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Pivot Point: A Q&A With Boeing's Jason Casebolt

Jason Casebolt is the Director of Quality at Aerospace Composites Malaysia Sdn Bhd (ACM), a Boeing Joint Venture. In addition to earning Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, Black Belt, and Design for Six Sigma certifications from the University of Michigan, Jason is currently pursuing his Master Black Belt, which included two-weeks of intensive classroom work in Ann Arbor. We recently caught up with Jason to discuss his unique career path, extensive professional experience, and how he's using his Six Sigma knowledge to lead successful improvement projects.

Jason Casebolt and the 2019 U-M Master Black Belt cohort.
Master Black Belt candidate Jason Casebolt (center left) and his classmates during their two weeks of on-campus instruction.

Q: Based on your CV, it looks like your educational and professional path pivoted from business to law to engineering management. Can you tell us a bit about this journey and how it landed you at Boeing for the past 14 years?

A: One theme that has been a constant over a decade has been my dual-identity as both a continuing education student and as a professional applying that learning to pivot into various roles. After graduating from The Ohio State University during the early 2000s recession, I moved out to the Seattle area where entry-level positions were a little more plentiful. [After] working in business development for a local real estate company, I became a buyer of aerostructures from Asian suppliers. I really enjoyed the contract negotiation aspect of the position, so I enrolled at the Seattle University School of Law. Unfortunately, I again graduated during a recession and likely missed the window for a potential pivot into a big-law career. After determining that I needed more operational and technical skills, I decided to pursue a technical grad program [and] pivoted into a senior manager position in Boeing's largest factory. Eventually, my responsibilities evolved to include leading the early phases of Boeing Quality's Industry 4.0 transformation. This is when I enrolled in the U-M Design for Six Sigma program, which I applied right away as the basis for my team's work. While I feel like a perpetual student, this cycle of self-assessing my gaps, and using education to bridge those gaps, has been pretty successful for me so far.

Q: In your time at Boeing you've held several positions requiring significant team and project leadership. Can you tell us a bit about this experience and why it drove you achieve Lean Six Sigma and Master Black Belt certificates from U-M Nexus?

A: After a few cycles of poor project management, I learned a hard lesson that a disciplined approach is needed to get disciplined results. That's when I turned to the U-M Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) certifications to help with data science Industry 4.0 projects I was starting to lead. Using the DFSS IDDOV framework and tools, my teams were able to significantly improve project execution through better customer requirement definition and deliverable development. My interest in Master Black Belt (MBB) comes from a slightly different place. While I used the frameworks from the DFSS and Lean Six Sigma programs to provide a stronger baseline for executing individual projects, the MBB program is helping me become more effective at leading improvement on a larger scale, helping me sharpen my soft skills, mentoring approaches, and professional networking relationships — all next-level elements that are very relevant at this point in my career.

Q: Were there failed projects or repeated problems you saw which drove you to seek external training? What do you feel was lacking in your understanding of successful process improvement initiatives before taking Master Black Belt?

A: I can recall more than a few After Action Reviews I've performed that identified the lack of project definition (i.e. no charter) and framework discipline as major factors dooming a project from the start. My company's internal training is good, [but] I have found aspects of U-M's training to be very important to me — particularly the cross-industry examples and case studies that would otherwise not be accessible through a company's internal training. After the Master Black Belt training, I have a wider perspective that now includes how the teams, stakeholders, and sponsors communicate requirements, progress, and results of a project. Some of these otherwise "soft skills" aspects can be the hardest to detect, and therefore are easier to overlook.

Q: How have your project implementation and leadership processes changed as a result of taking both Black Belt and Master Black Belt? Have you seen sustainable improvements as a result?

A: From an implementation perspective, I went from being fluid about the framework (DMAIC, IDDOV) and strict with the tools, to the exact opposite. I'm now more disciplined in following frameworks (since a disciplined process yields disciplined results), but much more comfortable departing from strict analysis norm's when it's practical to do so. My leadership has also changed. The Master Black Belt program has made me very aware of different learning and communication styles — and has therefore made me a more effective coach. I find that the focus on framework and learner styles has made a difference in both the immediate results of the teams, as well as their continued ability to apply the concepts to new problems.

Q: What do you most look forward to as a newly appointed continuous improvement leader? How do you hope your career will change because of it?

A: There are two aspects that excite me the most. The first is more opportunities to coach, champion, and otherwise mentor improvement professionals. I've just finished coaching our site's first cohort of 26 Lean Six Sigma Green Belt candidates through their certification projects. There really is nothing better than seeing someone have that "light bulb" moment with a concept, then witnessing their momentum to go apply it. The other aspect is being on the front lines of Six Sigma's next evolution. Even today, it seems that most Six Sigma courses, books, and tools are centered around reactive analysis — after something has gone wrong. Today's big data revolution provides possibilities to scale Six Sigma much farther than before [and] find leading indicators of problems before they occur. While I do not know what exact positions I will eventually move on to, I do know that being involved in people-centered and data-driven leadership will keep me excited and hopefully successful moving forward.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add about your experience at U-M Nexus?

A: At this point, I have taken five certification courses through U-M Nexus, both through online and blended delivery...and I have continually applied the concepts toward successful projects ever since. Though the majority of my learning has been through the distance option, I feel sufficiently connected to the program. Even the two weeks of in-person experiences that I have had from Master Black Belt [were] an outstanding, relevant, and accommodating learning experience.