Most of the difficult situations Black Belts face in their day-to-day work are not related to the application of a specific Six Sigma tool, but rather to change or project management issues. For example, issues such as: 

  • How to involve a stakeholder that is very negative about the project.
  • How to get commitment from the management team for additional personnel or budget.
  • How to solve a conflict between two team members with different stakes in the project.
  • How to best set up the project team to ensure the right people with the right expertise are on board.

Black Belt training is not usually sufficient to help clarify all these issues – often training is already completed when these issues surface. Master Black Belt coaching is definitely a good resource but since many companies have to buy external Master Black Belt expertise, coaching takes place within larger time spans only and therefore cannot help solve day-to-day problems. 

Many Black Belts may not have considered that they have another counseling resource that is often underestimated or sometimes ignored – the knowledge and experience of their peers. Black Belt colleagues probably face similar issues and some may have found solutions that their peers could benefit from. There is no question that an experience exchange among Black Belts is common and done on a frequent and informal basis. But if that works, why not formalize the process with a more structured approach of collegial problem solving – “the reflecting team?” 

Though this approach requires a formal set-up and a time investment of about one hour, this peer-to-peer consulting approach – appropriately applied – provides a deep understanding of a given issue and an identification of sustainable solutions and actions. The reflecting team method fully builds on the expertise of Black Belt colleagues and therefore allows for solutions that likely will really help. 

Setting Up a Reflecting Team

A reflecting team session follows a disciplined approach. In a series of set steps the problem to be solved is described, underlying causes are discussed, and potential solutions are brainstormed and selected. Each of the phases of the session has a distinct objective and timeline which should be followed strictly and not be mixed with other phases. Though this seems somewhat artificial for the first few times and will need facilitation, the phase-based structure with clear time restrictions is one of the strengths of this approach. It ensures that all important aspects of problem solving are considered while the time targets enforce goal-oriented and to-the-point discussions. 

Each reflecting team session requires the following roles: 

  • Protagonist: The Black Belt who faces a specific problem in his daily work and needs the help of colleagues.
  • Reflecting Team: Three to eight Black Belt colleagues who provide their expertise for problem analysis and solving.
  • Facilitator: One of the Black Belts from the reflecting team who ensures that the sequence of the phases is followed and who notes the hypotheses (Phase 3) and the potential solutions developed (Phase 5) on a flip chart.
  • Time Keeper: One of the Black Belts from the reflecting team who also ensures that the timelines per step are kept.

Reflecting team sessions can be conducted on a regular basis or on an ad-hoc basis, i.e., whenever one Black Belt faces a specific problem and needs the help of peers.  

Reflecting Team Phases

  1. Presenting the problem (approximately 10 minutes)
  2. Questions to check comprehension (approximately 10 minutes)
  3. Hypotheses (approximately 15 minutes)
  4. Choosing hypotheses (approximately 5 minutes)
  5. Solution approaches (approximately 20 minutes)

Below is an outline of the content of each of the five set phases of a reflecting team session, along with the time limits for each phase: 

Presenting the Problem (Approximately 10 Minutes)

The Black Belt protagonist presents the problem as objectively and fact-based as possible by describing the background (How has the problem started?), the progress (What has happened since then?) and the current situation (How does the problem show itself today?). At the end of the presentation, the Black Belt should summarize his presentation in a question that he would like to clarify during the session, e.g., “How can I make this person support my project?” or “How can I solve the conflict between persons A and B?” 

In addition to the maximum timeline of 10 minutes for this phase, the rules to be followed are: “Do not interrupt and do not discuss.” It is important that the protagonist has enough time to give a comprehensive outline of the problem. 

Example: In condensed form, the Black Belt protagonist presents this situation: Two months ago he was assigned to be the team leader for a team that was to develop and administer a customer satisfaction survey. None of the people on the team report to him. The team has been meeting for two months and seems to be having difficulty making decisions regarding what kind of questions to ask. Tim is a team member who represents marketing. He sits through each meeting in silence, except when he angrily devalues everyone else’s ideas. After the last team meeting, the rest of the team approached the Black Belt and complained about Tim, saying he is so negative and he never helps do any of the work. The problem that the Black Belt would like to solve is: “How can I approach Tim in such a way that he understands that his current behavior is not acceptable but that I really need his support and commitment for the project?”  

Questions to Check Comprehension (Approximately 10 Minutes)

In the second phase, the reflecting team asks the protagonist questions in order to get a good picture of the problem and to avoid any misunderstanding. In this phase, it is important to not start discussing the problem. Only content-related questions are allowed, no statements. 

Example: In this phase questions could be: 

  • “What exactly are Tim’s role and responsibilities on the team?”
  • “Is Tim only negative or has he also already contributed in a positive way?”
  • “How does the team usually react to Tim’s devaluations during the sessions?”

All questions should relate to facts only. If the protagonist cannot answer a question, he should say, “I don’t know,” rather than making any assumptions. After a maximum of 10 minutes, this phase is closed with the question: “Does everyone have a good grasp of the problem?”

Hypotheses (Approximately 15 Minutes)

The third phase is the core phase of the reflecting team approach. The objective here is for team members to brainstorm and discuss potential hypotheses or causes of why they think the problem occurs. The Black Belt who has presented the case takes a back seat and listens to the discussion. The Black Belt is not allowed to intervene, correct or add information – only to listen to what the reflecting team is discussing. The facilitator should note all hypotheses on a flip chart. They are needed for the next phase. 

The objective of this 15 minutes of discussion is that the team comes up with as many potential hypotheses as possible without being distracted or corrected by the protagonist. Thereby, the protagonist will get a more complete picture of the problem situation. Though unfamiliar to most people, this phase is very often reported as being the most interesting and valuable step in the problem-solving approach. 

Example: The hypotheses the team came up with are: 

  • Tim is not satisfied with the direction the questionnaire is taking, but feels dominated by the majority of the group.
  • Tim is overloaded with other work outside the project.
  • Marketing feels that the project team is interfering with its area of responsibility by designing a customer satisfaction survey.
  • Tim is annoyed because the team wastes a lot of time with fruitless discussions.
  • Tim has a not-project-related conflict with one of the other team members who he does not want to name and therefore fights on another “battlefield.” 

Choosing Hypotheses (Approximately 5 Minutes)

The next five minutes of the reflecting team approach are again mainly designed by the protagonist. From all hypotheses and potential causes brainstormed, the Black Belt now chooses those that seem most appropriate. As a rule of thumb, not more than five hypotheses should be selected in order to focus solution development activities. The idea of this phase is to shift back responsibility to the protagonist since the Black Belt is the only person who really knows the problem and can therefore evaluate which hypotheses are most likely the true ones.

 The key rules for this phase are that there are no discussions and that the reflecting team accepts graciously if one of its hypotheses is not selected by the Black Belt. Therefore, the maximum timeline is limited to five minutes only. 

Example: The Black Belt selected these hypotheses: 

  • Tim is overloaded with other work outside the project.
  • Marketing feels that the project team is interfering with its area of responsibility by designing a customer satisfaction survey.

Solution Approaches (Approximately 20 Minutes)

The objective of the fifth and last phase is to generate and evaluate potential solutions addressing the key root causes. The group brainstorms solutions in accordance with the hypotheses that have been chosen. The facilitator notes all potential ideas on the flip chart. This part should last 15 minutes and as for every brainstorming session, the rules are: “Don’t critique others’ points” and “It’s allowed to build on the ideas of others.” 

During the last five minutes of the reflecting team session, the protagonist comments on the solutions. It is not important that the Black Belt makes a final selection. The brainstormed solutions should be used as a repertoire of potential actions that could be taken. It is better to have more options than just a few. 

Example: Here are the potential solutions brainstormed: 

  • Have a one-on-one with Tim to discuss his current workload.
  • Provide constructive feedback to Tim on how he is perceived by the Black Belt leader and the team and ask for background of his behavior.
  • Meet with Tim’s boss to discuss Tim’s resource commitment to the project.
  • Ensure that marketing is aware of how much their contribution and opinions are appreciated.
  • Discuss with the head of marketing on how to make sure that the questionnaire aligns with marketing strategy.

Conclusion: Dual Power of Reflecting Teams

As with Six Sigma, the reflecting team approach is not the solution for every problem. But it can, like any fruitful conversation among colleagues, help solve many day-to-day issues. The power of the reflecting team comes from its combination of colleague conversation and phase-based and time-efficient structure. Once established, the reflecting team will be seen as a valuable way for Six Sigma professionals to benefit from the expertise and experience of their colleagues.

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