Successful practitioners must do more than simply master the Six Sigma methodology. They also need to keep an eye on people-related aspects throughout the lifespan of all of their projects. To do that, practitioners may want to consider some ancient (and not-so-ancient) lessons:

  1. King Solomon’s use of wisdom at the right time,
  2. The art of storytelling used by Queen Scheherazade, the narrator in The Arabian Nights, and
  3. A habit advocated by best-selling author Stephen Covey: “Begin with the end in mind.”

These are simple, practical and powerful guidelines, and Green Belts and Black Belts can benefit by incorporating them into their projects.

Solomon’s Wisdom of the Right Time

The following story helps illustrate what practitioners can gain from the tale of King Solomon and his use of wisdom at the right time.

A new Green Belt is working on the Define stage of her first project. The project’s goal is to reduce the “taxi time” an aircraft spends between leaving the blocks at the gate and taking off. From her experience, the Green Belt knows that people tend to tweak such data; nobody wants to be guilty when an airplane spends more time on the ground than necessary.

After conducting more research, the Green Belt sends the following email to her Master Black Belt mentor: “I have found a few more databases with flight departure times. As I suspected, they don’t match with what we have so far. Over the weekend I will do some more research into these inconsistencies.”

But is database research really the right thing to do to get this project started? To get the best out of her project, the Green Belt will need to build a strong team of experts, free them up from daily business tasks and assure that they will receive enough support. She will thus need to present a compelling business case. Therefore, building this business case should be the initial focus of the project – the “right time” for measurement system analysis will come later As many have learned the hard way, working on – or even talking about – things like database comparisons too early can, at best, dilute effort and divert attention. At worst, they can stall an activity before it has even started.

In the course of a problem-solving project, people may often be induced to jump to a solution. Therefore, project mentors and other leaders should be apprenticed in Solomon’s wisdom of the right time: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” But how can problem solvers know when it is the right time to work on certain project elements and when it is the right time to talk about things? The story of Queen Scheherazade can assist with this question.

Scheherazade’s Survival Strategy

A brilliant example for the right time to talk about things comes from The Arabian Nights, a book of centuries-old tales. According to the book, Scheherazade was one of a long sequence of wives of an emperor, who had the habit of marrying a woman and killing her the next morning. Scheherazade used perfectly timed storytelling for her survival: At night, she would start telling her husband about Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin’s lamp or any other of her many stories. Each night, her story would culminate in a moment of high suspense – when she would conveniently become tired and go to bed. The emperor, too curious to learn about the next part of the story, would then decide to kill her later. And so things went for 1,001 nights, by which time the emperor resolved to spare Scheherazade the fate of her predecessors.

Like any type of project, problem-solving projects risk being “killed” mainly at the occasion of milestones, when expectations are highest. Problem solvers have much to learn from Scheherazade’s survival strategy.

Have the End of Each Phase in Mind

If a Belt isn’t able to describe a project well, uncovering the vital few root causes from complex cause-and-effect relations, project sponsors or team members can easily grow impatient and desperate. Talking about things at the right time, however, will create the necessary suspense so that sponsors and teams fully support the next stage of a project. “Beginning with the end in mind,” the second habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1990), can help practitioners identify when is the right time to talk.

Tollgate review checklists provide practitioners with a way to begin each project phase with the end in mind. These checklists help keep practitioners on track from a methodology point of view. For the human aspects of a project, consider two questions: First, what knowledge should people have after learning about each project phase? Second, what effect should the tollgate have on people so that the project is most likely to survive to the next phase? The following table lists these ideal end states for each tollgate.

The “End in Mind” for Each DMAIC Tollgate

Phase Project Knowledge Desired Effect on People
Define People should see that this is a well-scoped opportunity and have a clear understanding of the “before” and “after” states. The team, resources and timelines should be defined. Management should be happy about a great opportunity being well-addressed.Team members should be happy and proud to be part of an important and respected project.
Measure People should be able to see a complete picture of the current state of the process and all potential causes – this helps build momentum for uncovering the actual root causes in the Analyze phase. Management and team members should be outraged with the current state of things: “We can’t continue this way!”
Analyze People should see the rigorous identification of the essential few problem root causes. People should come to a consensus about the need to focus efforts and creativity on these root causes. They should also have a clear silver lining of hope that the problem can be solved sustainably.
Improve Managers and team members should be able to see a pilot process working effectively with the problem removed. There should be happiness and pride among team members and workers in the process, as well as a sense of ownership for the solution concept.
Control People should see a mistake-proof process or at least a control process to prevent the problem from occurring. Team members and process owners should feel happiness and sense of ownership for the new process. Management should be happy to be able to focus attention elsewhere.

Using the Lessons

As their projects move forward, Belts need to make multiple decisions about when to work on and when to talk about different aspects of their progress toward the solution. The DMAIC roadmap helps them break down the “end in mind” of their projects into more manageable pieces for each phase. Whatever brings them closer to the current phase’s goal should be prioritized.

However, after reviewing the table above, practitioners may still have questions about this approach. In particular, “Why do we want to create outrage about the current state of things in the Measure phase?” The answer: The mental state of stakeholders after the Define phase is dominated by rational data – charts that quantify the problem, benefit estimates, timelines and so on. Adding to this rational momentum, the Measure phase offers the opportunity to unleash strong emotional energy. By making management, process owners and project team members understand that the way the work is currently being done in the trenches is standing in the way of improvement, Belts can release a powerful genie from a lamp.

While inciting outrage can be highly beneficial, it is also dangerous if not done carefully. Unfortunately, impatience is also associated with this emotional energy. If, in the Analyze phase, important pieces of information are missing and require further and lengthy data collection, the “genie” may well turn against Scheherazade (or, in this case, the project leader). Analyze will need to be completed quickly so as not to test people’s patience.

Speed also comes into play during the Improve phase. People’s creative energy is often stymied by technical limitations for quick implementation. The end in mind for the Improve phase should be a working prototype – nothing more. To make a project successful, a Belt should know the importance of separating “a new process sustainably anchored in the organization” from “a working prototype delivering a ‘touch-and-feel’ version” of that new process.

Projects That Survive

DMAIC projects are exposed to multiple pitfalls, many of which can be contained through a consistent tollgate approach. Besides their focus on methodology, practitioners and project coaches must understand that emotional aspects are equally important. They can take great advantage of Queen Sheherazade’s approach to keep the project alive from one stage to the next by building up suspense and curiosity among stakeholders. Having the end in mind for each of the project stages will help tell practitioners when the right time is to tell their continuous improvement stories.

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