and accountability purposes.
Working on projects and learning process improvement are just the most obvious advantages of being a black belt. Others are networking, going on field trips to corporate sites to see how robotics and autonomous vehicles are blending into manufacturing, and building relationships that will last well into their careers.
“Being a black belt gives you the ability to reach out to your black belt counterparts at any time and about anything. They might have an idea of how to do something different, or if you just need to know who is a contact for what,” said Hanni. “I think an important part is that people understand that you can become a black belt at different pay levels. You don’t have to be a manager to be a black belt. Most importantly, if we could take something small and implement it into the shipyard, just imagine how things could change.”
Cuervo explains change is good and it sets the stage for a new and growing culture inside the shipyard.
“If you look back our history, we have always found ways to be better, to improve. It is in our DNA! I believe in challenging the status quo. I believe in thinking differently. The way I challenge the status quo is by mastering the art of simplicity while living C.O.R.E. Why not find ways to better ourselves and our environment since it is only going to benefit us, our Navy, and country?”