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Six Sigma for Change

Joy E. Mason, CSSBB
President of Optimist Business Solutions
CEO of the Six Sigma Racial Equity Institute TM

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Where are we now? According to McKinsey & Company, “In 2020, the global market for DEI—that is, dollars spent by companies on DEI-related efforts such as employee resource groups (ERGs)—was estimated at $7.5 billion and is projected to more than double to $15.4 billion by 2026”. (Ellingrud et al.):

With DEI spending in the billions, you might be asking “What do we have to show for all of the money spent?”  If you are understandably questioning the return on investment (ROI) of DEI, reading about innovative DEI examples that benefit the business and clients, managers and employees, Black and White might be exactly what you need to press on.

I understand how frustrated employers across the ideological spectrum may be regarding DEI, but I implore you not to give up. If you give up now, you’ll be further behind 5 years from now. As a business leader, you may believe that delivering business results and retaining top talent are more important than boosting diversity and equity, but diversity and equity ARE the business. Don’t believe me? Here are the facts. There is no business without a workforce and consumers, and both are increasingly Black and Brown. “In 2020, out of 73 million Americans – about 1 in 5 were under age 18, and the majority of those under 18 were nonwhite or ethnic.” (Frey). I cannot say that $15.4 billion spent on DEI is too much or too little, but I can say that DEI must be a business priority regardless of your ideology, personal beliefs, or politics. Your business may not survive 20 years from now, if DEI is ignored or undervalued. 

One of the barriers to a visible ROI may be the unfortunate view that diversity and equity is a zero-sum-game. In fact, diversity and equity is not a game. It is not a popular trend, a training class, a book, nor a political slogan. To the contrary, diversity and equity is about representation, self-efficacy, social capital, in addition to overall well-being.  These pillars are fundamental underpinnings of The Six Sigma Racial Equity Institute™. 

The Six Sigma Racial Equity Institute™ is an innovative DEI movement designed to upskill Black Women and Black Latinas to be complex problem solvers who advocate and lead at work and in the community. This movement is building a talent pipeline of women through accredited Six Sigma Green Belt training and certification. Participants earn the certification via a capstone equity project with for profit and non profit employers. While the end goal is upskilling and certification, the Institute is a DEI beacon of light that delivers on its promises.

The Institute’s brand promise to participants is to professionally challenge and personally stretch them within a safe space that has been carefully designed for their growth and success.  

The Institute’s brand promise to its graduates is to equip them with robust problem solving tools and the contextual intelligence to confidently navigate ambiguous and inequitable spaces as women of color. The Six Sigma Racial Equity Institute™ is building confident Black leaders who should no longer question if they belong in any room. 


The Institute’s signature Six Sigma Green Belt experience focuses on Black women. It’s fair to ask “why?” The Black community is oftentimes the most harmed by inequitable policies, resulting in low education attachment, poor health outcomes, low wages, and high unemployment. Black women, in particular, earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. “The wage gap translates into a lifetime loss over a 40- year career of $884,800 for Black women and $1,218,000 for Latinas” (Javaid).  According to the National Women’s Law Center, this appauling gender and racial wage gap exists in 94% of U.S. occupations (Tucker). Ensuring pay equity for Black women is a critical imperative in the pursuit of justice and equality. Achieving pay equity is a fundamental commitment to recognizing the inherent value and talents of Black women in the workforce, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive and equitable society where diversity is not only celebrated but equitably compensated. As a result of disproportionately poor outcomes, the Institute focuses on the group with the most need. 


Diversity and equity through an innovative Six Sigma lens can actually make things better for everyone touched by a process (e.g. compensation process, promotion process, retention process). The Six Sigma Racial Equity InstituteTM is an example of a rising tide that lifts all ships.  With our mission and services, there is mutual benefit. We call our innovative process-work a triple-win. Here’s how everyone wins:

  • Participants win because they receive support to build leadership confidence, self-efficacy, critical thinking, data analysis, and complex problem solving skills. 
  • Project host organizations (employers) win because our project teams provide additional capacity to solve racial equity gaps at a systems level. 
  • Consumers and communities win because our innovative approach always includes their voices to shape equitable solutions.


In the spring of 2021, racial unrest and demands for equity were at the forefront. During that time, I wanted to do something to address the racial equitites that were (are) torturing Black and Brown communities. Seeing George Floyd’s murder on televeision was extremely painful.  As I prayed and reflected on what I could do, I was hesitant about entering the DEI space. God brought me two good friends who spoke the right words at the right time. Their words sparked my sense of purpose and urgency to advance racial equity in the only way I knew how. I strongly believed that a framework typically used in corporate settings could be used to address racial inequities in the workplace and across communities.  The framework is Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (also known as ‘Six Sigma’). I believed that Six Sigma could be an ideal method for combining community voice, process thinking, and data analysis to tackle racial inequities across sectors. Thus the Six Sigma Racial Equity Institute™ was born. 


Six Sigma is a set of strategies and tools for process improvement that was originally developed by Motorola in the 1980s. The goal of Six Sigma is to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects and variability within processes. In our case the ‘defect’ is racial inequity.

The main principles of Six Sigma include:

  • Define: Clearly understand the “problem” and what your constituents want or expect.
  • Measure: Identify or generate quantifiable data in the areas for improvement. 
  • Analyze: Analyze the data to identify the root causes of defects or variations in the process.  
  • Improve: Understand the root causes of the problem before piloting a solution.
  • Control: Monitor the improved process to ensure that the improvements are sustained over time. 

The Six Sigma Racial Equity InstituteTM applies these principles to tackle racial equity. The Institute’s Six Sigma Green Belt program includes a combination of instructional and project time. The instructional part of the program includes five full days of instruction and an exam, followed by six months of project work. The Institute leverages DMAIC to ask key questions, like:

  • Define: Do you clearly know what the inequity is? Do you understand the process step that the inequity is hiding behind? To what extent do you aim to close the equity gap? What do your employees or constituents expect?
  • Measure: Do you have reliable disaggregated data and external benchmarks to confirm that a racial equity exists?
  • Analyze: Have you analyzed the data to understand the extent of the inequity. 
  • Improve: Do you know the root causes for the inequity before jumping to conclusions and solutions? 
  • Control: Are you monitoring the improved process to ensure that the improvements are sustainable. Is there clear accountability and responsibility for monitoring the improvements?

DMAIC is like a scientific method for problem solving. DMAIC is deliberate and methodical. DMAIC is about the data and the story, the people and the process, the hard skills and the soft skills. DMAIC is a robust approach to DEI because it empowers diverse teams to work on a common goal that actually benefits everyone .  DMAIC can be a more palatable approach to addressing inequities across almost any sector. DMAIC lends itself very well to being the DEI roadmap that business leaders have been looking for.


The Six Sigma Racial Equity InstituteTM is already seeing an impact. 

Participants’ Impact – SSREI Cohort participants are gaining knowledge to enhance their transferable skills and are learning tools to advocate for themselves in the workplace. SSREI conducted an assessment to learn how these local professionals are utilizing skills learned in the program to realize equity. Below are a few of the key findings:

  • 39 Black women have completed our Green Belt training, of that group 34 Black women earned their Six Sigma Green Belt Certification. 
  • More than 87% of women surveyed believed they will have a greater impact, influence, and contribution within their organizations and community after completing the Green Belt Program.
  • Of the graduates surveyed, 67% stated they received a pay raise since completing the Green Belt program and 33% noted they have received a promotion.
  • Of the graduates who reported a pay increase, 33% noted they received a salary increase of more than $10,000, while an additional 44% received a salary increase of $1,000-$9,999 since completing the Green Belt program.
  • More than 50 diverse professionals have completed our Yellow Belt Certification Program. These professionals and aspiring leaders leave our program with a fundamental understanding of Six Sigma knowledge and skills to take back to their jobs to address organizational challenges, including inequities. 

Business Impact – The Institute’s project work delivers business impact that is tangible and quantifiable. Oftentimes, that’s what’s missing from the DEI work. Project examples of business impact include:

  • Black People in Tech Jobs –
    • Equity Challenge – Black people make up 30% of the City population but make up 7% of tech jobs.
    • Project Results – Coaching pilot participants on the job searching process and disrupting beliefs about what it takes to be “qualified” contributed to 100% of pilot participant’s applying for at least one job in the tech sector during the pilot period.  
  • Supplier Diversity Timely Payments  –
    • Equity challenge – Black businesses need timely payments due to less capital compared to their White peers. 
    • Project Results – 483 vendors signed up for ACH payments which will decrease the time for payment. Twenty seven percent of these vendors were Minority Business Enterprises. During the pilot, there was a 67% decrease in average execution time for processing contracts for payment.
  • Supplier Diversity Minotity Vendor Engagement –
    • Equity Challenge – Unreliable engagement and data from minority vendors. 
    • Project Results – The responsiveness of all vendors, including minority vendors is expected to improve by combining an optional request for vendor information with the required process for obtaining W9s. 

Hopefully you can see from these examples that all constituents benefit, the business benefits, vendors benefit, and customers (clients) benefit; even though the initial focus was on the Black inequity. In conclusion, the Six Sigma Racial Equity InstituteTM is creating the ROI that is so desperately needed in the DEI field. The Institute leverages an empowerment approach to DEI that empowers teams to work together to address inequities. I describe DMAIC as an empowerment approach because we “respect people’s autonomy and equip them to be effective, self-motivated agents of change within themselves and within their institutions” (Cox WTL, et al) .

The Institute ensures employers’ needs for top talent and business results are also met. Over the Institute’s three years of existence, it is demonstrating that diversity and equity can be a positive-sum gain. I challenge the profit and non-profit sectors to extend beyond the employee resource groups and mandatory training, by thinking more innovatively and collaboratively.  DEI initiatives can work, and they must work. Innovate!

Works Cited
Ellingrud, Kweilini, et al. “2023 DEI initiatives report: Inside the lighthouses.” McKinsey, McKinsey & Company, 13 January 2023, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-equity-and-inclusion-lighthouses-2023. Accessed 31 January 2024.

Frey, William H. “All recent US population growth comes from people of color, new census estimates show | Brookings.” Brookings, Brookings Institution, 23 June 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/all-recent-us-population-growth-comes-from-people-of-color-new-census-estimates-show/. Accessed 31 January 2024.

Javaid, Sarah. “A Window Into the Wage Gap: What’s Behind It and How to Close It.” National Women’s Law Center, National Women’s Law Center, January 2024, https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/2023-Wage-Gap-Factsheet.pdf. Accessed 1 February 2024.

Tucker, Jasmine. “The Wage Gap Has Robbed Women of Their Ability to Weather COVID-19.” National Women’s Law Center, National Women’s Law Center, 9 November 2017, https://nwlc.org/wp-content/%20uploads/2021/03/EPD-2021-v1.pdf. Accessed 1 February 2024.

Cox WTL and Devine PG (2019), “The prejudice habit-breaking intervention: an empowerment-based confrontation approach”, in Mallett RK and Monteith MJ (Eds), Confronting Prejudice and Discrimination: The Science of Changing Minds and Behaviors, Academic Press, London, pp. 249–274.

Joy E. Mason is the dynamic President, Founder, and Senior Business Strategist for Optimist Business Solutions, LLC, a consulting firm designed to help frustrated leaders and their teams work better, faster and smarter. Joy is a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt and has more than 30 years of corporate experience, primarily from Eli Lilly and Company.


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