Against All Odds: John Herzer and his Unique Journey through Black Belt Certification

by Jameson Cardenas, CCAD Public Affairs

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CCAD employee, John Herzer, holds out an inlet guide vane. John Herzer demonstrates a rare commitment to his work by lowering the defect rate and cost of inlet guide vanes while fighting squamous-cell carcinoma. Photos by Audrey Gossett (RELEASED).

Corpus Christi, TX (January 10, 2013) – In the entire Department of the Army, 47% of those who go through Black Belt training are actually certified. The results are similar here at the Corpus Christi Army Depot, as 33% of its population are certified Black Belts after going through the training. Less than 1% of CCAD are currently certified.

Black Belts are basically “super analysts” that identify opportunities for improvement with applied statistical tools to determine what the data tells about that opportunity improvement. These programs, from Yellow Belts to Black Belts, directly correlate to the depot’s Lean Six Sigma certification. It is these change agents, process innovations, and efficiency increase that are the backbones for any company that looks to be successful over extensive periods of time in the world of business.

Richard Alvarado, Master Black Belt of CCAD, elaborates, saying, “Having the Black Belts embedded in each directorate really helps that director to identify those areas of opportunity where we can actually save in cost, improve our delivery, and also improve our quality, decreasing defects.”

A CCAD employee who recently went through this training is John Herzer, a Management Analyst for the Directorate of Engine Production. His Lean Six Sigma Black Belt project was for the inlet guide vanes for the T700 engine line.

These objects resemble kitchen shutters; they let the air in and out of the engines. He was informed of a high defect rate with this product, as CCAD was experiencing a 95% scrap rate with these particular guide vanes. With this high of a defect rate, the cost issue is undeniable and also complicates having the necessary parts to assemble the engine.

Along with his team comprised of engineers, equipment specialists, a representative from the Research and Development Center (RDEC) and subject matter experts, studies were done to determine the soundness of the then-current process and its effectiveness, analyzing the product’s path through the numerous shops. A pilot program was next implemented after the proper measures had been adhered to.

In this new process, the inlet guide vanes defect rate came down to 3.5% and found $828,000 in cost avoidance. “We maintain, sustain, and can feel the gain as we call it,” said Herzer.

This fiscal responsibility and operational improvement is definitely an honored feat, especially in the light of the difficulty and rarity of achieving a Black Belt certification at the end of it all. However, the greater feat is what Herzer overcame while this project was ongoing.

“At the age of 43, I was diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma….I have cancer,” said Herzer.

What had started out as a lump in his neck, thought of as a sinus infection, Herzer had a sonogram and MRIs done. He was told it was a 99% chance that it was noncancerous. The lump was removed, and the results came back as otherwise.

Herzer began chemotherapy, and by week three, the effects became too much to deal with, forcing Herzer to stop coming to work.

“The internal burning- it’s a lot like being out in the sun getting sun burnt but from the inside out. I joke around and say it’s like putting your head in a microwave and turning it on and you’re cooking from the inside out,” said Herzer. He finished treatment in the middle of June.

Herzer returned to work, despite still feeling the ill-effects of the cancer like altered taste buds and considerable weakness. Feeling about 2-5% better a week, Herzer gave praise to his coworkers, or his “family here at work”, for providing phone calls and support through his journey. They ensured that all of the safety and accommodations were made for John while in the work environment, especially with the pain centrally located in his neck.

Herzer explained it was a journey of faith, hope, and the understanding of what was important and not important, a matter of staying focused.

“That’s what really helped me about coming back to work and finishing up this project was the fact that I had something to do and something that is important,” said Herzer. “The importance of Black Belt training, Yellow Belt, Green Belt, as well as just having general knowledge in the workplace…is real important. It’s important that we ensure that we put out a quality product on time and at a good cost to the customer, whether it is to that soldier or that sailor out there.”

Even as Herzer was ill, he helped out Green Belt and Black Belt candidates as well as guiding four people to receiving their Yellow Belt certifications.

“If you can get involved in a Six Sigma project, take the plunge….there’s always someone to help you out,” said Herzer. “Don’t get discouraged. There’s plenty of people out there that will coach and mentor.”


Designated a Center of Industrial and Technical Excellence for rotary wing aircraft, Corpus Christi Army Depot ensures aviation readiness through overhaul, repair, modification, retrofit, testing, recapitalization, and modernization of helicopters, engines and components. This effort includes world-wide on-site field maintenance teams, analytical crash investigations and chemical material process facilities. CCAD serves as a depot training base for active duty Army, National Guard, and reserve units. CCAD, as South Texas' largest industrial employer, employs more than 5500 personnel and contractors providing an overall economic impact of more than $1.14 Billon to the local community.