Continuous process improvement is the key to staying ahead of the competition. By following a proven methodology such as Lean Six Sigma, your company can achieve greater efficiency and quality – and thereby gain the edge it needs to keep costs low and customer satisfaction high. If you need to improve quickly and often, Lean Six Sigma is a solid, proven way to get there.

However, this methodology won’t yield results on its own. How you organize and run project teams as a company can have as much effect on speed of delivery as the teams themselves. Four key ingredients – data access, resources, prioritization and approval structure – can mean the difference between getting there before your competitor and falling behind in the marketplace.

1. Quick and Detailed Data Access

Lean Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology, and you’ll hear many practitioners echo the adage: “You cannot improve what you cannot measure.” Having access to usable data is key for identifying problems and measuring the impact of a team’s changes. If your company hasn’t started measuring and recording every part of the process, that’s the first step. But even if your company is a master at recording data, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Getting access to more than just a summarized report, to the specific details underlying a process, needs to be achievable quickly.

Teams can’t do much with a basic report showing just the average result. Measures of variation are essential to reducing defects, and averages hide this information. If your project teams find themselves waiting days or even weeks for data experts to export detailed data from enterprise data warehouses, you’re causing enormous delays at every step. An efficient project team needs to be able to see the results of their experimental changes as quickly as possible. There are many ways to improve your company’s situation when it comes to data. Ideally you would improve the way data is captured and stored so that most teams are able to pull the detailed data they need themselves. But in the end, if you refuse to spend money on improving data access, you’re wasting a lot more time and money than you realize.

2. Full-time Resources

You want to achieve great things with your process improvements. You spent time training your teams to use Lean Six Sigma tools to solve all types of problems. And you know that you need people with first-hand knowledge of the process on your teams. There’s so much your teams could accomplish! So much for them to work on! In the excitement of it all, you keep asking them to look at more areas and more issues – expanding their project load.

When is the last time you tried to multitask on an important assignment? Wasn’t easy, was it? Dividing the attention of team members, aside from making the process complex and stressful on them, slows the rate at which tasks can be completed on all projects. At best, you’re adding complexity to your process, and at worst you’ve delayed implementation on every solution the teams produce. You may not get every team member’s full-time attention on the project, but do your best to get as close to that as possible. Check for bottlenecks on your team’s work itself. If people are splitting their work time between multiple projects, they may be delaying them both. Get your teams to focus on one thing, and then encourage them to press their own expectations of how quickly they can complete something when they have singular focus.

3. Prioritization and Focus

The more you work on at once, the less you will accomplish. Wide scopes and long project lists give stakeholders the feeling that a lot will be solved, but in reality, a lack of focus will cause less to be done – or certainly done well. Rank order your proposed projects, look at your resources, and assess realistically how many projects you can do at once without stretching company resources too thin. Make sure your projects align with your company’s goals and strategic direction. If you were to complete the projects on your list, would that move you significantly toward achieving company goals? Are any of your projects more pet projects or feel goods instead of strategically necessary?

Concentration can mean the difference between getting it done this month and getting it done in a year. Which path hits your bottom line first? Do you have the right types of resources to cover the workload the team has been given? Make sure you’re considering all resources before you decide on a team’s workload. You may have enough people to find solutions – but will you have enough people to implement their proposals? Don’t waste effort – focus it. Get a small number of the most impactful projects done quickly, rather than a large list floundering with too few resources to finish the work.

4. Streamlined Tollgate Approval

At certain steps in a project, a team will need to get approval to move forward. It’s important that this approval process is well organized and that the right people are involved. Make sure that the stakeholders reviewing each project are aligned with the company vision and strategic direction, have enough knowledge to identify missed components, and – most importantly – that all decisions makers are involved at one time. The worst processes are those where approval is given in steps, and feedback from a later group may contradict or negate approval from prior groups. Get your stakeholders together at one time and hash it out. Don’t leave teams confused and floundering through a complicated approval process.

In the end, if your company is running Lean Six Sigma projects and finding themselves missing completion goals, with large numbers of projects straggling along, you may want to look to the basics of how you have structured your program. If you miss these items, your Lean Six Sigma program may struggle to keep up with competitors. Your teams need to be set up for success, with the data, resources, focus and processes they need to move through the Lean Six Sigma phases with speed and impact.

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