Much has been written about the techniques and tools of Six Sigma. A large part of Black Belt training is focused on mastering the “hard” skills. Most case studies demonstrate the usefulness of tools or techniques. Any experienced, successful practitioner of Six Sigma will tell you that the soft skills of facilitating a group are one of the most important skills that need to be mastered for the successful achievement of tangible results. Scratch below the surface, however, and ask “What do I need to learn to become an effective facilitator?” and “Can I read a case describing the process at work?” and most of the time you will receive platitudes and few examples. These platitudes are very important, but to really appreciate their significance you need to be an experienced facilitator already.

This article, it is hoped, will provide value to Six Sigma practitioners by:

  • Defining the nature of the facilitation process in typical Six Sigma/TQM projects.
  • Demonstrating effective facilitation in all its complexity at work in a live case study. This is achieved by using colors to highlight the facilitator’s interventions made in the case study of improvement, as the group goes about achieving breakthrough improvements using Six Sigma techniques.

It needs to be emphasized that there are many perspectives of this “soft” skill and the approach outlined in this paper is by no means comprehensive. It has frequently worked for the author.

What Does Group Facilitation Involve?

A business in a very simplistic sense can be represented as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Business Process Consists Of Four Processes
Figure 1: The Business Process Consists Of Four Processes

Six Sigma improves the Business Process (Figure 1) to impact the results through the use of its tools and techniques. However, changing the mindset of the group to accept new ways of working is a key part of the task (refer to two previous case studies about the importance of mindset change):

Facilitation is perhaps also the task for which least training is imparted. So what is the Process that we are trying to impact? The key submissions that underpin the case in this article are as follows:

  1. The business process typically consists of four processes as illustrated in the diagram.
  2. These processes all act simultaneously – to varying intensities and importance depending upon the group, and the situation prevailing at the time.
  3. The quality of the result depends upon the quality of each of the individual processes, but more importantly it depends upon the interplay of these processes.
  4. The successful facilitator must have the knowledge and tools to facilitate each of these processes depending upon the group and task needs.

In the author’s view, if facilitation of the whole business process is practiced, it will contribute significantly to Six Sigma’s effectiveness in delivering results.

This paper now describes a case of such facilitation at work. To demonstrate which of the four processes was being facilitated as the project progresses, each process is identified by differing colors as shown below:

Table 1: Color Coding of Four Processes for Case Study Examination
Blue Management – Project Or General
Green Human Resources
Purple External
Red Six Sigma Tool or Technique

Case Study Demonstrating Facilitation

Project: Reduce time from customer query to delivery for a new job in the digitizing data industry.

A new customer’s job was selected to demonstrate reduced time of implementation. A cross-functional team was set up to implement the improvement. The task was carried out using the seven steps of problem solving and the narrative of the case unfolds in the same sequence.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Brainstorm with the team on “what is the problem.” The brainstorming process is a tool that involves everyone on the team by getting their opinion heard in the problem definition. The problem definition may need help from outside the group, and may therefore have input from an external process.

The team produced a list of problems which was then prioritized using an appropriate tool of scores allocated by each member based upon his or her perception of the relative importance of that problem, and added together for each problem listed. This was followed by a discussion to test a meeting of minds and arrive at a consensus about the vital problem – reduce project implementation time. Consensus (more information) is a process that facilitates teamwork.

To develop a measure of the problem it was expressed as Problem = (Desired State – Current State), which emphasized measurement as per Six Sigma principles. To determine the desired state, members of the sales team that interact with the customer were asked to define the desired schedule – determined as 90 days.

After a discussion based upon past experience the team agreed that four months was a realistic stretch target at this stage. The problem definition became: reduce project time by (120 – 90) = 30 days. This became the target. Setting clear targets is a management process.

A structured approach to project management was introduced. Essential disciplines of teamwork were explained, a leader and secretary were appointed, a charter (more information) was completed, review meeting schedules were agreed, roles were defined and frequency and modes of formal communication were fixed. These are project and general management processes leading to effective teamwork. By this time, individual identities begin dissolving slowly and the team begins working more cohesively.

Step 2: Research the Reasons – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

When asked why (more information) the time was likely to be four months the group could only fall back on a past experience – no hard data was available on past projects. In the brainstorm of the problems one item to emerge was the lack of detailed planning. This was a critical shortcoming and it was decided to prepare a microplan detailing the activities and their estimated completion schedule.

A project-tracking tool (Gantt Chart) (more information) was introduced. A detailed activity chart was drawn up taking into account every member’s area of expertise and opinions. It was interesting to see how each member started contributing and everyone was surprised by the detail, which no individual member could have drawn up by himself. This was a process of getting everyone involved in the planning of the team goal thereby creating ownership, commitment and team spirit.

The contrast with the earlier process where the project manager had some overall plan in mind and kept pushing members when their turn came to perform was realized and commented upon by the team members.

This process of getting ownership was further strengthened when schedules were decided by asking each member the time he/she would take for his or her part of the process. The total added up to 113 days. This, every one agreed, was a definition of the current state. There was consensus and ownership.

The problem was defined clearly as the need to reduce (113 – 90) = 23 days.

Step 3: Generate Ideas

For each activity, a brainstorm was carried out on how the team could reduce the time. Each member was asked to critically re-examine his/her activity and see if they could come up with ways of cutting time. It amazed (mindset of teamwork) the members how when understanding the business goal and the group problem each one volunteered reductions in time – again everyone’s ideas were sought for solution ideas, thus fostering teamwork and involvement. The Gantt chart made it easy to proceed in a structured manner to prepare the revised plan without omitting any detail.

Step 4: Modify Ideas

Individualities fell away during these discussions. Suggestions started pouring in from fellow team members to individuals on how they could cut time further. After initial hesitancy, and a bit of encouragement the boundaries broke down. More and more suggestions were accepted and improved the group output further. The group goals rather than individual turfs were becoming paramount. When the dust settled and the new score was added up it came to 84 days! There was a sense of jubilation – “it is possible!”

The benefit of systematic planning and how a tool helped had sunk in. “Can we make it happen?” was the next tense but excited question on everyone’s mind. It was agreed that for success, activities needed to continue following the seven step problem solving method. The major and minor steps remaining were:

  1. Implement fortnightly activities as detailed
  2. Review at the end of the fortnight for any delay
  3. Analyze to find the root causes of the delay
  4. Decide and implement countermeasures to avoid repetitions
  5. Document the learning for future project planning

And lastly follow the seven steps to adjust the activities remaining to make up for any lost time.

Step 5: Implementation Plan

Scheduled activities were carried out for the first fortnight.

Step 6: Review the Results

Results were reviewed for the root causes of delays.

In the first review, delays were found to have occurred. Two critical activities had been budgeted as follows:

Software development – five days

Software testing – five days

Three days of the software testing had passed, but when queried the development engineer reported that the activity had not started.

The following exchenage then took place (5 Whys was utilized):

The First Why?

– Why has this delay occurred?

– I do not know. [Initial Mindset]

– But we must know why? Or how will we improve?

– I will report it in the next meeting. [Initial Mindset]

– That will be too late, we must record the reason and move on. Can you find out now?

– I will have to go and find out. [Initial Mindset]

– Please go, we will wait for you.

– He went and returned in 15 minutes to report, “The development engineer was absent.”

The Second Why?

– Why did he not know and report it and do something about it?

– I did not know it would be reviewed in this detail. I did not realize that time was so important. [Initial Mindset]

This was the root cause – not only of this delay but also perhaps of a lot of delays – the importance of time was not realized at the micro level of individual activity.

– But we agreed that time is critical and a schedule.

– Never mind! Let us agree and document a standard operating procedure (SOP) to prevent recurrence: all members will in the future track any absence or shortage of resource and report to the project leader if it cannot be made up beforethe delay occurs.

Step 7: Document the Results and the Learning

The delays and their root causes were documented for future reference in the Gantt chart and the SOP to prevent them from recurring in the future.

Now the problem was how to make up three days? This problem was also tackled using the seven steps of problem solving:

Step 1: Define the Problem

Save three days in balance activity of the project

Step 2: Research the Reasons – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Not required.

Step 3: Generate Ideas

Everyone looked down at their activities and then the following exchange occurred:

– “My area is very tight – I cannot save anything” [Individualistic Initial Mindset]

– Then, should we tell the customer we are going to be 3 days late?

– Hmmm… a pause and “Let us look again.”

– “Maybe” – open the mind.

– Software development and testing was listed sequentially and each was supposed to take five days.

– Can you use the batch to flow concept and pass on part of the software for testing while you develop the remainder?

– But that is inefficient for me – I have to work extra as some glitches do come out in the final testing when the tow parts are tied up. [Individualistic Initial Mindset]

– But will it save time overall?

– Hmmm… the development and testing engineers think: “Yes, I suppose it will.”

– How much time can you complete the activity in?

– Six days.

– Project leader, “Then we will be one day ahead! We have lost three days and have 7 days in hand.”

– Sense of joy – a team solution had emerged. [Team Spirit Mindset]

Step 4: Modify Ideas

Can this kind of co-operation happen every time?

Step 5: Implementation Plan

The plan was implemented.

Step 6: Review the Results

Review in the next meeting – software development and testing engineer report. “We have finished the job in six days.” [Mindset – “I” to “We”]

This was a major mindset change of working as a team rather than individual departments. They felt elated with their success and the whole team applauded their achievement. Recognition unleashes further improvement and also a sense of pride in achieving team goals.

A suggestion was made “Can we hold on to the one day we are ahead of target?” Everyone enthusiastically agreed, “We must beat the target!” The mindset change was complete – from “My area is tight, I cannot do better” to “We can do better.”

Step 7: Document the Results and the Learning

An SOP was written. On all future projects the software development and testing engineers would work together to jointly work out the best possible time to deliver the tested software. This procedure of fortnightly review, record, root cause analysis and planning to make up lost time was carried out for the entire length of the project.

The results achieved surprised everyone outside the group:

Table 2: Facilitated Project Results
Customer desire 90 days
Original project estimate 113 days
Planned project estimate 84 days (25% improvement on pre Six Sigma project)
Project achieved 84 days

In-house activity had been completed 10 days earlier than planned.

Continuous Improvement: Reviewing the data meticulously recorded at the end of the project, the team was able to determine where they could further cut time


The concepts, thoughts and experiences presented in this paper can add value to the following thought processes:

  1. Facilitation – what is involved in successfully facilitating a Six Sigma/TQM project
  2. The relevance of Six Sigma to – Project management and project organisations- Software development
About the Author