All Six Sigma teams are groups of individuals, but not all groups of individuals have the cohesiveness of a team. Teams outperform individuals because they generate a special energy. This energy develops as team members work together, fusing their personal energies and talents to deliver tangible performance results.

The behavioral descriptors of a successful team are:

  • Clear about goals and targets.
  • Members’ roles are defined.
  • High level of interdependence among team members.
  • Each team member is willing to contribute.
  • A relaxed climate for communication and a mutual trust.
  • Team and individuals are prepared to take risks.
  • Members know how to examine team and individual errors without personal attacks.
  • Each team member knows they can influence the team agenda.

Managing the Stages of Team Development

To ensure the effectiveness of a Six Sigma project team, Champions and team leaders need to take concrete actions during the development stages. The relevance of these actions and the importance of the Six Sigma leadership role increases in direct proportion to the extent that the following conditions are present:

  • The company culture is one of working in functional silos.
  • The project team is cross-functional, with each member having a diverse background.
  • There is a significant imbalance of power among team members.
  • The time frame and resources allocated for the team’s activity are insufficient.
  • The managers of team members interfere with the team’s activities, i.e., micromanaging or being too directive.

The classic Bruce W. Tuckman model (from his article “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” in Psychological Bulletin, 1965) best describes the development stages of Six Sigma teams (see figure below).

Team Development Model
Team Development Model

Forming Stage: Getting to Know One Another

The forming stage is the start of the Six Sigma team development. It is a transition stage, from individual to team member status. It also is the time when some members will test the leader – how far will they let the team go? The key words for this step are “uncertainty” and “politeness.” The goals of the team are unclear, the membership is unstable, the processes and interactions still need to be defined. 

Team members are often optimistic but hesitant as they get to know one another and define themselves as a team. Teams tend to have lofty, abstract discussions and to complain about the barriers to their task without focusing well on the project goals. 

The role of the Six Sigma team leader at this stage is to show patience. This is not the time to rush conclusions and to force the team to make important decisions. Instead, the leader should give team members the chance to get to know each other and provide a framework for the team activity by: 

  • Assisting in task and role clarification.
  • Encouraging participation by all, domination by none.
  • Facilitating learning about one another’s areas of expertise and preferred working methods.
  • Sharing all relevant information.
  • Encouraging members to ask questions of one another.
  • Agreeing on ground rules.
  • Using team-building exercises. 

Storming Stage: Self-Oriented Behaviors

The storming stage is probably the most difficult stage for the team. The stage is characterized by “self-oriented behaviors,” that is, behaviors which are dictated by the desire of each individual to place their own interest above that of the team. The key words for this stage are “conflict,” alliances” and “positioning.” 

Team members become impatient about the lack of progress, since the team is not moving fast. But they are still too inexperienced with one another to know how to fix the situation. Members tend to argue about the direction they should take, sometimes creating competing factions in the team. The tension during this stage makes it difficult to focus on the project goals, but it is important for members to understand one another. 

The team members often realize that the task is different and more difficult than they imagined.

As a reaction to that, some members can become aggressive, blaming others in the team for small errors. Other members may become pushy and jealous. Some may recall their past experience, resisting any need for collaborating with other team members. 

The role of the Six Sigma team leader is to show support and listen, managing conflicts in the proper way. This means: 

  • Encouraging joint problem solving (having members give reasons why an idea is useful and how to improve it).
  • Encouraging the expression of different points of view.
  • Discussing the team’s decision-making process and sharing decision-making responsibility appropriately.
  • Prompting members to state how they feel as well as what they think when they obviously have an issue about the team’s activity. 

A good test for the Six Sigma team leader is the definition and approval of the team charter, which summarizes the project description, objectives, scope, key performance indicators and milestones. It is an excellent opportunity to manage conflicts and to move to the next phase of team development. 

Norming Stage: Maintenance-oriented Behaviors

The key words of the norming stage are “stability,” “systematic approach” and “accepted responsibility.” 

Team members reconcile their differences by accepting the individuality of team members as well as the common goals. They finally move from an “I” to an “us” way of looking at team activities. Members are now able to constructively discuss the team’s dynamics and create ground rules that everyone can live with. The norming stage is therefore characterized by “maintenance-oriented behaviors,” that is, behaviors which are focused on defining the way the team should operate (the decision-making process, conflict management, active listening). 

At this stage the team can make real progress toward the project goals. 

The role of the Six Sigma team leader is to show process leadership and to emphasize actual progress and achievements. This means: 

  • Talking openly about their own issues and concerns.
  • Having group members manage agenda items.
  • Giving and requesting both positive and constructive negative feedback in the group.
  • Assigning challenging problems for consensus decisions (e.g., budget allocations).
  • Delegating as much as the members are capable of handling and helping them as necessary. 

These behaviors help in developing consensus and in moving quickly to the performing phase. 

Performing Stage: Task-Oriented Behaviors

In the performing stage the team dynamics finally seem perfectly lubricated. The key words are therefore “alignment,” “shared leadership,” “high productivity,” “interdependence” and “trust.” 

The most common behaviors at this stage are the so-called “task-oriented behaviors,” focused on achieving the targeted result of the Six Sigma team (e.g., generating and screening ideas and solutions, collecting information, making decisions, defining an implementation plan, assessing risks, starting a pilot…). 

Team members know one another’s strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, and how to best utilize all members. The team efficiently begins to diagnose and solve relevant problems and to feel satisfaction at the team’s progress. A performing team gets high-quality work done. 

The role of Six Sigma leader at his stage is to coordinate, but also to rotate leadership among team members. This means: 

  • Setting challenging goals jointly.
  • Looking for new opportunities to increase the team’s scope.
  • Questioning assumptions and traditional ways of behaving.
  • Developing mechanisms for ongoing review by the team.
  • Recognizing each member’s contribution.
  • Developing members to their fullest potential through task assignments and feedback.

Now, the Six Sigma team requires a leader who is not just inwardly focused, but who gives increasing attention to external dynamics, in order to bridge the gap with non-team players – managing the changes related to process improvement solutions. 

Conclusion: Attention to Process and Content

Balanced attention to the process and to content of the team activity can make a Six Sigma project team a great personal development experience for each member and for the leader, while at the same time delivering excellent results.

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