A common metric many organizations use to assess the performance of their Lean Six Sigma program is project cycle time – the total time from the beginning to the end of a process improvement project, including total process time and all delays. If your organization’s project cycle time is running higher than your targeted rate, then it is time for you, as a Lean Six Sigma professional, to take a look in the mirror and improve your capability to execute projects in a timely fashion.

A myriad of factors may contribute to the cycle time of a project. Short of launching an actual Six Sigma project to improve cycle times, here are 10 things that Lean Six Sigma practitioners can do to execute projects more effectively.

1Establish Ground Rules with Your Team. Every project team is unique. Therefore, it is invaluable to spend time with the full team to determine the ground rules by which everyone agrees to operate during the life of the project. As the project leader, you may provide your team with a basic framework, but be sure to ask questions to help the team tailor the ground rules. Some common questions your team should answer include:

  • How often and when should the team meet?
  • How do we plan to communicate with each other?
  • What should the team do if one or more team members cannot attend a scheduled meeting?
  • What are our expectations of each other?
  • How will we make decisions?

The team’s commitment is imperative for the ground rules to be effective, and being involved in the creation of those rules will generate the needed engagement. Conversely, handing the team an already-established list of rules will not encourage commitment from your team members. The ground rules will help each team member focus on holding themselves, as well as each other, accountable, and will help neutralize conflict when it occurs. A team with well-established ground rules works more effectively and efficiently together, and is better able to accomplish the goals of the project.

2Clearly Define Your Problem and Project Scope. Project teams work more effectively when they set out to solve a specific problem and understand the scope of what they need to address.

Ensure that the project charter includes a clearly articulated problem statement and set boundaries that clarify what is in and out of scope. The charter also should identify one to three key metrics to measure before and after solutions are implemented, including ongoing process performance.

These definitions also provide the team with clear boundaries to manage scope creep, which can help keep the overall project timeline in check.

3Choose the Right People for the Team. Select and engage team members who have a working knowledge of the business process, can offer diverse perspectives, are capable and willing to contribute to the project, and can serve as change agents within the organization.

Having team members with the necessary knowledge and expertise allows the team to progress through the deliverables of the project more effectively and efficiently. For the team to be successful, the right people should be involved in each of these core roles:

  • Project sponsor – This individual will advocate for the project, sign off on obtaining necessary resources, and have the authority or influence to remove barriers, gain executive support and ensure project success.
  • Green Belt or Black Belt project leader – Consider the complexity of the project and the Belt’s knowledge of the process; for Green Belts in particular, determine whether or not the business process will interfere with their work.
  • Tollgate participants – These should be people who care about fixing the project’s problem(s) and are willing to listen, ask questions, and challenge the assumptions and recommendations of the team.

4Establish a Robust Project Plan. Several qualities are crucial to the creation of a strong project plan. Specifically, the project plan should be:

  • Aggressive – Set a timeline that will appropriately push the team to complete the deliverables for each DMAIC phase.
  • Reasonable – Ensure that the timeline is realistic by considering the scope and complexity of the project as well as the business requirements, both in terms of the project and the demands placed on team members during the life of the project.
  • Flexible – Be willing and able to change the project plan and timeline, if needed. You may encounter unexpected challenges within the project, the business may place unanticipated demands on team members, or you may encounter some other barrier along the way. However, the project timeline should be altered only if there is an appropriate business case for doing so, not simply because the team did not get the work done on time.

5Pre-schedule Team and Tollgate Meetings. As a result of the project plan, be sure to pre-schedule all tollgate reviews and team meetings needed to meet the deliverables of each phase.

This simple practice will protect the meeting times on the calendars of your key players at the outset and will prevent delays caused by trying to schedule a review in the midst of a project. Plus, team members will think twice and want a good business case before requesting a tollgate review change on the calendars of busy leaders.

6Ensure that Team Members Are Involved and Responsible. Participating in a Lean Six Sigma project can be a powerful professional development opportunity and a chance to gain exposure to key business leaders. As the project leader, the Green or Black Belt must set the stage for team members to be active participants throughout the life of the project.

To ensure that everyone participates actively, project leaders should meet with each team member individually prior to the team launch. This provides the Belt with an opportunity to understand the team members’ availability, their previous Lean Six Sigma experience and their expectations about what they hope to get from the project experience. Belts also can find out if there are any questions or concerns that need to be addressed.

It is also important that Belts set expectations early in the project. Team members are not on the team simply to attend meetings and to agree or disagree with the Belt. Project leaders should identify ways that each team member can execute or lead tasks, such as:

  • Gathering data
  • Developing interview or survey questions
  • Conducting interviews to gather voice of the business, voice of the customer or root cause information
  • Developing and executing components of the pilot or implementation plan
  • Developing a component of the solutions
  • Recommending how to pilot, test and evaluate the solutions
  • Developing one or more components of the project’s Control phase
  • Leading a smaller group to accomplish one or more of the above listed items

Active participation by each person leverages the diverse skills and talents of the team, improves the outcomes of the project, enables the project to progress more rapidly, and encourages greater buy-in to the solutions.

7Document Meeting Outcomes and Assign Action Items. The DMAIC method is a robust process, with standard deliverables in each of the five phases. But how many times have you discussed a topic and later cannot remember the outcome, or identified an action that needed to be taken and failed to name who was responsible for taking the action?

Issue a meeting recap after every team meeting that documents the outcomes of the meeting and key accomplishments. This recap should clearly identify action items, due dates and responsibility assignments for getting tasks done. The project leader (or a team member responsible for taking notes) should distribute the action items to all team members within two business days. This practice provides team members with clear expectations and due dates, ensures the team is making progress against the deliverables, and reduces the chance of items falling through the cracks.

8Add a Sixth ‘Gate’ Review. The tollgate review process does not formally recognize the need to communicate recommended solutions to the tollgate participants prior to piloting or testing the solutions.

In the Analyze tollgate review, the team should share what the primary root causes are and how it determined them. In the Improve review, the team should share solutions, show that they address the problem and describe the full implementation plan.

When introducing change in the organization, make the effort to communicate with tollgate participants by holding a pre-pilot/pre-implementation review meeting between the Analyze and Improve tollgates. It is important for this group of key stakeholders to remain informed and ask questions prior to implementing changes, even on a pilot basis. This group will be well positioned to be change advocates for the project team if they understand what the changes are, why the changes are being implemented and what the plan is for evaluating the changes.

Some may view this as an unnecessary step that will only prolong the project cycle time. The true effect, however, is often the opposite. Adding a pre-pilot/pre-implementation review provides the team with an opportunity to address issues with the tollgate participants before moving down a path for which it may not have full support.

9Do Not Skimp on Change Management Initiatives. Each Lean Six Sigma project results in some degree of change to a process, and is likely to impact both suppliers and customers of that process. Be thorough in your stakeholder analysis by considering who is most likely to care about the changes and whether or not they will be proponents or resisters.

Consider involving people who you think may be direct resisters to the project. It often benefits the full project to have change-resistant people provide voice-of-the-customer or voice-of-business data, and be involved as tollgate participants.

Your communication plan needs to be thoughtful in terms of audience, messages and timing throughout the life of the project. For larger projects, it is often beneficial to develop a one-page overview that lists the basics for those not directly involved and answers the following questions:

  • What is the project about?
  • Why is it important?
  • What is the timeline?
  • Who is involved?
  • What is in it for me?

Enlist those involved in the project to be change agents for the project. Project team members, tollgate participants and the project sponsor should act as representatives of their business units, functions and peer groups. It is important that these individuals have conversations within those groups to disseminate critical information and to gather feedback.

As the project leader communicates and implements changes to the process, it is important for the team to articulate clearly what the changes mean to the organization and the work that various people do within the process. One framework that can be particularly helpful is to identify the various roles impacted and assess what work the people performing those roles will start, stop and continue to do. This framework provides individuals and their managers with a clear line of sight on how changes to the process will affect their work.

When it comes time to announce changes, remember this simple rule of thumb: No surprises. Make an extra effort to think about who cares about the changes, who needs to be consulted with, who needs to be informed and, ultimately, who gets to decide. A tollgate review is not the time to surprise a key stakeholder with a recommended change that is significant or potentially controversial. Separate, individual conversations in advance of the tollgate review meeting are appropriate in these types of situations.

The project team should be fully aware of the key stakeholders’ positions prior to a tollgate review and work through the appropriate messaging to all involved. Failure to identify key issues in advance of the review will likely create delays or barriers to moving the project forward.

10Commit to the Control Plan. A successful project comes to a close when the project team can effectively transition the new process to the process owner. Select a process owner who truly cares about how the process is performing. In some situations, it may not be obvious who the process owner should be, but decide on one anyway.

The process owner is accountable for the full control plan and may collaborate with others who are responsible for select areas. Provide the process owner with a robust control plan that is well documented and includes such elements as:

  • All standard operating procedures and supporting documents
  • A clear plan for making and communicating changes and keeping things current
  • An ongoing training plan
  • An ongoing plan and tools for measuring and communicating process performance

Failure to have a committed process owner or a robust control plan can lead to poor process performance and more problems with quality and efficiency.

In summary, project cycle times can be managed by having a well-defined project, an appropriately aggressive and thorough project plan, effective communication and change management, and – perhaps most importantly – a fully engaged and effective project team. As project leaders, Belts who invest the time and energy to develop effective teams will be able to shorten project cycle times and ultimately to improve the overall quality of the solutions.

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