People who have successfully implemented Lean Six Sigma all say the same thing: Having the best data, tools and improvement methods in the world is no substitute for having effective teams. Lean Six Sigma is about leveraging the knowledge, energy and passion of the whole team – Green Belts, process owners, Black Belts and other team members. Experience shows that being able to deal effectively with the human element of improvement is a more critical determinant of team success than the rational, analytical processes and tools.

‘Preferred Roles’ as Predictors of Team Success or Failure

A theme of Lean Six Sigma is adding rigor to decisions that previously have been made on gut instinct alone. That theme holds true when creating Six Sigma project teams. In some situations, an organization may be limited in its options for who can serve on a project team. But when the stakes are high and the organization must select a few representative team members from among a larger pool, there are techniques that can be used to end up with the best team composition.

The most intuitive of these approaches comes from Dr. Meredith Belbin of Cambridge University (UK). Dr. Belbin and his team spent nine years intensively studying management teams undergoing executive development and working in situations that simulated real world challenges. Every participant underwent detailed psychometric and mental ability testing prior to participating in the simulations. Dr. Belbin’s group amassed a huge amount of data on the relationship between team success, personality factors, mental capabilities and creativity. (The study is described in the book Team Roles at Work.)

When Dr. Belbin concluded his research, he had achieved his goal of being able to accurately predict which teams would succeed and which would fail. The fundamental discovery was that individuals have one or more “preferred roles,” and that to be highly effective, a team needs a balance of these roles. Dr. Belbin also discovered that the personal attributes which enable a person to make a particular type of contribution also create “weaknesses” that must be accommodated. In other words, a person’s strengths are often accompanied by associated weaknesses.

Dr. Belbin identified nine roles, shown in the table below.

Roles Team-Role Contribution Allowable Weaknesses
Plant Creative, imaginative, unorthodox. Solves difficult problems. Ignores details. Too preoccupied to communicate effectively.
Resource Investigator Extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative. Explores opportunities. Develops contacts. Overoptimistic. Loses interest once initial enthusiasm has passed.
Coordinator Mature, confident, a good chairperson. Clarifies goals, promotes decision-making, delegates well. Can be seen as manipulative. Delegates personal work.
Shaper Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles. Can provoke others. Hurts people’s feelings.
Monitor/Evaluator Sober, strategic and discerning. Sees all options. Judges accurately. Lacks drive and ability to inspire others. Overly critical.
Team Worker Cooperative, mild, perceptive and diplomatic. Listens, builds, averts friction, and calms the waters. Indecisive in crunch situations. Can be easily influenced.
Implementer Disciplined, reliable, conservative and efficient. Turns ideas into practical actions. Somewhat inflexible. Slow to respond to new possibilities.
Completer/Finisher Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors and omissions. Delivers on time. Inclined to worry unduly. Reluctant to delegate. Can be a nit-picker.
Specialist Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated. Provides knowledge and skills in rare supply. Contributes only on a narrow front. Dwells on technicalities. Overlooks the “big picture.”

Dr. Belbin’s research offers a couple important points: Seldom is anyone strong in all nine roles. And, every person’s preferred role is a good role, if they are aware of it and play it on the team.

The obvious conclusions are that teams will do best with a combination of roles and that imbalances need to be recognized and dealt with. Dr. Belbin’s research identified specific team dynamics that were predictive of team effectiveness (or lack thereof):

Applying the Research

The process of evaluating team strengths and weaknesses has been made practical and inexpensive by software that automates the process. Using that software, an organization can:

  • Determine an individual’s preferred role, as perceived by both his fellow team members and himself.
  • Evaluate team dynamics, suggesting who should fill which role.

The Preferred Roles Chart shows a sample report from one team. On the charter, each role is described by two bar. The green bar on the left represents the individual with the highest score for that role; the blue bar on the right represents the average score of the whole team for that role.

Preferred Roles Chart
Preferred Roles Chart

A preferred roles chart helps a team understand where it is strong or weak and where specific individuals can contribute. For example, where an individual’s score is much greater than the team on a particular role, the team will have a better opportunity for success by leaving that activity to the individual with strength. For the team depicted in this chart, it can be predicted that they will need to empower their stronger Shaper to force the group to a decision, balancing the preponderance of Monitor/Evaluators.

Factors Contributing to Ineffective Teams

  1. Without Monitor/Evaluators, a team is unlikely to carefully weigh options when making decisions.
  2. With too many Monitor/Evaluators, “paralysis from analysis” outweighs creative ability.
  3. Without Completer/Finishers and Implementers, a team might create good strategies but will not follow through.

Factors Contributing to Effective Teams

  1. A Plant will provide more ideas and better strategies, but also will require Monitor/Evaluators and Coordinators.
  2. Resource Investigators provide an external orientation.
  3. Shapers will recognize the need for urgency, which will have a significant impact on results, essential to high performance teams.
  4. Too many Shapers leads to excessive conflict. Make certain there is a Team Worker to facilitate relationships.
  5. A Specialist is important in situations where specialized knowledge is required.
  6. Recognizing and compensating for the “allowable weaknesses” for each role is critical.

This type of evaluation helps a team decide what type of corrective actions, if any, would improve its chances for success. For example, a team dominated by Shapers will need to take appropriate steps to rebalance the team, such as adding Coordinators, Team Workers and Resource Investigators as team member or mentors.

Another strategy would be for certain team members to “flex” into roles that may not be their preferred roles. Dr. Belbin identifies three levels of aptitude for a role: preferred, manageable and least preferred. It is possible for an individual to assume a role that falls into the manageable category, even though this will result in a certain amount of stress on that team member. It is not advisable to have an individual fill a role that falls into the least preferred category because of the high likelihood that the team member will under-perform in this role.

Conclusions: New Understanding

Understanding preferred roles is an eye-opener for most people. At last they are able to understand why their past teams succeeded or failed. They also are fascinated by learning their own preferred roles and the strengths and weaknesses that are implied. There is a sense of liberation in realizing that they have weaknesses because they have strengths…and that these weaknesses are okay as long as they are managed. In fact, the strategies described suggest there are no bad traits, just roles which need to be comprehended to make Lean Six Sigma teams effective.

Most importantly, a project team needs to be aware of each individual’s preferred role(s) and use that knowledge to make the team more effective.

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