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An Accelerated Project Approach Can Build Support for Six Sigma

For many middle and senior managers who are considering business improvement initiatives, the thought of committing resources to a three- or four-month Six Sigma project can be a daunting. Many managers feel they are already working “flat out” and don’t have the people to spare.

Others understand the reality that projects can sometimes stretch out to eight or 12 months, as team members are periodically withdrawn from project work to take on other tasks within the organization. As projects take longer and longer to complete, the credibility of the improvement initiative begins to erode, and even the project team leaders themselves can start to lose their desire to finish the project work.

However, something can be done to minimize the chance of this occurring. By following an accelerated approach, involving highly structured and dedicated team meetings, practitioners can work to keep their projects within a reasonable time frame, and in turn build support for their Six Sigma deployment.

Project Completion Challenges

Today, Six Sigma has evolved to the point that it can be applied to virtually any process. While the minimum time for project completion depends entirely upon the type of project being undertaken, there is still one rule about project duration that can be applied to any process improvement initiative:

A project should take no longer than 12 to 16 weeks to complete.

There are two reasons why project completion in a reasonable time frame is necessary.

First, business leaders want to see results. Without obvious results being realized, it is highly unlikely that the initiative will get the focus from business leaders that it needs for success. Second, momentum for continual improvement is more likely to be generated when projects are being completed in a reasonable amount of time. Momentum is challenging to maintain when the duration of projects seems to drag out endlessly. The more frequently project achievements or success can be identified, the greater the level of momentum can be for improvement in the workplace.

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In most cases, if Six Sigma projects take longer than 12 to 16 weeks to complete, it may be for one or several of these reasons:

  • The scope of the project is too large.
  • There are data quality or data access issues.
  • Management focus is elsewhere.
  • The project team leaders are challenged in doing the work (i.e., they may be unsure how to do it, not motivated to do it or not able to do it).
  • The Six Sigma project is not a good fit for the organization.

Therefore, to keep projects on track, practitioners must consciously work to avoid these scenarios. One way they can do this is through the accelerated project approach.

The Accelerated Project Approach

The accelerated approach is based on five principles:

1. The logic of DMAIC is still applied.

2. The only steps completed and tools used are those necessary for getting optimum solutions and buy-in from key stakeholders.

3. Analysis of any kind is only undertaken to answer specific questions and confirm or negate cause-and-effect relationships.

4. The project is conducted as a series of meetings in a short period of time (i.e. one week).

5. Team member resources are appropriately allocated, scheduled and available for the duration of project work. A team leader who plans the entire project before it starts will inform relevant stakeholders of resource requirements in advance.

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By following these principles, a team can create a solution implementation plan for Six Sigma projects in as little as three days. They may not be able to have solutions implemented in that time frame, but they can walk away with a roadmap for making the change happen.

Conditions for Success

For the accelerated project to work, it helps to do the project under certain conditions:

  • Team membership: Stakeholders who have a critical role in ensuring long-term sustainability of changes should be included as members of the project team.
  • Attendance: Team members must be able to attend all meetings.
  • Meeting chunks: Project work can be divided into three or four major meetings scheduled over a compressed period of time.
  • Data collection: Any data required for analysis can be collected and consolidated in a very short time frame. On occasion, before starting the team-based project work, it may be necessary to conduct “pre-measuring,” which involves the planning of data collection with one or two people with relevant content knowledge and the collection of sufficient data to undertake relevant statistical analysis.
  • Time for preparation: The project team leader has the time to prepare effectively for each meeting.
  • Meeting location: If meetings must be conducted virtually, the team should be prepared with tools that foster collaboration and information sharing.

Benefits of Accelerating Projects

The benefits of the accelerated approach include:

  • Positive associations with the initiative at all levels within the company, brought about by rapid successes.
  • Perception about how much work is required to make rapid change can be positively altered.
  • Momentum for continual improvement is generated, which can create a culture shift quite rapidly.
  • Rapid learning of the technical skills associated with process improvement can be achieved.
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Example of an Accelerated Project

Recently, a medium-sized completed an accelerated project to reduce the cycle time for distributing and installing PCs. The project involved four days of work, including one day to set up the project and three successive days for project team meetings. The team followed the DMAIC sequence, and collected and analyzed data between meetings.

What was interesting was how the project team size grew over the course of three days. The positive talk about how much each meeting was actually achieving was sufficient to generate interest in other employees. By the final meeting, the team size had grown to about 12 people.

Here is an overview of how the project was conducted:

  • The team created a detailed project charter with the group manager up front.
  • The team identified decision constraints and operating constraints, as well as the amount of money they could spend on their solutions before approval from the manager would be required.
  • The group manager planned the entire project as a series of meetings and prepared a detailed agenda for each meeting in advance.
  • Each project meeting was four hours long and held in the afternoon hours.

The schedule of work was as follows:

Pre-work Day Morning:

  • Prepare the project charter in conjunction with the group manager
  • Confirm the meeting schedule
  • Identify key stakeholders and establish agreement about resource allocation
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Pre-work Day Afternoon:

  • Meet with key stakeholders, establish agreement about meeting attendance and associated administration details
  • Confirm meeting venue and resources
  • Prepare and circulate project plan and meeting agendas

Day 1 Morning:

  • Prepare meeting venue and relevant templates
  • Rehearse the meeting

Day 1 Afternoon – First team meeting:

  • Document the process
  • Undertake high-level process cycle time analysis
  • Prepare a data collection plan
  • Prepare data collection tools
  • Develop and agree upon an action plan for collecting data

Day 2 Morning:

  • All team members participate in collecting data
  • Prepare the venue and relevant templates
  • Rehearse the meeting
  • Data is sent to and consolidated by team leader and analyzed for cause-and-effect relationships

Day 2 Afternoon – Second team meeting:

  • Review graphical analysis of the data and confirm findings
  • Identify and validate lower-level causes of variation
  • Identify potential solutions and then select final solution for treating validated causes
  • Consolidate and confirm relevant follow-up actions

Day 3 Morning:

  • Prepare venue and relevant templates
  • Rehearse the meeting

Day 3 Afternoon – Third team meeting:

  • Create new process flowcharts incorporating relevant solutions
  • Conduct a process failure modes and effect and analysis
  • Develop a solution implementation plan including schedule and task allocation

The final project report was handed to the group manager on the morning after the final project team meeting. Both Six Sigma and Lean tools were used to measure and analyze the primary variable of concern: time. The end result of this project was a sustained reduction in cycle time of more than 50 percent within one month of the final meeting.

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Improving the Performance of Meetings

As can be seen in the above example, the focus of accelerated projects is on the use of a small number of well-planned and well-executed meetings. Many conventional meetings, despite best intentions, produce low-quality outcomes, due to a number of reasons, including:

  • Meetings take too long or do not engage team members
  • Too few decisions are made per meeting
  • Few actions result from decisions made in meetings
  • There is a lack of team collaboration
  • Meeting leaders have poor facilitation skills

Meetings are simply processes. Like many critical processes, they succeed or fail based on how efficiently and effectively people share and analyze information and make effective business decisions.

High performance meetings share certain characteristics, which include:

  • Advance planning
  • Discipline and focus on the problem
  • Use of a structured methodology
  • Active participation of all team members
  • Use of critical thinking skills in brainstorming, analyzing, prioritizing and action planning
  • Strong leadership and facilitation
  • The ability to solve complex problems in real time during virtual team meetings

Like many solutions to today’s business problems, the right information technology can improve the performance of meetings, particularly in the areas of coordination, information sharing, brainstorming, analysis and decision making, regardless of whether the team meets in the same room or virtually.

Using the accelerated approach, projects can take as little as one week to complete. This requires good planning, participation by the key stakeholders and a commitment to rapidly working through the DMAIC logic to make sustainable improvements to process performance.

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Comments 8

  1. maarabito

    Excelent article. Very good information.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Mike-Carnell

    On the surface this seems like a good idea. Being able to execute projects quickly is dependent on much more that having an agenda that completes in a week.

    Not all Six Sigma projects are created equal. Projects that are dealing with optimization and control issues may easily fit into this category. Once you have to deal with a technology issue it can become much more complex. The type of project definitely affects the viability of this approach.

    The company culture is also affects the speed. The bottom line on Six Sigma projects is implementation or change. How fast you can execute change is a function of the company culture. A company that has not been involved in change will in all likelihood push back if you try to go from a standstill to Mach 1. It is inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

    I missed the data that an increase in credibility/support is a function of increased speed.

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  3. George Lee Sye

    I hear you MIke, not all projects are the same. The key take away from this should be projects MAY take as little as 1 week, not WILL. One of our objectives as improvement is to get sustainable results as effectively and rapidly as possible for the project sponsors. And I like to consider every option at my disposal for achieving that and enjoy the high levels of support from business leaders that has continually come as a result.

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  4. Jason Farley

    The article is good and consistent with its underlying principle… short and concise! I have one question and an observation. Is what you have described any different than a Kaizen Blitz? My observation is that an organization’s maturity level, i.e. problem solving capability and discipline, are important to success for these types of rapid improvement projects. I believe the idea is spot on, it really is the best approach in many cases. But if the organization is not where it needs to be in terms of technical capability, system infrastructure and management support (culture), it can easily get frustrating.

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  5. Gaurav Kulkarni

    excellent article. very informative and useful. thanks for sharing it with us.

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  6. Daniel Renner

    Nice and helpful article! I think, especially for organisations who struggle to run 6S projects without exceeding deadlines, it is a good approach to gain some momentum. Quite often, Belts get overwhelmed by other tasks and therefore they’re losing the focus on the projects. By going thru some or perhaps all stages of a DMAIC project in a very short time frame we can demonstrate the effectiveness of the program as well as showing that an concentrated and dedicated approach drives results.

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  7. Vernyuk

    Good article. It points to one of the key issues with DMAIC projects in the human dependent processes.

    The motivation is largely the function of the speed of project and successive change. Support it completely and I with my team of Deployment Leaders started working on making our DMAICs much quicker than normal 6mnths.

    The only two issues that remain critical in the speedy workshop projects are the following
    1) How to really manage the team for a concerted effort. It is really difficult without experience and proper culture
    2) How to implement the decisions and make them last. Even very simple processes in banking seem to take weeks to enroot and stay.

    I can give examples of financial companies that promoted quick DMAIC/ SCORE/ Kaizen, as their key tool to optimisation. And all failed to really change the processes after all flip charts are done, and the project is closed. And then it led to… cynicism.

    So let’s share the ideas on how to make the great tool work!

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  8. Chris Seider

    Alignment and selection of projects must always align with business leaders needs. Without them agreeing to the burning platform, you won’t get resources to get things accomplished quickly.

    Then competency of getting data and running efficient meetings and the use of change management can’t be overlooked.

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