One of the key success factors of Six Sigma is the ability to set up and run an interdisciplinary, multi-skilled and management-supported process improvement team. A Six Sigma project team – like any small team of workers asked to effect change in their organization – is expected to help promote a culture of innovation and spontaneity while causing deliberate and precise acts of quality improvement. Thus, it is important to arm team members with an understanding of the fundamentals of effective team operations. Applying a set of principles based on positive experiences will significantly increase the probability that teams will generate data-based recommendations for process improvements at all levels of an organization, and in the end benefit the customers.

Project Selection and Ownership

Ideas for processes to target for improvement can come from anywhere within an organization. However, most organizations have some type of quality infrastructure that reviews and takes ultimate authority for prioritizing and selecting processes for improvement. That infrastructure in these guidelines is referred to as the quality council. Regardless of the level of the organization where this takes place, once a process is selected, it is the owner (the individual most responsible for the output and resources of that process) who will serve as the final authority for the team’s recommendations.

In Six Sigma terms, this individual, heavily vested in the success of the team, is referred to as the Champion. The charter and objectives for the team will be developed by the Champion and possibly supported by a number of other supervising members. Team recommendations are eventually pre-briefed to the Champion, who provides additional insight to the team in preparation for any final briefings to the quality councils or representing members. A number of Six Sigma terms are used here: however, non-Six Sigma companies may have their own designations for people with similar responsibilities. What is important is that the responsibilities of these positions are carried out.

Charter: The Critical First Step

A critical component of team success is the clear and concise presentation of the team’s objectives to the team members by the Champion. A one- or two-page written charter is the vehicle for accomplishing this, and must contain sufficient description of the topics below to help guide the team:

  • Process of focus: What is the process (or portion of the process) that the team is being tasked to improve? Listing the process products or services may be helpful.
  • Background: Why is this process considered a priority? What leads the Champion to believe a concentrated improvement effort is required?
  • Clearly defined team objectives: Specifically, what is the team tasked to do? How will the members know when they are done?
  • Process boundaries and scope: What are the limits to what the team can explore? Where does their responsibility for the process end?
  • Clear description of expectation: What does the Champion expect of the team, such as what data will be needed to sufficiently justify recommendations, the format of the deliverable, etc.?
  • Team membership: Who is on the team, including Champion, team leader, members, facilitator and technical resources? Also included should be clear expectations regarding the amount of time that each team member will be available to the project. This should be pre-negotiated with each team member’s direct supervisor, and involve adjustments to each member’s current workload to reflect the reality of their participation on the team.
  • Resources: What help, equipment, facilities, etc., are available to the team?
  • Other: Are there any other givens regarding time charges, team duration or meeting schedules?

Process Improvement Team Initiation

Prior to the project team’s kickoff meeting, it is strongly recommended that a pre-meeting be conducted with the Champion, team leader and facilitator (if one is used). Activities of this meeting should include:

  • Explanation of the background of the charter by the Champion.
  • Discussion and clarification of the charter.
  • Inclusion of any appropriate inputs or changes to charter by the team leader.
  • Clarification of the roles and responsibilities of each member.

The charter should be given to team members prior to the first meeting for their review and to allow them time to formulate questions. Pre-meeting feedback from team members may be solicited, however, the Champion and team leader should be prepared to deal with team members’ expectations regarding the extent to which they can influence the direction the team will take. It is extremely important for the Champion to be present at the team kickoff to clarify the charter and objectives, and to inspire the team toward success.

Team Member Roles and Responsibilities

Team membership must be based on personal involvement and vested interest in the process selected for improvement. It also is important that each player selected for the effort fully understands what is expected of them. The guidelines below are helpful in describing the roles and responsibilities of each member in the improvement process. Facilitators are recommended when available.

Champion’s Role
Clarify charter, process boundaries and team objectives to team.
> Coordinate with required supervisors for availability of personnel.
> Serve as team’s point of contact with quality council or upper management for charter negotiations.
> Provide team with motivation and required resources.
> Lay the groundwork for gaining approval by upper management to implement any team recommendations.

Team Leader’s Role
Serve as the point of contact with Champion regarding charter negotiations, team progress, reporting, resource requests, etc.
> Serve as team’s representative to outside organizations.
> Work closely with facilitators to see that all reporting requirements and team objectives are fulfilled.
> Learn and demonstrate effective project team leadership.

Team Member’s Role
Contribute process knowledge and expertise.
> Help identify appropriate process metrics and collect, chart and analyze process data.
> Provide ideas and creative input to solutions and process improvements.
> Support team members in team actions, preparation and delivery of presentation to Champion and quality council.

Facilitator’s Role
Organize agenda and team activities to achieve desired team improvement objectives.
> Make sure team members conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the rules they have adopted.
> Provide basic instruction and hands-on learning approach in improvement principles and techniques.
> Provide objective third-party input and challenges to team decisions, conclusions and recommendations.
> Serve as a technical resource to the improvement process.
> Encourage the transfer of a working improvement capability to the organization via the participating team members.

Process Improvement Team Methodology and Resource

It is the situation that dictates what is the most appropriate size, shape and format for a project team. However, there are some steps that must be taken if the team is to address its task in a logical, effective way. The following principles must be an integral part of the team’s methodology, and should be required by the Champion as evidence of an effective team approach to decision making and process improvement:

1. Process Definition – The process targeted for improvement must be defined and diagrammed by the team at a level of detail sufficient to give members an understanding of how changes will affect the overall process and output. Many easy-to-use software tools are available, but often flip charts and butcher paper tacked to a wall are sufficient mediums for capturing a jointly developed process flow diagram.

2. Process Requirements – A clear description of what is expected of the process from the perspective of the customer of the process output. If any doubt exists, direct feedback from a sample of customers is strongly recommended. Data regarding how well the process is generating output that meets customer expectations will serve as one of the process performance baselines used to evaluate team recommendations once implemented.

3. Data-based Justification of Recommendations – This must be a requirement of all teams. Some processes lend themselves to measures much easier than others. For those that do, the team should determine the measures that provide individuals involved in the process with information that enables them to see how well the process is meeting customer requirements. Other processes are more difficult to evaluate using performance measures, but can always be baselined by more qualitative means when necessary. The objective is not to measure but to improve. Measurement does, however, provide the information needed to determine if a process is in control. The team should not let measures become a barrier to the improvement effort. And the team must remember that its work is not complete without a plan to evaluate recommended changes against the baseline at some predetermined future point.

4. Identify and Prioritize the Key Issues – The issues addressed should be associated with the process as it is currently designed. The root causes to poor process quality can then be identified by a variety of techniques. These root causes must be addressed for the process to be permanently improved. It is important for the team to remain within the confines of those boundaries that it has the authority to influence.

5. Root Causes and the Customer – Any solutions generated by the team must address the root causes, and have a direct and measurable improvement in the ability to meet customer expectations. Input from the Champion regarding team progress and direction can be helpful here. The team should consider the perspectives of all individuals affected by the changes, and seek their input if needed. This will allow the team to develop early support for the changes, gain additional perspective and reduce any resistance to the changes once implementation has been approved.

6. The Required Briefing – At the briefing to the Champion on the team background, objectives, methodology, findings and recommendations, the team should be prepared to explain the rationale behind its decisions and justify its recommendations by logic and data when appropriate. Things should be kept simple, concise and clear. It is a good idea to rehearse the presentation. The entire effort should not be documented in the briefing material; rather, there should something left for verbal responds to questions at any level of detail with backup material if asked.

Briefing Review Guidelines for Management

The following considerations must be made by the Champion and quality council members prior to any process improvement team out-briefing:

  • Review all recommendations objectively: If the process will be improved, approve the recommendation. If it cannot be implemented because of some other concern, explain why and give the team another chance. If not, the team will perceive that management values something other than process improvement. This can usually be avoided if the team remains in close contact with the Champion throughout the effort.
  • Be willing to take some risks: If there is supporting data, allow the recommendations to be implemented on an experimental basis and then re-evaluate (the check step of the plan-do-check-act cycle) at some predetermined time.
  • Require sufficient data-based justification of recommendations: This is the key to demonstrating and developing responsible management and decision making. Send the team back for more data or analysis if necessary, but be sure to approve any other sound recommendations. As mentioned earlier, require teams to plan for future evaluation of recommendations against the baseline performance.

Champions and quality council members reviewing project team out-briefings must remember that the greatest reward for the team is for its recommendations to be approved and implemented. If team member participation in the rigorous process is ever to be repeated, every effort must be taken to allow members to pursue the improvements they think most appropriate.

Management should reward teams in any way possible. An appropriate reward being prevented by “the system” is a poor excuse and has resulted in the permanent de-motivation of potential quality advocates in many organizations. Encouraging worker participation in analysis-based decision making is the objective. To continue that behavior, participation should be rewarded in a manner that is of value to team members.

Conclusion: Tools, Team Members and Management

Whether using Six Sigma or just following a general process improvement approach, an organization’s management should never forget that it is not only the tools that make a project successful. Even more important are the softer factors, like involving the right people from the organization in the right roles, and facilitating the team through the project. Most important of all is to empower the team, support it and then challenge the team to successfully complete the project.

About the Author