Jeff Blessinger, extension specialist and Lean Six Sigma program manager for the Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE) at the Wilson College of Textiles, has received NC State’s Outstanding Extension Service Award in honor of his exceptional extension engagement and economic development activities for the university.

“When joining ZTE, Jeff quickly assumed a strong and effective leadership role in our Lean Six Sigma (LSS) program,” said Distinguished Professor of Textile Engineering Jon Rust, associate dean for academic programs at the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State. “He works tirelessly in training class participants…Jeff has been broadening our quality program offerings and expanding our impact to companies outside of our traditional footprint…His leadership as program manager has been exemplary.”

Blessinger conducts the majority of training for ZTE’s LSS program, a series of process improvement courses arranged into “belts” similar to those earned in martial arts. He develops the classroom and online curriculum for each course, including Yellow Belt, Green Belt and Black Belt courses; recently, he created an online version of the training which resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of class participants in just one year. In the summer of 2018, he launched the Junior Green Belt Program to introduce North Carolina high school students to LSS; it is one of the first programs of its kind in the nation. One team saved nearly $18,000 in food costs for their school and the other two teams improved communication processes at their respective schools.

Since he joined ZTE in April of 2016, more than 750 students of all ages have gone through the LSS training and saved their companies more $85 million combined.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer integrated manufacturing from Purdue University in 1988, then an Executive Master of Business Administration from Bowling Green University in 1999. He earned his LSS Master Black Belt certification from NC State in 2008 while working in industry in quality management. Prior to coming on board as program manager for ZTE’s LSS program, he worked as process improvement leader at a hospital in Indiana.

We spoke to Blessinger about his work for ZTE and how it feels to be recognized for his hard work.

How does it feel to receive the Outstanding Extension Service Award?   

This is just such a great honor — I was thrilled to just be nominated. The recognition goes above and beyond. But truthfully, I cannot do this job by myself; the team I work with is such a great group. It is like I tell my students — the work and ideas of many outweighs the genius of one (not implying I am a genius). I am passionate about my work and it makes all the difference in the world when doing the job. The opportunities afforded me in the role are fantastic and I am having a great time — with or without the recognition.

When did you first learn about LSS and why did it capture your attention?

My first exposure to LSS was in 1998 when my manager asked if I would be interested in being a Black Belt. I had no idea what it was, and responded, ‘I am not into martial arts!’ But he corrected my understanding and sent me to the program to learn about the material. I have always loved puzzles and problem solving and this was just in my realm. I think it was the second day of class that I thought, ‘This is some great stuff.’ Using a structured approach to problem solving is so powerful. I am quite structured at heart and love making games with rules, so this is a perfect fit.

What do you love about teaching it? 

When I acquired my MBA, I had plans of wanting to teach at the collegiate level…[W]hen I went through the [LSS] training, I was asked to be an adjunct trainer for my company. So I guess it fulfilled my desire. Actually, I am very much an introvert individual. I tend to stay to the back of the party and prefer to listen more than speak. But I have no problems speaking about this topic, because I believe in it and I am passionate about it.

The best part of the teaching is hearing about the different cultures and businesses. While they may be different, the primary reasons for taking the training are the same and the material can help any organization regardless of their product or service.

Can you tell us a little about the creation of the unique Junior Green Belt program?

When I was interviewing for the job, a question was asked about making the program different from others. I brought up an idea I had about providing training to high school students as well as college students. Then I found out that Latoya Giles, who works in the department, had a similar idea. Together we discussed and worked out the logistics to make it a reality. While the first session held last year was not as highly attended as we would have liked, we are seeing momentum growing and expect this year to be nearly tripled in attendance. In five years, who knows? I remember both Latoya and I were commenting about the lack of “real life” education provided to young adults today in high school. Latoya has three children and I have two, [ranging in age] from 17 to 28, and we both were wanting to provide more.

Since LSS is such a big part of your professional life, do you ever find it popping up in your personal life?

Absolutely! Many times, when I have been with my family at a restaurant or movie or traveling, my daughters would ask, ‘Why don’t you Six Sigmatize this process?’ My response was always, ‘If they will hire me and listen, I would be happy to help them.’   

As for my personal life, I am always thinking from a Lean Six Sigma perspective. This includes organizing work at home and looking at processes that can be improved and studied. Even when watching a movie, I always seem to see the errors in the process or mistakes. And it also affects my family. My daughters, who are both in the medical field as therapists, claim they cannot ‘just do their jobs’ — they are constantly looking at ways to improve as well.

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Written by Cameron Walker