Sigma belts & Karate belts

Two years ago when my daughter last competed in an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union of the US) regional karate-do championship tournement in Oregon, I originally wrote this. Jessica has been taking karate from Shihan (Master Black Belt)

Rob Alvelais
since she was 6. After 10 years of greater and lesser dedication to getting promoted, Jessica now holds an advanced brown belt in her dojo (karate school). She is preparing for her black belt test this year.

At the 2003 tournement after she competed, we sat with Rob and listened to him critique both the coaches and athletes. After working as a sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt here at Sun, it was fascinating for me to spend two days watching the sport from which this management method has taken some of its terms. I found both similarities and differences:


  • There are lots of good ways to achieve the same end. There are at least 5 official styles of karate-do and a good judge has to be able to evaluate all of them. 
  • All of the styles are based on the personal teaching of a master with profound experience and lineage to earlier masters. Sun traces our sigma style to Lowry Manson and Rick Taylor at GE, and before them, to W. Edwards Deming
  • Progression up the ranks (from the 5-year-old white belt beginners to the 76-year-old 10th Dan level Black Belt, Master Kenzo Mabunii, Soke) is explicitly earned through tests set and judged by those of higher rank. The community’s communications are very rank-aware. 
  • Judgements of success or failure are immediate and public. We have sigma tollgate reviews with our Champions. The althletes, even tiny kids, immediately after they have demonstrated their kata (form) must stand at attention and listen to the scores of 5 judges before they can bow and walk off the mat. 
  • Active participation with your peers, continuous learning, and coaching of those below you in rank is expected no matter what seniority a person holds. At the tournement, during the
    morning there were Shihans competing for medals. The same Master Black Belts could be seen acting as judges in the afternoon. 
  • The tournement took a long time and the announced schedule gave only a general guide to what might happen when.


  • In karate-do, form is more important than results. Our sigma work can be more like karate-jitsu, or street fighting, where results are what really count. 
  • The athletic goal to be achieved is difficult but limited in both scope and duration. There is an athletic standard for excellence and it can be achieved. Sigma excellence is often more subjective than standardized. 
  • A major aspect of Karate-do learning and advancement is competition rather than cooperation. (However, Jessica informs me that in Rob’s dojo, no one can achieve black belt without the cooperation of the senior members as practice partners.) 
  • Karate-do is structured to train all participants as future leaders because there is no limit the the number of black belts or master black belts. The tournement division including very youngest kids was regularly announced as “our future black belts”. Because sigma ranks are actual jobs, advancement is more complex than just passing the knowledge test. 
  • Anyone can learn karate-do: there are no minimum standards or prerequisites for a beginner other than a willingness to work hard and persist. A sigma belt candidate must have a minimum level of performance and management sponsorship. 
  • In karate-do, there is no stigma for failure: everyone gets a medal after competition and everyone seems willing to go again. Enthusiastic hugs were the usual response after the
    scores were announced between people who had just finished pounding each other during kumite (sparring) matches. Since sigma projects cost time and money, failure can be very expensive in many ways: so, the barrier to entry is higher. 
  • The purpose of karate-do is developing and perfecting a personal and physical discipline. The purpose of sigma is to solve a business problem.

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