We all know the importance of a good project Champion in the execution of a successful continuous improvement project. Without good Champions, project teams do not get the resources they need to do good work. Without good Champions, teams become mired in the internal politics of change that delay project execution. Without good Champions, project teams focus on internal goals and technical solutions and fail to see the broader business issues needed for long-term success.

The list of problems teams encounter when senior leadership does not play an active role in projects is huge and often overwhelming. And yet rarely do our business managers act as “good” Champions.

Having a solid, engaged, focused and knowledgeable project Champion is often more the exception than the rule – even in companies with strong top-down executive mandates for process excellence. Often it is not just that potential Champions are disengaged, but that even those who want to drive continuous improvement lack the basic know-how to do so effectively. This lack of understanding of how continuous improvement fits within their other responsibilities and how to effectively lead clusters of interrelated projects eventually destroys the motivation of even the most dedicated Champions.

A Community of Champions

Much has been written about how to best motivate Champions. The reality, however, is that even when individual project Champions are highly motivated, a program will still have issues. Project Champions must be treated as a community; their motivation must be treated as a corporate culture issue, not an individual performance issue. It is unrealistic to expect that engagement can be cajoled or demanded from a management team in continuous improvement unless they see that participation as beneficial to their careers. Companies must create an environment where Champions can engage. Without this Champions will stick to what is safest and most natural – the status quo. If it is desirable (as it must be) for management team members to excel in their day-to-day responsibilities and learn to lead continuous improvement projects, they must be provided with support from the entire organization not just the few who manage the continuous improvement deployment.

Most companies that are serious about continuous improvement have leadership training. Often this Champion training focuses on the technical aspects of the improvement processes – Lean, Six Sigma, total quality management, etc. – that the company uses. This is a good start but is insufficient if Champions are to succeed. Champions need both the skills and knowledge of their role within the continuous improvement process and practical application opportunities where they can hone and tailor those skills to work in their business environments. If they only receive skills training, or their first use of these skills is to be a live project with business implications, they are being set up to fail. Furthermore, most potential Champions will quickly assess that they are not prepared to succeed so they will attempt to limit their losses rather than drive for the best possible outcome.

Mentoring Needed

If Champions are to excel in their role, they should be treated like Black Belt (BB) candidates going through Six Sigma training – needing both training and mentoring. Practical hands-on experience does not come from attending a lecture or reading a book. Gaining experience requires practice. To practice being a good Champion, managers must be given the opportunity to make decisions in an environment where they are relatively safe from the consequences of error due to these decisions. New Champions need to see how the process is done before they are expected to lead the process themselves. In most companies, however, it is sink or swim. Too many good Champions sink before they get a chance to learn to swim.

Some firms mistakenly assume that if someone is a good manager and said manager is taught the technical aspects of continuous improvement that the manager will become an effective and motivated project Champion. Unfortunately, this rarely works.

Being a good Champion requires a different set of skills and aptitudes from those required by the technical leaders of projects (i.e., BBs). Furthermore, unlike the tools of continuous improvement, the most important skills and knowledge needed to be a good Champion are company- and even site-specific. Champions’ skills are tied to the business climate, the political culture and the management norms of the firm. These are not skills and aptitudes so much as they are networks and relationships. Forming and maintaining these networks requires guidance, which is best given through a one-on-one relationship with a mentor (or a group of mentors).

A Broad Perspective

To lead transformational change, the project Champion needs a broad perspective on both continuous improvement and the overall business strategy. Individual project teams have the luxury of narrowing their focus. In an individual project having a narrow well-defined problem and goal is an asset. Project teams are frequently admonished not to “boil the ocean” and to employ SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely) goals so that projects have clear completion criteria.

Champions, on the other hand, should be focused on the long-term improvement of the entire business function. Improving an entire function over the long-term generally requires many projects, interactions with other business teams and an expansive – rather than narrow – focus.

It is the role of the Champion to ensure that not just one project is delivered successfully, but that the entire portfolio of improvement initiatives focused on their business function produce the desired effect. Individual projects may fail so long as the overall improvement strategy is successful.

This generally means that Champions, unlike project teams, must operate across multiple projects, multiple business functions and drive programs that expand – rather than limit – the scope of continuous improvement. Champions drive continuous improvement in the business as part of a community rather than a discrete set of projects and programs. This demands a network and set of relationships. Developing this behavior is best guided by a mentor rather than a teacher, and that mentor should be a peer.

Peer Pressure

Managers are and should be externally motivated. They are more likely to respond to the implications, ramifications and effects of a business problem than they are to the quest for root causes of the problem. This is one of the reasons why continuous improvement programs fail to motivate and enlist potential Champions. To be blunt, if a continuous improvement project does not make the Champion look good (relative to their peers and managers), then why should a Champion engage? Consider that most managers compare their current successes with their likely success in other activities and if the improvement project does not give them a substantial advantage, they stay away from it. Continuous improvement projects drive business away from the status quo and that has some risk.

Business managers assess the risk of doing their day jobs compared to the risk of changing that job. When they do not see the path to success, they opt out. Continuous improvement is often seen by middle managers as dangerous to their careers. After all, what happens if they fail to hit that stretch goal? Even when the project will ultimately be wonderful for the company, if individual managers do not see how it benefits their careers, enlisting their support as a Champion will be difficult. Managers become project Champions to improve their standing in their peer group.

It is peer pressure – pure and simple. When their peers succeed through the application of continuous improvement, managers want to share that success. However, when peers appear to be taking risky positions, managers offer lackluster support to continuous improvement. This is why it is so difficult to get some new project Champions to sign on to stretch goals. They know the penalty for not maintaining the status quo but they are uncertain as to whether the reward for success is greater than the penalty for failure. To get beyond this fear, new Champions need a trusted advisor who has led a project in their organization and who will share their risk. They need mentors.

Active Guidance

When BBs are trained, everyone acknowledges the need for hands-on active project mentoring. It is readily accepted that people are being asked to think differently, to behave differently and to trust in a program they may not yet fully understand. To facilitate this shift in mindset, mentors – who explicitly assume a portion of the risk inherent in doing things differently – are engaged. The Master Black Belt (MBB) mentor shares accountability for the project outcome. The MBB mentor provides guidance and advice in how the project should be executed for best results. When the BB accepts that advice, it is assumed that any negative repercussions from following that advice goes to the MBB, not the BB. This sharing of accountability makes the transition from traditional trial-and-error problem solving to Six Sigma easier and safer.

When it comes to Champions, however, only cursory arrangements are made for project mentoring – and that mentoring almost never includes others who were once project Champions. Champions get some technical training (in the best case) and are then set off to fend for themselves. They may share an MBB with the project team but rarely is that MBB a management peer. The MBB may share risk for a given project or even a cluster of projects but rarely is that MBB accountable for the overall business results of the function as the project Champion must be. The MBB is only able to share the risk of the projects and these projects are generally only a small portion of the Champion’s overall responsibility. What new Champions need is a mentor who has been subject to the same pressures and expectations they have and can share insights not just on how to manage the continuous improvement project but also on how to ensure that this project enhances the overall performance of the team they lead. Peer mentors can guide new Champions through the intricacies of delivering day-to-day performance, continuous improvements, the inevitable firefighting issues and a unified performance strategy.

Build a Peer Network

In order to succeed in continuous improvement, senior leadership must learn to leverage the success of those few trailblazing leaders who will Champion change as early adopters and then position these leaders so that they can mentor the next round of Champions. Champions should ultimately be mentored by other project Champions – in a peer-to-peer program. These Champions must leverage the expertise of MBBs and other program leaders in the organization for technical advice, but it must be recognized that continuous improvement skill plays a small role in the overall success of a new project Champion. The real drivers of that success are business relationships and networks. To build these, potential Champions need peer advisors who understand the specific business environment and its political environment. These mentors are best prepared to advise and share the risks as the new Champions learn to manage the improvements they seek to drive within the organization.

It is the network that executive leadership must publicly build – and exploit – because it already exists underground. Leadership must create a culture where veteran Champions are rewarded for helping new Champions succeed. This success must be not just in the continuous improvement process but all aspects of the business. Until these networks are built, a continuous improvement program will be pitted against the risk assessment and fear of damage to a leader’s personal image. This pressure slows execution and limits success.

If a community of Champions is built to work with a community of continuous improvement professionals, a corporate culture in which supporting improvements is not scary will begin to emerge. When leaders learn to support each other, not just in projects but overall, they can begin to work together to create change, and focused continuous improvement is the natural result. The key to creating good project Champions is to manage and motivate the peer group rather than the individuals. Build the culture and the rest will follow.

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