Thursday, 3 April 2014

Ho to prepare for the ASQ Certified Six Sigma Black Belt exam (CSSBB)

Signing up for the six sigma black belt exam is a major step in your professional career. The decision to take the exam needs to be thought over, planned, discussed, and reviewed thoroughly since most of the applicants are on full time jobs and have been out of their student lives for quite some time. Getting back to the books while on the job requires planning and a strong motivation. Moreover, if the exam is a requirement of your company, the stakes are higher since your career progress will be impacted by your performance. Intimidating? Indeed !! and these vital factors are in one form or the other your strongest motivators.

In this blog I intend to share my experience on the CSSBB exam which I hope will help the reader in taking their CSSBB exams and clearing them.

Step#1: Should you apply? Do you have the pre-requisites?

You must be Green belt trained and have basic Lean and Six Sigma knowledge. Although ASQ does not ask for you to demonstrate or provide proof of your Green Belt certification, it is important that you have the basic knowledge before heading to the black belt level.

For those of you who need to get black belt certification, make sure you complete your Green Belt training first and also tell your company that it is important for any applicant to clear the Green Belt first and then take the Black Belt. That is the logical way to go about it and will help a lot in building solid concepts for the black belt exam.

Secondly, you need to have sound experience with Lean & Six Sigma projects. ASQ requires your to prove this through filling of 02 affidavit forms in which you will explain the projects you worked on and these forms will have to be signed of by your companies Master Black Belt or Project Champion.

It is strongly recommended that you ask your company to let you attend a black belt training course. Classroom training are the best, however, online courses are also available from ASQ or Villanova etc which are pretty good. Just google around for them and you will find good online options. In my case, I did not take any courses and relied on self study but it was not the ideal way to go. If you or your company cannot afford the training, don't worry, you can clear it through self study as well, and I can help you with that !!

Most importantly, you need to have a very strong motivation to clear the exam. You will have to put in a lot of effort and hours after you register, it will be an up hill task and there will be no easy way out, failing will not be an option, and rescheduling the exam for a later date will mess things up even more. If you register for an exam, you must be sure you have the time and space to study for it and ace it. Period! that should be the goal. 

Step#2: Books you need to prepare for the Exam 

If you attend a formal training course, I am sure you will get a lot of books and reference material. There is no limit to the reference available since all the topics in the body of knowledge are generic and you can get all the information in the world about them to help you build your concepts. However, I will share the resources I used to help me prepare for my exam. You can treat these as a bare minimum requirement and I encourage you to explore more guides and references and post them here for everyone's info.

The books I used

I used only 2 books. Yes! only 2. But then again, I was a certified Green Belt, I had been working in a six sigma company for 5 years, and even though I did not take any courses, I did have a very good mentor. I am also an engineer by profession so the numerical questions were easy to get through. So the books you need will depend on your own strengths and weaknesses. However, the two books I am referring to below are for covering the Six Sigma Body of Knowledge. For any specific topics which may be your weak areas, you can look for relevant books to help you with that specific topic separately.

1. The CSSBB Primer - by Quality Council of Indiana

This is the best book of all time and you will not find a better book for developing your concepts for the exam. The authors have done a great job by giving in depth explanations of each and every topic in the body of knowledge. The page and text layouts are great, the large fonts and bold text makes the book easier to read and mark-up. Also, the book comes with tabs for all sections of the primers, this helps a lot during the exam when you need quick references. you can easily add your own tags and mark-ups and make good use of the white spaces in the book for your notes. Remember, it is an open book exam! 

The first couple of chapters are fun to read, you will be able to relate to a lot of the text from your own professional experiences. I would suggest you to go through these chapters anyway even if you don't intend to take the exam, since they are very helpful for your self development.

The most important aspect of this primer is that it gives you exercise questions at the end of each sections on blue pages. These questions are the best questions to practice for the exam and are very similar to the questions that appear on the exam it self. You will have to remove the blue pages from the book when you take it to the exam.

So, you MUST have this book, read it all in detail, attempt all the exercises, check your scores and work on your areas of improvement. This book will drastically increase your chances of clearing the exam.

2. The Certified Six Sigma black belt handbook - by Kubiak & Benbow

This book is the ASQ handbook and it basically contains the bare minimum explanation on every section of the body of knowledge. You will find that the text is a lot less than in the primer and this book is very "to the point". 

I used this book after reading the primer and I found out that although all topics of the body of knowledge are covered, the topics are not explained in great detail. However, there are many example questions in this book as well within the chapters which help you to attempt the questions that will appear in the exam. 

I recommend to study this book as well, since it is the official ASQ handbook and it relates to many questions in the exam. Even if you cannot read all of it, just skim through it make sure you go through all of the example questions in the chapters. They definitely help during the exam.

So, this book is a very important reference, but it only contains example questions and no exercises. Make sure you take both this book and the primer with you to the exam for reference.

Step#3: Other Important References

The books alone are not enough. Specially for understanding the Statistics topics. So here is what will help you further:

1. Khan Academy:

This is a website created by a person named Salman Khan. This is the best way to learn for from a phD absolutely free of cost. I used it for improving my statistics concepts. The online lectures are fun to listen to and extremely easy to access. Salman as an amazing way of explaining real hard concepts using simple examples. Khan Academy apps are also available on ipad and android so you can have easy access on the go as well on your personal gadgets.

This was my primary source of building statistics concepts and helped me understand the text in the Primer where I needed more basic knowledge. Just use the search tool on the website to find topics you need to learn. Thanks Salman Khan for the free lectures! you deserve all the praise in the world for what you have put up on the web for all students to use.

You guys will also notice that khan academy has a wide range of subjects, but you can utilize the topics relevant to the body of knowledge. This website may help you and your friends for many other exams or subjects as well. 

2. Formula Sheets & Quick References

When you are reading through the primer and skimming through the handbook, keep noting down the mathematical equations/formulas on a separate sheet of paper to prepare your own formula sheet. This sheet will serve as a quick reference for you when you attempt the numerical question in the exam. You are allowed to take in such notes with your for the exam after showing them to the invigilator.  You might find ready made formula sheets but I suggest you make your own since they will stick to your mind and will be customized just for you it will be quicker reference. Remember, every second in the exam is important!

Some people also make book indexes themselves for quick reference during the exam. Although it is not a bad idea, I found that the indexes at the end of the books are sufficient to help you find anything you need. You do not need to spend time making your own index sheets, unless you have ample time. Another good ideas is to use stickers to mark important pages in the books, you can add tabs in the books where ever you want and name them yourself. This is very helpful and will save you a lot of time during the exam.

For all the tables used in statistics portions, it is best to make a separate file for reference tables and summaries at the end of chapters. In fact, make this file before you take practice exams so that you get used to referring to it before the final exam. Having the tables ready is very important, it saves a lot of time people usually spend turning pages. If I remember correctly, around 20 questions required referring to tables. 

3. Get any Introduction to Statistics Book

You can also get any reputed stats introduction book to help you with specific statistics topics in the body of knowledge. Only use it for topics you do need understand and need extra help on.

4. Google away !!

For expanding your concepts search for topics on the web, you can find everything. Just make sure you do not get carried away and do not drift await from the body of knowledge in your quest to seek perfection.

5. Linked-in Black belt Exam Study Group

Join this study group on linked-in. Post your questions and read questions and answers others have already posted. It is a great source of help. It is the easiest way to access Six Sigma experts all around the world.

Step#4: Time, Effort, and PRACTICE !!

Now that you have your preparation resources ready, another important aspect is to be realistic about the time required to prepare for the exam. The primer gives a good guideline: if you have attended a black belt training course you will require a minimum of 80 hours of self study on the body of knowledge, and, if you cannot attend a training course, you need to put in 120 hours of self study.

The ASQ exam has fixed days and is conducted twice a year, once in March and again in October (might be different respective to your country). I would suggest you freeze your dates according to the amount of time you will have everyday to prepare. It is advisable to start reading the books 5 or 6 months before your exam, and then begin focused study for 2 to 3 hours a day in the last two months. From my experience, if you plan to go for 2 months focused preparation, try to complete reading both the primer and the handbook in the first month. I would advise you to read the primer first in detail, page to page. That will build your concepts. After completing the primer, quickly scan through the handbook and highlight any thing that you feel was not covered in the primer. If you complete reading these two books and have 30 days till the exam, you will be in a very good position to use these 30 days for practicing exercise questions and reading up from other sources on the topics you found difficult. 

Practice Questions

Completing the BOK is only 40 percent of your preparation. Now, try to practice as many questions as possible. Around 600 to 800 questions practiced will mean you are well on your way. Where will you find questions? Well ASQ offers a test bank for around 100$ for you to use for practice. This test bank also explains each of the answer choices so you know why wrong answers are wrong. It is a good investment. Other than that, you have around 400 or so questions in the primer. The primer questions are awesome, and I felt that they were very similar to the questions in the actual exam. For other sample questions you can check on the linked-in page I mentioned before. Also, you can contact me and give me your email address and I can my data with you.

After your have read both books, built your concepts from Khan Academy and other sources, and attempted all those exercise questions, you are now 80 percent prepared. The last 20% of your preparation is to know how to attempt the actual exam and optimize the 4 hours you have for 150 MCQs. That is explained below.

Step#5: How to attempt the Exam - Most Important

No matter how well you are prepared you can still mess up during the 4 hours of the exam itself. The exam comprises of 150 Multiple Choice Questions which you have to attempt in 4 hours. It is important here to remember the following:
  1. All of the 150 questions carry equal weight
  2. There is no negative marking
  3. You have 1.6 minutes per question
  4. You can skip questions and return to them later
So here is the strategy I used, which was advised to me by my mentors and helped a lot. You should attempt your paper in 2 passes. In the first pass, attempt all the short and easy ones.

First Pass Golden rules:

  1. If a question seems lengthy, skip it
  2. If there is a table or a graph in a question skip it
  3. If you attempt a question and your answer does not match with any of the options, skip it, dont look for your mistake!
  4. If you are confused about the answers, skip it
  5. Spending more than 2 minutes on a question is criminal in your first pass
  6. Do not over think, there are no trick questions
  7. Make sure you mark all the skipped question for you second pass
Following the above rules, you will end up attempting at-least 110 questions in your first pass in the first 2.5 hours. Yes, 110 questions in the 140 are relatively easy if you have prepared well for the exam. About 30 Questions in the exam take less than 30 seconds to solve, yes, they are that easy. 

In my first pass, I manged to complete 120 questions in 3 hours and 10 mins. I did spend too much time on some questions that I shouldn't have. So your target should be to complete your first pass in 2.5 hours and attempt at least 110 questions. 

Second Pass Golden Rules:

Now that you are through with the first pass, and have attempted the relatively easier 110 questions, you will feel satisfied knowing that at least 95 or so questions must have been answered correctly. As a rule of thumb, people to advise that if you get more than 110 questions correct, you will probably clear the exam. However, ASQ does not state anything like this, there are no fixed passing marks as per ASQ. But anything above 110 correct answers is a pretty safe bet in my opinion. So assuming that you got 95 correct in your first pass, you are now heading into your second pass with confidence, less pressure, and target oriented.

  1. Calculate quickly how much time and questions remain, it will be probably around 35 or 40 questions in 60 minutes. Do not get worried, the questions are  not as hard as the looked during the first pass. Well around 10 questions are very hard, but who cares if you get the other 140 a good shot.
  2. Do not leave anything for the 3rd pass, there is no 3rd pass, choose the best answer and go for it, there will be no time.
  3. If a question seems to difficult, just choose the best option and go for it. Get it over with since you are running out of time
  4. Use your scratch paper neatly for all numerical questions. ASQ does look at your scratch papers and gives brownie points in case you are failing the exam by a small margin. If they like your work on the scratch paper, they may reward you for it.
  5. At the end you may have 4 or 5 questions remaining that you did not know how to solve. No problem, if you make a random guess, make sure you select the same option for all the questions.

That's it !!

So that is my advice for all CSSBB applicants, that is how I prepared for the exam and how strategised during the exam time. Even though I cleared the exam, I want to emphasize the importance of training courses before the exam. The concepts developed through discussion with peers and experts cannot be developed just through books and self study. Even if you cannot afford the training courses, find mentors for yourselves, talk to people who have given the exam before. Use "linked in" to network with black belts all over the world and discuss your problems and questions with them using the link I shared before.

Once you take the exam, you will get your results emailed to you probably on the 7th day after the exam. The formal certificate and letter arrives in around 30 days depending on your location. 

I wrote this blog because I looked for something like this before taking my exam but could not find much info. I hope this helps the you to prepare for and ace your exam. I wish you all the best!!

I look forward to others sharing their experiences here as well for everyone's benefit.

Hamid Anjum