Strong sponsorship and chartering are key components for a successful Six Sigma project. Regardless of the Green Belt’s or Black Belt’s skills, there is a limited chance for project success unless these components are well conceived.

By Steven H. Jones

Strong project sponsorship and project chartering are key components for a successful Six Sigma project. Regardless of how good the Green Belt’s or Black Belt’s skills are, if these components are not well conceived, the project’s cycle time, goal attainment and acceptance will be limited.

Unfortunately many organizations have been sold on Six Sigma as a quick fix to internal organizational issues. The real benefit that Six Sigma brings to an organization will only be seen over time. Therefore, if corporate commitment to Six Sigma is not in place it may pass away as the latest fad of business improvement strategies. In order to prevent Six Sigma’s demise it is essential for the methodology to be properly implemented, practiced and supported. The quality of the methodology will only be maintained with positive project results. Two key components to ensure the quality of the methodology and deliver positive project results are strong project sponsorship and a clearly written and defined charter.

Strong Project Sponsorship

The first and most important stone to be laid for a successful Lean or Six Sigma project is strong project sponsorship. Sponsorship of any change initiative must come from leadership positioned high enough in the organization to approve changes determined necessary by the data to meet the project’s objective. Two examples illustrate the point.

Example 1 – A project focused on reducing the cycle time to renew client contracts. It was sponsored by a director of operations who owned divisional responsibility for account retention. This sounds good, but one key finding the project team identified was the necessity for sales to change their process and behavior. Unfortunately the sponsoring director had no authority over sales which contributed to 30 percent of the cycle time. Needless to say this project stalled at the improve phase when the sponsor was unable to get the support from sales. The end result was that instead of saving the company $250,000 per year in unbilled revenue, the project cost the company $18,000 in project team resources. This is a classic case of sponsorship at a level too low to execute necessary change.

Project sponsors also need to have an honest interest in the problem being solved. In many organization projects are commissioned at a senior management level and handed out to mid-level managers to sponsor. In theory this sounds good, however, it does not ensure project acceptance. The problem results from sponsors not having ownership of the problem or confidence in a methodology they may be ignorant of. Without strong sponsor support, the project’s progress will suffer. With properly positioned and committed sponsorship challenging projects can deliver significant benefits.

Example 2 – The leader of a Lean Six Sigma project with senior leadership sponsorship encountered a roadblock between two associate vice presidents. The unit controlled by each associate vice president held resources capable of delivering the service required for a particular account. The labor costs for the team who initially delivered the service was 25 times higher than the customer was willing to pay. Additionally travel was required for them to meet with the client. Conversely, the local team possessed the capability to deliver the work at half the cost and be onsite with the client without travel expense. Having senior level sponsorship allowed the data to drive the decision on placement of the work. Strong sponsorship produced a 90 percent reduction in the cost and cycle time to produce each unit. This resulted in a $600,000 annual savings to the client and $80,000 in annual revenue to the organization.

Clearly Written and Defined Charter

There is an old saying, “You’ll never get any where if you don’t know where you’re going.” This is true in process improvement efforts as well as elsewhere in life. All too often the sponsor of a project comprehends the pain that needs to relieved, but has not received the requisite training to properly author a clear and well-written project charter. Each of these charter components must be clearly drawn:

Scope – Project failure is inevitable if the breadth of the project is too big. It is imperative to establish clear starts and stops to minimize misinterpretation or confusion in the mind of the stakeholders. If this step is not properly performed the scope of a project can simply be too broad – a case of “boiling the ocean.”

A project’s scope should be firmly established before the project is ever launched. This will help avoid potential problems arising from “out of scope” additions to the project. It also helps manage stakeholder expectations by clearly communicating what will and will not be delivered. Many projects are completed meeting or exceeding all goals and still be perceived as a failure by stakeholders. This occurs when the scope of the project has been misunderstood. Hence the stakeholders and/or sponsors benefit expectations were either unattainable or never targeted in the project.

The project scope should only cover two to three key process input or output variables. No one project can reasonable develop a process change with more than four key process output variables. When the scope encompasses more than three, the project needs to be either divided into multiple concurrent projects or into sequential or multi-generational projects.

Project team – One of the most challenging and under-appreciated areas in building the framework for a successful project is team selection. Many projects either have too many, too few or the wrong mix of representation on the team.

It is essential to have a good mix of skill sets, roles and personality types on the project. Personality evaluation tools are excellent aids to gauge the cohesiveness and synergy of a team. By using one of these tools, the prospective team members from the projects’ stakeholders can be evaluated in advance. The results can then be used to build the team with the best potential synergy. This will improve the success of the team and the project.

The rank or position of the team members also plays a key part. One project had six team members all at the director and associate vice president level. While this sounded like a great mix of players to produce change, the team had little availability to participate in meetings let alone perform the project tasks. Due to the amount of responsibility held by the team members, the group’s cycle time and meeting attendance were both severely hampered.

Timetable – The old saw, “Timing is everything,” stands true in the Six Sigma world today. When building a project team little things like vacations, holiday schedules and peak work cycles must be taken into consideration. Launching a project for the accounting department at then end of the fiscal year will have some obvious challenges. This may sound elementary, but when projects are identified by leadership without local departmental visibility, these basic considerations are often missed. Small issues can become great bottlenecks to minimizing the projects cycle time.

By carefully and thoroughly executing these steps within the Lean and Six Sigma methodology substantial improvement in the project’s cycle time, goal attainment and acceptance can be achieved.

About the Author: Steven H. Jones is a process engineer who received his certification as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt while employed at Xerox Global Services. In 1988, he started his career at 3M Corporation, an early adopter of the Lean Six Sigma methodology. Mr. Jones has worked in quality improvement of the telecommunications and IT arenas. He has provided quality improvement and process engineering services to clients such as BP Canada, Convergys, Intercontinental Hotels and Microsoft. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author