How can a company find time for improvement if its managers are spending all their time fighting fires and managing the day-to-day responsibilities? How is it possible to improve a process when the company barely has the resources to maintain it? This all too common obstacle faces many organizations. One approach that leverages these resources and utilizes the power of the Six Sigma methodology is the use of cross-function process improvement teams.

A Six Sigma process improvement team is a selected group of people that is challenged to improve a selected process within an organization. The team is assembled by a process owner and team leader, and consists of those in the workforce who are involved in some way – directly or indirectly – with the process. The team is sponsored, but not managed, by senior and departmental leaders. Use of appropriate Six Sigma tools gives the team the power to accomplish its task. 

A typical management process improvement initiative, on the other hand, begins with company managers meeting to discuss cost and process issues. After brainstorming solutions, management announces improvements to be implemented throughout the infrastructure. Department managers plan and initiate the improvements, and department supervisors implement and police the initiative. The workforce executes the initiative. 

Management-led Versus Team-led

There are several inherent weaknesses in the management-led process. Those generating ideas and improvements are not close to the process that sometimes results in actions that are directed at perceived issues, not the actual problems. The responsibility for successful implementation is shifted down in increments, which add additional workload to the management and supervisory staff. Since the workforce and frontline management have no ownership of the initiative, they may be ambivalent to the outcome of the undertaking. Lastly, all the handoffs from upper management down create an opportunity for miscommunication and confusion. 

Process improvement teams have the following advantages over the management process improvement style: 

  • Suggestions and ideas are submitted from the bottom up. This creates a sense of ownership and enthusiasm in the execution of the initiative.
  • Solutions that are easy to implement, or “the low hanging fruit” as they are often called, are quickly identified resulting in immediate savings and process improvements.
  • Teamwork is emphasized and employees feel valued.
  • The process experts generate the improvements. These are the people working closely with the issues and problems and have a vested interest in seeing the issues resolved. 

Creation of Project Improvement Team

The composition and structure of the project improvement team is instrumental to its success. Here are some tips for fielding a good team: 

  • Assemble a team that is knowledgeable about the process and diverse in their thinking styles. The team should be comprised of process experts, but remember to include representation for any relevant upstream or downstream suppliers and customers.
  • Appoint a team leader. The team leader should be familiar with the process and experienced in managing projects and meetings. The team leader also should be familiar with the Six Sigma methodology and the available tools. A trained Green Belt is a good choice for this position.
  • Restrict the team size to a manageable number. A team of more than seven or eight members may limit the ability of individual participation.
  • Set up a meeting time that is convenient for all.
  • Set up ground rules in the first meeting. Let everyone know what the expectations are for attendance, participation and time requirements.
  • Appoint a team recorder/timekeeper. Do not underestimate the importance of this position. Many good ideas have been lost because they were not recorded. 

It also is a good idea to record attendance at the beginning of each meeting. This will emphasize the importance of attendance and provide accountability if commitments are not met. 

Define the Project, Identify Roots Causes

The team should participate in setting the project definition and charter. This document should define and quantify the process issue that the team will be improving, the goals that the team plan to meet, and the timeline for each step of the project. The team leader should identify the interests and strengths of the team members and try to assign responsibilities based upon these strengths. Tasks are more likely to be successfully completed if someone whose strengths and interests are aligned with the tasks is executing them.

The team should identify the metric that is representative of the process performance. If the team is improving throughput, then the item being measured may be defects. A common tool to use for this analysis is a Pareto chart. The Pareto chart will illustrate total defects and also defect by type. The team should take care to validate that this metric is really indicative of the process performance. Check the process performance historically against the metric to ensure a solid correlation. Assumptions in this area can lead to wasted time and frustration. Elevate the visibility of this metric and monitor. A control chart may be suitable for this. The control chart also will provide control limits and will allow the team to monitor the process capability going forward. 

Once the metric has been defined, the team is almost ready to brainstorm improvement opportunities. First, the team should identify the root causes of the issues identified in the Pareto analysis and generate improvement ideas. Utilizing a cause-and-effect matrix, or fishbone diagram, to assist the brainstorming process and display these at each meeting. It is during the brainstorming process that the team develops its identity and sense of value. It is important that all team members are encouraged to participate and that all ideas are treated respectfully. Once all the ideas have been solicited and recorded, rate the priority of the ideas by impact. Nominal group technique and multi-voting (as noted by Donald W. Benbow and T.M. Kublak in The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook) are good Six Sigma tools to utilize for this process. If at this point something jumps out as an easy quick fix, jump on it and make it visible to the project sponsor. Such quick wins give the team credibility and a sense of immediate contribution. This will lead to sustained motivation if recognized and acknowledged. 

Create Action Plan, Monitor and Control

The team’s next step is to assign, or have assigned, resources to the improvement tasks generated along with timelines for task completions. An assigned resource may not be a member of the process improvement team, but someone that has the authority to effect change (maintenance manger, quality manager, etc.) It is a good idea to invite these people to a team meeting to see where the requests originated and to obtain their feedback and cooperation. 

The team may use a Gantt chart but a simple spreadsheet that tracks actions, assignees, target completion dates, actual completion dates, and task status will suffice. This document serves as the main agenda for meetings going forward. Task progress should be monitored on a weekly basis and any obstacles should be addressed. 

A simple way to monitor the impact of the actions that the team has implemented is to correlate the initiation date of each task to the process performance as indicated by the metric control chart. Any action that is taken to reduce defects or variation should be seen on the control chart as a process shift. As the implementation of all the tasks are accomplished, the control chart should indicate a process that meets the original goal established by the team. 

A system must be provided that will ensure that the required tasks critical to the process performance will be completed without the team’s ongoing support. There is nothing more frustrating than to have an improvement lost because a task is no longer being completed because a team member is unavailable. The improvement tasks should be integrated into the process and a transition plan completed so that the process owner accepts the responsibility of maintaining the process. 

Power of Process Improvement in the Team

The real power of the process improvement team is the enthusiasm and the dedication of the team members. The people who work with the process daily are generating the ideas. They have ownership and pride of the plans that they are initiating, and they are having fun with the new responsibilities that they have acquired.

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