While Six Sigma continues to evolve, the most often cited complaint is long project cycle times. The obvious expense of eight to nine month (or longer) Black and Green Belt projects is opportunity lost. For example, a project that produces cost savings at a run rate of $30,000 per month leaves $150,000 on the table when it takes nine months versus four months to complete.

The less recognized but even more insidious cost of lengthy projects is erosion in management commitment. Managers with Black Belt overhead begin to question the affordability of Six Sigma.

Are long project cycle times inevitable with Six Sigma? No, Six Sigma project cycle times can be systematically reduced, thus improving the productivity of Black/Green Belts and satisfaction with Six Sigma.

Beating the Project Extenders

Talk to Six Sigma practitioners and you’ll find a long list of avoidable time consumers. A recent survey of 242 Deployment Leaders, Master Black Belts and Black Belts produced the following list of “project extenders”:

  • Lack of reliable data on the process selected for improvement
  • Re-scheduling of team meetings and “toll gate” reviews
  • Changes in project scope
  • Shifting of management priorities
  • Resistance to change

A major cause of Six Sigma “project extenders” is the inability of most Belts to get the people running the business – line managers and employees – to put forth the effort to also improve the business. In simple terms, more Belts must know when, where and how to involve non-Belts in their projects. Mastering the skill of engaging non-Belts starts with recognizing a simple fact of business improvement: People’s motivation to change is highly perishable! For any Six Sigma practitioner, this means that time is not on your side. The longer it takes to get results and the more burdensome the involvement, the sooner everyone runs for the exits when Six Sigma Belts come around.

Three critical points in Six Sigma Deployments are key to driving faster project cycle times and bigger bottom-line results. At each point, Belts who can engage line managers and employees in the process make the difference between deployments that fail and those that transform the culture of the organization.

Better Planning Before Work Begins

Most Six Sigma initiatives do a good job of identifying project priorities – whether from a simple review of strategic plans and business goals or more sophisticated analysis. Where Six Sigma projects can lose steam is in the more tactical planning that occurs in the Define step of DMAIC.

The core of the problem is the lack of a structured approach for effectively engaging leadership teams before project work begins. The solution is no more complicated than developing a collective understanding of the performance drivers (X factors) that must be changed in order to achieve the desired end result (the big Y goal). With this known, leadership teams can assess the problem; weigh the benefits/risks/costs of attacking critical X factors; and, most importantly, match the right tools to opportunities for improvement.

Y = f (X)

The end result of this advanced planning is better understanding of project goals and more ownership by leaders who must sanction change. It also produces faster action on obvious opportunities where study and analysis are not required, or simply wasteful.

This type of project planning is not required for all Six Sigma projects, nor is it a skill every Belt requires. The biggest return comes from training Black Belts to apply this discipline on projects that need solutions to many X factors, have high human factor quotients and will require multiple improvement methods (statistical study, Lean design, Work-out, etc.).

Faster Quick Wins and Solution Deployment

Perhaps the biggest limiter to faster Six Sigma results is the lack of a reliable method for engaging frontline people in what they do best – taking action! The key is involving frontline managers and employees where they have the biggest impact and on issues they care most about. At two points the need for frontline involvement directly intersects with frontline motivation to change.

The first leverage point is in harvesting quick win opportunities. Quick win opportunities are “improvements in waiting” that do not require system and process design change. Such opportunities exist in nearly every Six Sigma project. Unfortunately, they often go unaddressed as Belts work their way through the DMAIC process.

The second leverage point is in solution deployment – the I and C phase of DMAIC projects. This is the time at which the burden shifts from the Belts to people doing the work. Defining CTQs, establishing reliable performance metrics and separating causes and effects is the domain of the Belts. Identifying solutions, implementing them and holding gains belong at the local employee level.

How can Six Sigma Deployments expand involvement of non-Belt team members without diluting the power of fact-based problem solving? One approach is so-called “Yellow or White Belt” training. However, this can be costly and produces mixed results. A more effective strategy is to equip Black and Green Belts with skills and tools for engaging frontline personnel in project execution. These tools can include group brainstorming; solution organization and prioritization; implementation checklists; and, results documentation templates.

Also the value of short, interactive meetings for frontline staff over long sessions filled with complex analyses should not be overlooked. And Belts should never miss an opportunity to create ownership which comes when people are encouraged to share ideas and be part of the solution.

In sum, to quickly reduce project cycle times, leave the detailed analysis to the Belts and engage the frontline in the heavy lifting of implementation.

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